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.

Markieff Morris calls Paul Millsap a “crybaby,” Millsap responds “It definitely got personal now”

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The Atlanta Hawks owned the Washington Wizards from the opening tip Saturday, making it a 2-1 series with an easy win.

It’s a series now — and that includes trash talk.

Paul Millsap had 29 points, pulled down 14 boards, got to the line 11 times, and led the Hawks to the win. He got the calls he wanted this game, but Washington’s Markieff Morris was not exactly down with high praise for Millsap.

The key line here: “”He just did more for his team. He’s a crybaby. Get all the calls and you a crybaby.”

Millsap was asked about that comment in his postgame presser — and the best part may be Dennis Schroeder’s reaction.

“It definitely got personal now, yes. I mean, I don’t care. So what? He can take his loss and go back to the hotel and be ready for the next game.”

These two have already had a beef this series.

Game 4 in this series just got a lot more interesting.

Marc Gasol game-winner tops Kawhi Leonard’s brilliance, evens Spurs/Grizzlies series 2-2

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Best. Game. Of. The. Playoffs.

So far at least.

Kawhi Leonard scored 16 consecutive points for the Spurs down the stretch of regulation to force overtime, then in OT hit a corner three with 7.2 seconds left to tie the game at 108-108. Leonard finished the game with a career playoff high of 43 points.

It wasn’t enough. Because in those final seconds Marc Gasol did this.

The 110-108 Memphis win ties the series at 2-2 as it heads back to San Antonio for Game 5. I might not want to sit next to Gregg Popovich on the flight home.

While Gasol hit the big shot, he never gets the chance if Mike Conley isn’t every kind of amazing through the clutch parts of this game. Conley finished with 35 points, and that includes a floater in the lane that forced OT (although Leonard got a pretty good look to end it in regulation and just missed). I’m surprised the Spurs switched on the pseudo pick on this play.

The Spurs struggled to get stops down the stretch, mostly because they had David Lee and Tony Parker both on the floor and Memphis did a good job getting switches onto those defenders. Spurs starting center and best defensive big Dewayne Dedmon missed the game due to an illness, and that ended up mattering.

Hawks take control early, romp past Wizards 116-98

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ATLANTA (AP) — Paul Millsap scored 29 points, Dennis Schroder had 27 and the Atlanta Hawks delivered an early knockout blow against Washington, cruising to a 116-98 victory Saturday that sliced the Wizards’ lead to 2-1 in the opening-round playoff series.

After two tight losses in Washington exposed some bad blood between the teams, Atlanta returned home and built a 25-point lead by late in the first quarter.

The Hawks were never seriously challenged by the Wizards, who were essentially a one-man team. John Wall kept up his dazzling play in the series, scoring 29 points, but the point guard got no help from his teammates.

The other Washington starters combined to score 30 points on 14-of-45 shooting.

Millsap also had 14 rebounds, while rookie Taurean Prince chipped in with 16 points.

Game 4 is Monday night in Atlanta.

The Hawks came out intent on moving the ball, getting open looks and cutting down on the turnovers that plagued them in the first two contests.

Talk about following the game plan.

Atlanta pushed out to a double-digit lead before the game was 3 minutes old and stretched the margin to 38-13 with just under a minute to go in the opening quarter on Schroder’s 3-pointer.

Wall did everything he could to spark the Wizards. He posed along the baseline after a thunderous dunk, which might have had more effect if the Wizards weren’t losing by 23 at the time. He also darted through the lane against a collapsing defense to bank in an improbable shot, drawing gasps from the Atlanta crowd.

Wall made all but one shot and scored 21 points in the first half, but the Wizards trailed 64-46 heading to the locker room. The other four Washington starters had just 18 points.

Beal, in particular, had a miserable night after averaging 26.5 points in the first two games. He was held to 12 points on 6-of-20 shooting, missing all six of his attempts beyond the arc.

TIP INS

Wizards: Wall is averaging 31 points per game in the series. … F Otto Porter Jr. left in the third quarter with a strained neck and didn’t return. … After a video review, Jason Smith was called for a flagrant foul against Millsap late in the third quarter.

Hawks: C Dwight Howard remains a non-factor in Atlanta’s offense. He scored five points and took just four shots, giving him a mere 15 attempts over the first three games. He did have 11 rebounds. … Schroder had some issues at the free-throw line, making only half of his eight attempts. Millsap did, too, going 5 of 9. … Atlanta had a double-digit lead for the final 44:24 of the game. … Prince picked up a technical foul for taunting the Wizards after an alley-oop dunk in the closing minutes. … The Hawks had just 11 turnovers.

 

Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic to play, start vs. Golden State in Game 3

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In 20 games after the Trail Blazers traded for him, Jusuf Nurkic averaged 15.2 points 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 2 blocks per game. Portland was 9.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court and went 14-6, a surge that helped get them into the playoffs. Then a leg fracture had him sidelined for the end of the season and the start of the playoffs.

Until Saturday.

He will play limited minutes, but the Blazers will take it.

Portland is down 0-2 to the Warriors but are coming home to take on a Golden State team that will be without Kevin Durant again (strained calf) and coach Steve Kerr (illness).

Nurkic gives Portland some hope, he certainly helps their defense. We’ll see if that’s enough.