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The Rockets’ Bill Is Coming Due

When Daryl Morey traded for Chris Paul, it was a win-now proposition. But a championship has eluded Houston, and time is running out on the Paul–James Harden partnership. Would a third star like Jimmy Butler push the Rockets over the top, or drag them under?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This is the summer of boom or bust, and fortune favors the opportunists. Which front-office executives have we been lauding lately? The ones who went the bold route. Last summer, Masai Ujiri took a flier on Kawhi Leonard, and it brought a title to Toronto. This summer, David Griffin traded a generational talent in Anthony Davis for a generation of talent. So where does that leave Daryl Morey and Houston? Moreyball—the emphasis on high-value, high-efficiency shots—has been adopted on the floor around the league, and the Rockets GM’s tenets of team-building (asset accumulation with an eye toward bringing together as many high-wattage stars as possible) are widely practiced in front-office suites.

The Rockets, and I mean this as a compliment, were partially built on the discontent of other franchises. They capitalized on the cost-cutting, complacency, or antsiness that often develops in good-but-not-great franchises. In 2012, they gave James Harden the route to go from third-billed star on the Thunder to league icon in Houston. In 2017, they offered a Lob City escape plan to Chris Paul. The core of this Rockets team was formed by a guy who knew when to exploit weaknesses in other teams. But now a lot of other teams are running stuff from his playbook.

Imitation is flattery, and Morey should be feeling good about himself. The Rockets have been one of the best teams in the league since acquiring Paul from Los Angeles, and after two seasons of alllllllmost there postseasons that buckled at the Golden State line, they are well positioned to seriously contend for a Finals berth next season. On Monday, at the annual NBA awards show, Harden finished second in league MVP voting—his fourth top-five finish in the past five years, including his win in the 2017-18 season. Even his detractors admit that he is his own weather system on the court, controlling the pace of play and scoring at will while bearing an unbelievable offensive usage load. Statistically, he is comparable to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. He has a complementary supporting cast around him, including a surefire Hall of Famer in Paul, the sharpshooting Eric Gordon, the demolitions expert P.J. Tucker, and 21st-century big Clint Capela.

And yet. This past Houston season has spawned more anonymously sourced autopsies than a failed presidential bid. First, there was the fallout from the purging of Mike D’Antoni’s assistant coaching staff (including the departure of defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik and Harden whisperer Irv Roland). Then there was the public and somewhat messy negotiation among Morey, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, D’Antoni, and D’Antoni’s agent, Warren LeGarie. There was a report that pretty much the entire Rockets roster was available in the trade market. That report was refuted by Morey. And finally, there was last week’s story about disharmony in the Rockets locker room, with Yahoo Sports’s Vincent Goodwill writing that his sources told him Harden and Paul’s relationship was “unsalvageable,” that they want a “divorce,” that Paul has requested a trade, and that Harden has told Houston that when it comes to Paul, it’s “him or me.”

Morey shot down that story, as well, telling the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen that Paul has not asked for a trade (Paul told Feigen this week, “I’ll be in Houston … I’m happy about that. I’m very happy about that”), that Paul and Harden do not have a problem with each other, and that the three of them have discussed free-agent targets for the summer.

One of those targets appears to be Sixers wing Jimmy Butler. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote that Houston is looking at acquiring the unrestricted free agent via a sign-and-trade. According to Woj, any such deal “likely would need to include two of these players—center Clint Capela, guard Eric Gordon and power forward P.J. Tucker.” This would essentially rid the Rockets of what little depth they have remaining after the 2017 trade that landed Paul.

Let me just say this, as someone who would probably jump in front of a quickly moving Bird scooter for Jimmy Butler: Jimmy Butler will not make Houston’s locker room situation more harmonious. Even in a contract year, even on a Sixers team that, for the most part, gathered around the campfire with head coach Brett Brown to sing “Kumbaya” in Aussie-Boston accents, Butler had his share of reported blowups in Philly. Putting him on a team with Harden and Paul is like taking up smoking while working at an oil refinery.

All that being said, I get what Morey is going for here. Let’s go back to those days right before CP3 came to Houston. In the wake of what would be the first of Golden State’s back-to-back Finals wins, with Kevin Durant happy, healthy, and playing like a T-1000, winning his first of two Finals MVP awards, Morey announced his intentions, telling ESPN’s Zach Lowe: “If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive. We have something up our sleeve.”

I think about this quote all the time. The something up his sleeve was obviously Paul. Morey’s bold move for the point guard involved sending most of Houston’s role players and younger talents, as well as a 2019 first-rounder, to Los Angeles. After the deal was done, Morey said, “It’s a weapons race in the NBA and you’re either in the weapons race or on the sidelines.”

But our idea of what a stacked roster looks like has changed a bit since 2017, hasn’t it? Granting that perception has a lot to do with how we evaluate the standing of any given NBA franchise—we are all probably a little drunk on the Hawks, and a little hungover on a really good team like the Celtics, for instance—I think it’s fair to say that a lot of NBA-watchers now consider the Clippers to be in a better position, at least in the long term, than the Rockets.

Maybe that’s because Morey never completed his plan. It’s hard to remember now, given everything that’s transpired since, but the Paul acquisition was not supposed to be the end point of the Rockets’ roster construction. When that deal happened, Houston was aiming to complete its All-Star troika by trading for Paul George, then a disgruntled Pacer. That never came to fruition, and George wound up on the Thunder, where he remains to this day. But it speaks to Houston’s marquee-name mentality. Morey is innovative, yes, but his mission is no different than that of the Lakers: He is trying to accumulate the highest-wattage stars he possibly can.

Because this is Morey, and because this is Houston, and because we are talking about somewhat volatile personalities in crucial moments of their careers, there is a lot of risk involved. This is the game that Morey plays. Let’s say Butler does what Paul did two summers ago, and tells Philly he wants to go to Houston. He signs a four-year, $140 million deal, and gets dealt for Gordon and Capela. What Philly does with Capela is another blog. The Rockets would then have a 34-year-old Paul to go with Harden and Butler, who will each be 30 when the 2019-20 season starts.

But what happens when Frankenstein loses control of the monster? Morey could change coaches, though at this point D’Antoni’s style of play—or his tactical deference—feels intrinsic to Harden’s success. Paul is almost totally untradable given his hefty contract, including a $44 million player option that he almost certainly will pick up. Not even the Knicks would be desperate enough to take that money on at Paul’s age. I suppose Butler could be rerouted, but if it comes to that his value will be much lower than it is today. That leaves the inconceivable: life after Harden.

These are the margins with which Morey is operating. He helped create this reality of transactional volatility in the NBA, and it’s been fascinating to watch him operate within that reality, and to watch other teams adapt. Now he’s backed into what looks like a corner. Does he have another move up his sleeve?