The Inbounds: Daryl Morey and the point of no return

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

Someone asked me two weeks ago why it was that everyone thought Daryl Morey was so good at his job. His team hasn’t made the playoffs in several years, they haven’t been a title contender since injuries wrecked the team in 2009. And all their players are so “eh.” Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson, Chase Budinger, Chandler Parsons, on and on and on.

Here was what I said, and it remains true.

“He manages to come out ahead on nearly every deal he executes. He drafts smart for his position, he just hasn’t landed one of those shocker ‘way better than expected’ guys because they’re really difficult to lock down. He takes advantage of teams desperate for position, like the Knicks clearing cap space for the 2010 summer. And when the players he brings in play to the very extent of their ceiling, in large part because of the position that his team has put them in, like with Carl Landry, he tends to bid them a fond farewell instead of desperately trying to hang onto players who are replaceable. That doesn’t happen a lot in this league.”

And then I told that person, “He’s made his share of mistakes, but more than anything, it seems like all these other moves he understand aren’t what building a team is about.”

Morey has publicly said for years that stars win in this league and that the Rockets have to acquire one. When Yao Ming was forced out, that became Morey’s biggest objective.

Here’s the problem, and it’s a big one with how fans tend to perceive management.

Getting a superstar is unlike anything else in the sport. You can manage your cap, clear the books, find supporting players, build a winning culture, overhaul your facilities, bring in a star coach, do everything. And it can still not work out. Because superstars are, in large part, cuckoo for Cocoa-Puffs. You have to make them happy, you have to woo them, you have to have them like the city, and like the idea of the city and the team, and the idea of the team. It’s cooler to play for the Heat than the Rockets. It’s cooler to play for the Knicks than the Rockets. Now, it’s cooler to play for the Rockets than the Bucks, which is a shame, because the Bucks have actually routinely put together good cheap supporting cast and Milwaukee would go bonkers for them if they were good. But that problem exists.

The biggest critics of Morey tend to emanate from the West Coast, usually Lakers fans or media, based off the insulting notion that Shane Battier was a good defender of Kobe Bryant, despite the fact that both Battier and the story that detailed his success repeatedly noted that Bryant lights him up anyway, because he’s Kobe Bryant. But one dares not approach the throne, apparently, and there’s been a significant bitterness towards Morey and the whiz kid label. A common question asked is “How can he be so good if he’s never landed a star?” And the truth is that Los Angeles is magnetic for NBA players. Warm weather, lavish parties, fun things to do, high profile fame, a rabid fanbase, a historically awesome and relevant team, Jack at courtside, and an owner willing to spend to win. Trying to convince a player to play for the Lakers is not difficult.

(This in no way should diminish the work that Mitch Kupchak has done since 2008, acquiring Pau Gasol for peanuts and the promise of Marc Gasol, bringing in Ron Artest, letting Trevor Ariza walk to make more money than at value for someone else, drafting talented role players, managing the roster and understanding when to leverage picks for assets. The point is simply that luring stars to L.A. is not exactly the hardest fish to catch.)

So we return to Morey, who after repeated attempts just to get free agents to come in for a visit, just to see the market size of Houston, to see the amount of money that Rockets ownership has invested in the team and its facilities, finally started turning an eye to a superstar. Morey was faced with a difficult decision. He could tank out to try and draft a superstar, or he could go the other path. Win now, and be in a position to win later.

Rockets fans may have been frustrated by the mediocrity of the team over the past four years, but they also have not suffered through miserable failure after miserable failure. They’ve had a team they could track in the playoff standings, players they could get excited about, a team that was good, just not great, and certainly not a title contender. It was fun to watch at times, while never being dominant. What it did have was good players on movable contracts, extra draft picks, flexibility to absorb salary, and rookies. And forwards. Lots of forwards.

You can’t force a superstar to join your team unless you draft him, and that requires both a phenomenal risk in winding up as a team that misses in the lottery, sometimes repeated years, and for that player to actually live up to billing. You either have to woo them in free agency or swing for a trade and then try and make it work. And for years, Morey has delicately balanced the boat on dangerous waters, never giving up so much that the team would be wrecked while always keeping a team with good players on manageable contracts. That’s a dangerous and difficult place to keep the ship, but he’s done it. It doesn’t win you points with fans or the media, though and at the end of the day, it doesn’t win you enough games.

So Morey has finally crossed the threshold. It’s a point of no return for the Rockets.

Lowry, liquidated for a draft pick.

Dragic: dislodged for cap room to absorb salary.

Scola: amnestied for cap room to allow salary.

Lin: Overpaid for to ensure a quality sidekick.

Budinger: Sent packing to make room.

Royce White, Jeremy Lamb, Terrence Jones: Look who Morey drafted. No safe picks there. All high upside guys with great conditioning, no injury concerns, loved by scouts and GM’s in workouts and high caliber players. Morey didn’t draft for need, he specifically drafted the players best used for packaging.

Omer Asik: Yeah, no one really knows what the idea behind that is, and it’s hard to see where they’re going with this. Everything can’t make sense, this is the NBA.

Want to know how you know the Rockets will be bad next year if they don’t get Dwight Howard? Every hardcore NBA fan is really excited about watching the team. Lin, with Lamb, Kevin Martin, Parsons, Jones and White, and Asik? That’s a crazy fun, quirky, insane little team. That will probably in all likelihood not make the playoffs. Entertaining and good are very rarely the same. (Oh, hey there, Celtics.)

Morey has pointed everything the Magic’s way. You want draft picks? You got ’em. You want young players? Sure thing, got all the athletic forwards you could want. Want to dump salary? Lots of room here, provided you take Kevin Martin or some of our other spare parts! Morey has done everything but sent Rob Hennigan personalized luggage. And I’m sure that’s coming in the mail.

Here’s the kicker. Morey has had to extend himself so far in this pursuit, that he could wind up in the worst of both worlds. What if the Magic have to surrender the young players, the picks, take on the salary, and wind up with Howard, but the rest of the team isn’t good enough? Howard departs in free agency (a bluff but not one he’s incapable of actually following through with), and the Rockets are out draft picks, have a bloated salary structure with aging players on long-term contracts, no stars, no young talent besides Lin and maybe one other player, and no Howard. It would be like dropping an atomic bomb on the franchise. But that’s the risk that Morey may have to take to get a star. That’s how difficult it is.

And if it doesn’t? They could be bad, and maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing. A young, bad team, with potential that’s fun to watch, that could land in the top eight or so of the lottery, and potentially walk away with Noel or Muhammad in the lottery. That would set the team up. Not getting Howard could be a good thing. But either way, Morey has finally crossed that line. Time to be the whiz kid or get off the pot, so to speak.

Dwight Howard or bust.

This is the life of the NBA executive, and why championship teams are at once so self-evident and so complicated to assemble.

Steven Adams says Thunder late-game struggles on him, not Westbrook/George/Anthony

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In the first half of games this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have the best defense in the NBA, allowing just 91.7 points per 100 possessions. In those first 24 minutes, the Thunder are outscoring teams by 12.7 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA (Houston is first).

However, in the fourth quarter, the Thunder defense is 18.1 points per 100 possessions worse. Their offense stagnates late in games with a lot of “you take a turn and then it’s my turn” isolation between Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony.

The Thunder have nine losses this season, and OKC lost double-digit leads in six of those. Monday night it was a 19-point lead against New Orleans where the Pelicans — without DeMarcus Cousins — came back to win 114-107.

There’s a lot of blame and finger-pointing going on in Oklahoma City, but Steven Adams said less of that should be at the three stars and more of it should be at him. Via Royce Young at ESPN:

“Mainly me, to be honest (should be blamed). Because the play itself you have to execute it properly and it has to be legit down to the t. I screwed up my feet on a couple of them in terms of spacing. … Everyone plays a part in the plight so you can say yeah the shot doesn’t go in which sucks. But to get them that shot I didn’t help them.”

Adams can take on a little of the blame, but this is a team thing right now — everyone has earned some blame. Billy Donovan as coach, role players like Andre Roberson or Patrick Patterson who have not lived up to expectations this season, and yes Westbrook/George/Anthony have earned some blame, too. It’s a little bit of everything.

There’s also time for the Thunder to figure it out, but they are on the clock as this is a one-year experiment in Oklahoma City (no way they pay the whopping tax coming next season to keep all three stars and Adams, no matter what ownership says publicly).

C.J. McCollum: I told Evan Fournier during altercation ‘ you’re sweet and soft like those crepes you eat’

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C.J. McCollum blew kisses at Evan Fournier when they got into a confrontation during the Trail Blazers’ win over the Magic last week:

But apparently the incident was even better than that!

McCollum on The Flagrant Two podcast, as transcribed by Colin Ward-Henninger of CBSSports.com:

“I just felt like he disrespected me by putting his hands on me,” McCollum said. “Obviously, I’m not trying to get any fines or anything of that nature and I told him he was sweet. He’s French, and I said that, ‘you’re sweet and soft like those crepes you eat.’ “

Did McCollum actually say that in the moment, or did he come up with the line after the fact? I want the former to be true, so I choose to believe it.

Report: Nuggets Paul Millsap out three months due to wrist surgery

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There were big sighs of relief in Denver when Paul Millsaps’ X-rays on his injured wrist came back negative. There were fears of a fracture suffered against the Lakers last weekend, but word from the team is it was just a sprain. He sat out the game against the Kings, but the timeline for his return was not expected to be long.

Except it has turned out to be a little more than a simple sprain. From Sham Charania of Yahoo and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Millsap — who signed a three-year, $90 million contract with Denver over the summer, after spending seven seasons with the Jazz and Hawks — is averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds a game. More importantly, he has been key to Denver’s defense going from one of the NBA’s worst to the middle of the pack this season. He’s started the season getting a handful fewer shots a game then he did in Atlanta last season, and Millsap was slightly less efficient, but like the team as a whole he seemed to be finding a groove and looked better during the recent streak when Denver won 4-of-5. He and the Nuggets were figuring out how to play together.

The Nuggets have been 4.5 points per 100 possessions better when Millsap has been on the court this season, and that will not be easy to replace.

While Kenneth Faried got the start with Millsap out last game, it was Trey Lyles who stepped up — and who Denver needs to step up with Millsap out. Others will have to step up with some defense while he is out.

LaVar Ball on Luke Walton: “They’re soft. They don’t know how to coach my son.”

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Luke Walton is trying to create a professional environment around his young Lakers’ core. One where they expect the players to put in extra work without being told they have to, one where the coaches guide the development, but it’s ultimately the player in charge of his own course. Basically, Walton is treating his young players like adults and is asking them to respond to it like professional adults. It’s what he’s seen Steve Kerr do in Golden State and it works. It’s how Gregg Popovich has created a dynasty in San Antonio.

LaVar Ball sees the world very differently. He’s old school, from the “do as I say” mold.

So it shouldn’t be a shock that after the Lakers’ ugly loss last Friday to the Suns, the Lakers media spoke to LaVar Ball about his son’s play and Ball took a shot at the Lakers’ coach. Here are the quotes, via Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report.

“They’re soft. They don’t know how to coach my son. I know how to coach him,” LaVar Ball said. “I tell him to go get the victory. Stop messing around.”

Does he have a problem with coach Luke Walton?

“No, I have a problem with losing,” Ball responded.

I have multiple thoughts here, which means bullet points.

• I am breaking my own rule with this post, which is “don’t cover LaVar Ball, he’s just meaningless click bait.” I debated the point, but I think there is a legitimate basketball reason to cover this post (keep reading).

• Things Luke Walton cares more about than what LaVar Ball thinks of his coaching style: How much extra guacamole costs at Chipotle; if Netflix has “Golden Girls” to stream; what shoes Lakers’ sideline reporter Mike Trudell is wearing during postgame interviews; which Van Halen album “Dance the Night Away” is on; which show won the 1974 Tony for Best Musical.

Lonzo Ball‘s struggles with his shot this season — 31.3 percent overall, and he is struggling from three and around the rim — are well documented. It’s clear he is in his own head about it at this point. What can keep him there longer is conflicting advice from his father and his coach. So far, Lonzo seems to be siding with the coaching staff, for example, he credited assistant coach Brian Shaw for telling him to rebound more aggressively, then push the ball himself. LaVar will want to take credit for that, too. Lonzo needs to listen to his coaches, take his father’s advice for what it’s worth, and find his path.

• LaVar is lucky that the level-headed, mature-for-his-age, hard-working Lonzo was his oldest son. Just from what I see on the outside, not sure either of the other two Ball children could have handled this scrutiny nearly as well.

• Luke Walton is working to create something sustainable with the Lakers, they are not going to let anything (or anyone) bump them off that path.