The New York Times
July 10, 2013
By HOWARD BECK
ORLANDO, Fla. — The transaction is simple on the surface, familiar and mathematically sound. An N.B.A. team creates salary-cap room. An N.B.A. star signs a rich deal using that room. The Houston Rockets sign Dwight Howard and become instant contenders.
That sequence unfolded last week, in a logical and linear fashion. There was, in fact, nothing simple about it.
When the Rockets persuaded Howard to dump Kobe Bryant, spurn the Lakers and trade Hollywood for Houston, it was the culmination of a two-year campaign based on hope and hunches. It was the success of a strategy no one had tried. It may be the new template for rebuilding in the modern age.
For 24 months, Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey did nothing but shuffle bodies — acquiring talent, trading that talent, then packaging the new talent with draft picks to acquire newer, better talent, until those assets could be cashed in for a franchise star — like a kid at the carnival trading up for the grand prize.
Last October, the Rockets converted some of those assets into James Harden, an electrifying young shooting guard. Last week, they landed Howard, using Harden as the main draw.
Two years ago, the Rockets were a 43-win team loaded with role players. Next fall, they will be one of the top contenders in the West, anchored by two of the top 15 players in the league.
“I think obviously it requires preparation and good fortune,” Morey said, speaking generally about the Rockets’ approach. “I think we’ve had a little of both.”
It also requires a bold, creative vision, and the conviction to carry it out — qualities that are not found in every front office.
Until now, there have been three conventional paths to land a superstar: the draft lottery, trades and free agency. But the draft is fickle, and high picks require a lot of losing. Trades for superstars are rare and tough to execute. The free-agent route requires cap room, and when the stars don’t come, that room is often filled by flotsam (see Bobcats, Charlotte).
Morey’s impulse in 2011 was to strip down Houston’s roster and gamble on the lottery — the “bottoming-out” approach. According to the statistics-minded Morey, that route has the highest probability of success.
There was just one problem: no one in the Rockets brain trust had the stomach for losing, least of all the owner Les Alexander.
Morey needed an alternate path, a middle way.
“There’s this other way we can try it,” Morey told Alexander then, “but no one’s ever done it.”
Thus began the roster churning and the asset hoarding and a truly revolutionary rebuilding process.
In March 2012, Morey sent Jordan Hill, a former Knicks lottery pick, to the Lakers for Derek Fisher and a 2014 first-round pick. He sent two other young players, Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet, to Portland for Marcus Camby.
Two months later, Morey swapped the promising Chase Budinger for Minnesota’s first-round pick, which he used to take Terrence Jones. He sent Samuel Dalembert to Milwaukee in a deal that allowed him to swap picks with the Bucks and select Jeremy Lamb.
That was just a warm-up.