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Houston heads in a different direction, Daryl Morey is gone

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The Rockets’ general manager stepped down from his position earlier today

San Antonio Spurs v Houston Rockets Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

A few hours ago, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN dropped a bombshell. Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets’ General Manager, was stepping down from his position with immediate effect. Rafael Stone, a senior executive within the Rockets’ front office, will be promoted to the role.

Morey was the head of the Rockets’ front office for thirteen years and he has come to define the Houston Rockets. When you think of Houston, you think of Daryl Morey’s embrace of basketball analytics.

This is huge news for Thunder fans as Oklahoma City currently own two future Houston picks in 2024 and 2026 and have pick swaps for 2021 and 2025. The Rockets being bad over the next four or five years will provide valuable draft capital for Oklahoma City.

Morey’s job in Houston was a certainty under the previous owner, Les Alexander. His position as General Manager became a lot more uncertain when Tilman Fertitta purchased the team. Fertitta has been reticent to pay the tax as owner of the Rockets and his financial decisions have constrained Houston’s ability to add talent to the roster.

The Rockets made no attempt to re-sign Trevor Ariza in 2018 despite the fact that Ariza was a hugely valuable defensive presence for Houston. The Rockets have been unable to get the necessary talent to build a true championship team as there have been financial limits imposed by the owner. The luxury tax was avoided at all costs.

As a General Manager, Daryl Morey was aggressive and ambitious in his moves. He stopped at nothing to make the Rockets into a contending team. It is impossible to be ambitious and aggressive in the trade market when there are significant constraints.

I saw a lot of the 2018-19 Thunder in last season’s Rockets. There was the same sense of desperation from the fanbase and the same tone of finality when the season ended. In both examples, the team had to achieve something quickly or there would be major changes.

In the Thunder’s case, the deep playoff run never happened. Oklahoma City flamed out in an embarrassing, disgraceful first round loss to the Portland Trailblazers. Paul George was out of the door by early July and Russell Westbrook soon followed him.

The Rockets were championship or bust for two seasons with Harden and Chris Paul. The Russell Westbrook trade was supposed to put them over the top and get Houston back to the Finals for the first time since the Olajuwon era.

That never happened for Houston. The Rockets were pushed to 7 by the Thunder in the first round before being dispatched by the Los Angeles Lakers. I expected changes to be made but I did not expect Daryl Morey to be the first person gone.

At this moment in time, the Houston Rockets are in a precarious situation, the Rockets have to improve the roster but there is no obvious way to do so. In many ways, the issues facing Houston remind me of the same issues that faced the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017.

The Cavaliers had an extremely capable roster but there was no way that they could beat the Warriors with the team that they had. David Griffin, the architect behind the Cavs’ success, was allowed to walk by Dan Gilbert. A rookie GM in the form of Koby Altman was appointed to steer the Cavs during a difficult time.

Altman had to pick up pieces after Griffin’s departure and figure out how to deal Kyrie Irving for the best possible package of assets. Altman dealt Irving for Isaiah Thomas and the damage was done. Thomas was never able to get fully healthy and the Cavs could not beat the Warriors in 2018. LeBron James left Cleveland for LA shortly after that defeat.

Rafael Stone has a huge job on his hands with the Rockets in a time of tumult. He has to work around the margins to fill out Houston’s supporting cast with quality role players. This is not an easy task when you do not have the flexibility to dip into the luxury tax.

Moreover, Stone has to work out what to do with Russell Westbrook and James Harden. This partnership is hugely talented but the fit is difficult and Houston do not have time to spare on chemistry. They have to win now while Westbrook’s athletic burst is still strong.

There are no easy answers or solutions for Rafael Stone. The Rockets can persist with their current core and try to add new role players who may or may not work. With this method, a road to the title is difficult to see. The Lakers, Warriors and Nuggets all have better teams than Houston on paper.

The alternative is the nuclear option. The Rockets blow everything up and focus on building for a competitive window four or five years down the line. This is an uncertain path but there is a greater chance of Houston winning a championship in the future if they blow it up now.

In whatever case, Oklahoma City stand to benefit from what Houston does this offseason. The Rockets choosing to stick it out with Harden will mean that those picks in 2024 and 2026 will likely be very good. Houston choosing the other option will set them up for a season where they tank. The Thunder control Houston’s pick in 2021 and could benefit from a high pick in the Draft.

It is quite unreal how quickly the landscape of the league changes. Before the playoffs started, the Thunder’s draft picks looked like a distant treasure. Houston and Los Angeles both have fatal flaws on their rosters that were exposed in the playoffs, both teams can be beaten by a well prepared team. The arsenal of picks amassed by the Thunder could be very good in the next few years.