This is rebuilding done right. When the Houston Rockets landed Sixth Man of the Year James Harden in a six-player, three-draft pick trade late Saturday, the oft-questioned moves made by general manager Daryl Morey since last season ended were instantly justified.
There are more than a few ways by which an NBA executive can stir the ire of analysts. The primary methods are: 1) Repeated failure. 2) A habit of bad-value contracts. Less apt to attract attention, but in many ways just as important, is a GM's willingness to accept mediocrity. After an offseason in which Morey almost completely turned over the Houston roster, he's proven not to be a willing member of the middle class.
For the last three years, Morey has had mediocrity thrust upon him. When he took the reins of the Rockets' basketball operations department in May, 2007, he inherited a roster that featured Tracy McGrady, who had not yet turned 28, and Yao Ming, who had yet to turn 27. His two stars were coming off a season in which they combined to average nearly 50 points per game. It was as solid a core as any in the league, and Morey's initial mandate was to put the finishing touches on a roster built to win big.
Then McGrady's knees robbed him of his elite athleticism and Yao's career went into a quick and painful freefall because of chronic lower body injuries. Morey got one season of McGrady and Yao before the injuries hit. In each of the last three years, the Rockets have missed the playoffs despite finishing over .500 each time. Morey's teams remained competitive with a roster of players acquired to support a power core, not replace it. Still, the upside of the group was limited to, at best, a lower-tier seed, so Morey set out to shake things up.
According to Morey's transaction log, he's now made seven trades since the end of last season, drafted three players and signed free agents Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Carlos Delfino. If we're counting correctly, Morey's transactions have involved 32 players, 11 draft picks and 10 different teams across the league. After the dust clears, the Rockets will return 13.5 percent of their minutes from last season. That's the fewest in the league by a country mile. The second-lowest total of returning minutes in the league belongs to New Orleans--at 43.1 percent. That's some serious wheeling and dealing.
When a championship is the goal, the general manager's challenge is to not only construct the best possible roster for any given season, but also to do this while leaving open a possible path to elite status. This is a hard balance to strike and the inability to do so marks our consistent criticism of the New York Knicks, just to name one team. Morey seems to have found this balance. When his pursuit of Dwight Howard fell short, Morey didn't panic. Instead, he recognized the double-impact value of low-cost, high-upside assets and positioned his team for the move he made on Saturday. The Rockets are better, now and especially in the future.
First, it should be noted that even with Harden assuming the role held by outgoing shooting guard Kevin Martin, the Rockets still project to be the worst team in the Western Conference, according to SCHOENE. Houston is better, with a projected post-trade baseline of 26.4 wins, 4.7 more than before the deal. The Rockets didn't make the playoffs in any of our simulations before the trade. When we re-ran the sims after updating the roster, Houston still came up with a goose egg in the 'Made Playoffs' column.
The Rockets may be underrated due to the uncertainty around projections of rookies Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones and Royce White. The full impact of Asik's defense may also be understated. Second-year pro Marcus Morris could unexpectedly blossom. Nevertheless, on paper this still looks like a rebuilding season for the Rockets, improved as they are.
The real excitement over Morey's maneuvering will likely be felt in the seasons to come. If 26.4 wins were the baseline for an over/under betting line, the heavy money would be on the over for this season. It's an easy argument to make, and it's only going to get better from here. The Rockets now project to have a minutes-weighted average age of just 24.7 years, 4.1 years younger than last season and third-youngest in the league behind Cleveland and New Orleans. With youth comes two things: Financial flexibility and on-court upside. Houston has both in spades.
In terms of flexibility, the Rockets will have plenty of it even after signing Harden to a max contract extension which reportedly will be of the four-year variety. (The Rockets can extend Harden for five years, whereas Oklahoma City was limited to four since it made Russell Westbrook its "designated" five-year player per the new CBA.) A four-year extension for Harden would be worth approximately $60.8 million, depending on how high the salary cap is set in the seasons to come.
Even after that investment, the Rockets will have just six guaranteed contracts on the books for next season, totaling about $35.1 million. (That number could grow depending which rookie-contract team options the Rockets choose to pick up over the next couple of days.) That's plenty of money for another max contract player, whether he's acquired via free agency or by trade. The latter route seems more viable at the moment, and Houston has its three first-round rookies, Morris, second-year forward Chandler Parsons and a slew of salary filler still on hand to entice the next team looking to unload a star and begin again.
That leaves Houston with an offensive core of Lin and Harden, and Asik is around to anchor the defense. Any of those aforementioned young players could develop into core or rotation pieces as well, though the collective inexperience of the group drags down the Rockets' projection for now. Still, there is clearly a missing piece: The franchise centerpiece that is the most difficult part to acquire. But Morey has given the Rockets both the cap flexibility and the attractive young core to attract that piece.
It's not a given that Morey will be able to shake that foundational piece loose from another team or the free-agent market. He knows this as well as anyone after first trying to set the Rockets up with a frontline of Nene and Pau Gasol last December only to be knee-capped by the league, then falling short in his pursuit of Howard. However, he's put the Rockets in position to become a destination team, and there aren't many franchises that can currently make that claim and back it up with cap space. It's the best any executive can do.
As far as on-court upside, let's revisit the big three rankings we rolled out earlier this summer. The Rockets now have a projected core trio of Lin, Harden and Asik. Asik is more of an elite complementary type than a big three player because of his shortcomings on offense, but he's all the Rockets have on hand for the moment. In the initial rankings, the Rockets didn't make the original article, but their former trio of Lin, Asik and Jones ranked 18th in projected 2016 WARP. The new core ranks sixth, and that's without knowledge of who is going to replace Asik in the group. It's not hard to envision the Rockets soon fielding a big three with as much upside as even that of the Thunder, which still ranks first with Serge Ibaka assuming the spot vacated by Harden.
It's now up to Harden to prove he's worth the max contract he's about to sign. Few players combined the efficiency and volume of offense Harden provided for the Thunder last season. In fact, among qualifying players with a usage rate of 21 percent or higher, only Charles Barkley has posted a higher true shooting percentage than Harden's .660 mark in 2011-12. (Barkley did it three times.) That's as in the history of the league. In Houston, it seems inevitable that Harden's usage will soar and his efficiency will fall. The degree to which each occurs will determine his new baseline value.
For an indication of what's going to happen to Harden's numbers, it's worth a look at some on-off numbers. We know that Harden had a profound impact on the Thunder's effectiveness every time he stepped onto the floor, and his departure may well knock Oklahoma City out of the championship conversation. According to NBA.com/stats, the Thunder outscored opponents by 9.8 points per 100 possessions last season with Harden on the floor; the figure dropped to 3.1 points when he sat. Of course, some of Harden's efficiency was tethered to the attention drawn by Kevin Durant and Westbrook.
But consider this: Durant and Harden shared the floor for 1,420 minutes last season. Harden played without him for 526 minutes. He averaged 16.6 points per 40 minutes with Durant, and a whopping 34.7 points without him. His true shooting percentage was also better without Durant, jumping from .641 to .686. Harden became much more aggressive off the dribble with Durant out, with his free throw attempts leaping from five per 40 minutes to more than 13. The difference in Harden's numbers with and without Westbrook track closely to those with and without Durant.
Now, those numbers are likely exaggerated by quality of opposition. Harden tended to take the court without either Durant or Westbrook beside him only when the other team was playing its second unit. Still, it seems clear that Harden is more than capable of becoming one of the NBA's most efficient volume scorers.
Does that make Harden a franchise centerpiece, the potential top player on a championship team? It's possible, but most likely it seems like he's more apt to become a No. 2 because of limitations in playmaking and on the defensive end, where he is merely adequate. So there is still work for to do for Morey, and as we wrote, the next piece for Morey will be the most difficult to find. However, add it all up, and it's hard not to be excited if you're a Rockets fan. After last season ended, it was difficult to imagine a path that would lead to the Rockets' next window of contention. After Saturday's trade, that path is now well lit.
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A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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