Houston Rockets: A Change in Philosophy?

The NBA is hard.

Building a championship team from scratch is difficult enough, but it gets even harder if you have a mandate from ownership against bottoming out and targeting high draft picks. However, Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets, managed to do that via the James Harden trade and acquisition of Dwight Howard back in 2012. This isn't news. What might be, is Daryl's change in perspective in regards to team building.

For years, Morey's been a guy that's preached star power in regards to team building. Here's a quote from him directly after acquiring James Harden:
"You have to have a foundational player," Morey said. "He (James Harden" is. Simple as that. Now we need to add another player or have one of our current players develop. You need two All-Stars to win in this league. We're not there yet. But he changes the whole dynamic."

Here's Morey from when he finally landed that 2nd All-Star caliber player in Dwight Howard:
"I think it absolutely gives us a chance," he said. "What you do this job for is to have a chance. The reality is five to seven teams have a chance any given year. The way it is in this league, you've got to have multiple All-Stars, you generally have to have dominant top players and we have two guys that we think are in the top 10 in the league in James and Dwight."

If you dig even deeper, you'll find a dozen more quotes similar to this.

The Rockets, and Daryl Morey especially, have always been an organization that chases stars. Daryl's claimed on multiple occasions, that stars are what win in this league and historically, he's absolutely correct. Just look at the past NBA champions and chances are most were built on at least 2, if not 3 All-Star caliber players.

However, the Rockets have drastically changed their behavior within the last 8 months to suggest that they've perhaps delineated from this once highly sought after two-star model. After hiring offensive guru Mike D'Antoni and effectively choosing to let All-Star big man Dwight Howard walk in free agency, the Rockets swifty chose to go out and head in an entirely new direction.

The Rockets spent about $135 million in salary this summer and not one dollar went to a player that had previously made an All-Star team. And yet, Houston is on pace to win 55-60 games this season with the 3rd seed in the Western Conference after winning just 41 games last season and barely making the playoffs.

It shocked the NBA to it's core when Daryl Morey when out and signed guys like Eric Gordon ($53 million/4 years) and Ryan Anderson ($80 million/4 years) to the contracts they got. The Rockets have always been an organization to find the stars first and round out the roster with affordable role players all while maintaining cap flexibility. These didn't feel like traditional "Daryl Morey moves".

These moves marked a giant shift in the organization's philosophy in regards to team building.

It was originally thought that perhaps Daryl Morey was making these moves under duress as it had been reported that owner Leslie Alexander had taken on an increased role in basketball operations. While it may be true, it could also be true that perhaps Daryl had changed his entire thinking when it came to constructing the roster around superstar James Harden. After all, these were all players Morey had previously targeted.

It's entirely possible that Morey had valued the shooting and floor spacing of Anderson and Gordon enough to be willing to pay a premium for it, and it's clearly paid off so far.

What really confirmed Morey's ideological shift in team building is when the Rockets acquired Lou Williams at the trade deadline for the price of their 2017 1st rounder and Corey Brewer.

The Rockets clearly believe they can win this year. And not just a nice playoff run, the entire championship. If the move for Lou didn't confirm it enough, Daryl's comments after the trade deadline was more than enough proof that the organization won't be scared away by Golden State.

"We figured our chance to beat Golden State was to send them a barrage of 3-Pointers."

This is Morey's first time addressing the Warriors directly this season and the conviction in which he said it tells you he thinks this team is ready to contend for a championship right now.

The approach with which Daryl Morey and the Rockets are taking is fascinating. With the Rockets already having their superstar in James Harden, surrounding him with ultra role players that fit his style of play makes a lot of sense. The Rockets have a nice balance of shooters for floor spacing, rim runners that keep defenses honest when running pick and roll, and shot creators that can make a play when the offense breaks down and Houston just needs a bucket.

That's all well and great, but has this one-star model ever worked before and can it work now?

Ironically, one of the couple teams to win a title like this in the last 25 years is the 1993-94 Houston Rockets.

This team followed a similar model to the present day Rockets in that they surrounded Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon with uber role players like Otis Thorpe, Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, etc... and built a scheme around Hakeem's strength's with shooters to spread the floor.

The other team that followed this model was the fairly recent 2011 Dallas Mavericks. While this team may be a little different than the 1993-94 Rockets in that they had Hall of Fame caliber players that surrounded their superstar (Dirk Nowitzki), these players were way past their primes at this point in their careers and had been relegated to being super role players (Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler, etc...).

These teams at their peaks were a treat to watch and while some (not me) argue they both may have caught lucky breaks (Michael Jordan's retirement, LeBron James' horrendous Finals performance, getting hot at the right time, etc...), it takes some luck to win a championship and these teams pounced on every opportunity given to them which is what made them so special. Also, the ability to craft a roster full of mega role players that fill holes and compliment their sole superstar isn't easy to do.

Although the Rockets have stayed flexible (for the most part) with the contracts they've doled out and cap space they've reserved, it's fairly clear that they've chosen a certain direction to take this roster. While it may not be as historically successful as the two to three All-Stars approach, it may just be the 2nd best thing.

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