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.

LaVar Ball rants about female referee after his AAU team forfeits another game

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Remember when LaVar Ball – father of Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball – pulled his AAU team off the court and forfeited a game it was winning?

In a twist nobody could have ever predicted, LaVar apparently relished the attention that garnered and again sparred with referees today at the Adidas Summer Championships.

First, LaVar received a technical foul from a female referee. A lengthy stoppage followed, and LaVar apparently threatened to remove his team from the court. The referee was replaced mid-game, and play resumed.

Then, LaVar received a second technical foul. He apparently refused to leave, so the referees called the game.

Afterward, LaVar addressed the situation. Via ESPN:

LaVar:

She got a vendetta, because she’s a woman who’s trying to act – I get that she’s trying to break into the refereeing thing. But just giving techs and calling fouls, that’s no way to do it. I know what she’s trying to say: “I gave him a tech. I’m strong.” That ain’t got nothing to do with it. Just call the game. If you’re going to be qualified, you better be in shape, and you better know the game. And she’s bad on both of them. She not in shape. She not calling the game right. And she don’t understand. So, now she’s trying to make a name for herself. So, she walking around like, “You know I’m the only woman in here.” Yeah, we get it. I don’t care if you’re a woman or a man or whatever. Just be good at what you do. Don’t try to step in the lane – she need to stay in her lane, because ain’t ready for this. Coach the little kids first and then come up. Because she ain’t did enough. She ain’t got enough on her résumé. I can tell.

I don’t know whether LaVar is sexist, but he keeps coming across as sexist.

This saga puts a dent in Lakers president Magic Johnson’s theory that LaVar is truly focused on training young players and NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s theory that LaVar would settle down once Lonzo got drafted.

Lonzo’s talent demands dealing with LaVar, who wouldn’t be the first parent of an NBA player to be difficult. But it seems LaVar might be a bigger sideshow than the Lakers bargained for. They ought to be wary of that affecting them – if it hasn’t already.

Heat: We didn’t offer Cavaliers trade for Kyrie Irving

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The Heat were among the six (or more) teams that have submitted a trade offer to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Fake news, says Miami.

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:

Teams rarely go on the record to correct reports like this. Why did Miami do it here? It might have something to do with Pat Riley’s feelings toward LeBron James.

Other incentives are more clear. The Cavs want to showcase interest they’re receiving in Irving. The Heat want to protect their players from handling trade rumors.

Whether the Heat submitted a formal offer barely matters, anyway. They could’ve offered Goran Dragic straight up for Kyrie Irving. Cleveland wouldn’t have accepted that, anyway. Nobody has published specifics of any Irving offers, so it’s unclear any are viable.

Miami is willing to deal Dragic and Justise Winslow for Irving, per the same report from Wojnarowski. Again, whether the Heat offered that pair for Irving or just acknowledged that they would is splitting hairs. That shouldn’t be enough for the Cavs.

Bottom line: The Heat probably won’t trade for Irving. Whether they made an offer, planned to make an offer or just discussed parameters so far is a fight over imaging. It’s nearly irrelevant to whether the teams eventually complete a trade for Irving.

Kyrie Irving could become one of youngest stars ever to change teams

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Kyrie Irving knows, as well as anyone, the value of being an All-Star – how the status validates on-court performance, sells shoes and can be flipped for even more exposure. Irving is comfortable in that environment, promoting his brand at four All-Star weekends already and winning All-Star game MVP in 2014 in New Orleans.

He was back in New Orleans for this year’s All-Star game when he was asked to name his all-time All-Star team.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

As Irving announced his team — he was responding to a question — he said “I’d put MJ at the 1, Kobe at the 2, Ray Allen at the 3, gotta space it out, got to have a spot up 4, so I’m probably going to go with KG, he’s going to rim-run, do the dirty work. I’d put Shaq at the 5.”

What about LeBron?

Irving, via Vardon:

“Yeah, yeah, yeah well, I mean, he (James) understands,” Irving told cleveland.com, as he walked off the podium.

Foreshadowing? Perhaps.

Irving has requested a trade from the Cavaliers, reportedly to escape LeBron’s shadow.

But take a step back from Irving’s answer, and his mere presence in New Orleans for All-Star – again, already – foretold immense demand in the trade market.

Irving is just 25 and a four-time All-Star. Only two players have reached so many All-Star games and changed teams while as young as Irving is now: Shaquille O’Neal and Tracy McGrady.

Here’s every All-Star to switch teams before turning 26 and their age when the transaction occurred, Irving included for reference as if he were dealt today:

Player All-Star berths Year From To Age
Jrue Holiday 1 2013 PHI NOP 23 years, 1 month, 0 days
Terry Dischinger 2 1964 BAL DET 23 years, 6 months, 28 days
Jason Kidd 1 1996 DAL PHO 23 years, 9 months, 3 days
Ray Felix 1 1954 BLB NYK 23 years, 9 months, 7 days
Jamaal Wilkes 1 1977 GSW LAL 24 years, 2 months, 9 days
Shaquille O’Neal 4 1996 ORL LAL 24 years, 4 months, 12 days
Stephon Marbury 1 2001 NJN PHO 24 years, 4 months, 28 days
Don Sunderlage 1 1954 MLH MNL 24 years, 8 months, 29 days
Mel Hutchins 1 1953 MLH FTW 24 years, 9 months, 1 day
Andrew Bynum 1 2012 LAL PHI 24 years, 9 months, 14 days
Tracy McGrady 4 2004 ORL HOU 25 years, 1 month, 5 days
Chris Webber 1 1998 WAS SAC 25 years, 2 months, 13 days
Bob McAdoo 3 1976 BUF NYK 25 years, 2 months, 14 days
Billy Knight 1 1977 IND BUF 25 years, 2 months, 23 days
Len Chappell 1 1966 NYK CHI 25 years, 3 months, 0 days
Len Chappell 1 1966 CHI CIN 25 years, 9 months, 25 days
Kenny Anderson 1 1996 NJN CHA 25 years, 3 months, 10 days
Kenny Anderson 1 1996 CHA POR 25 years, 9 months, 14 days
Butch Beard 1 1972 CLE SEA 25 years, 3 months, 19 days
Frank Selvy 1 1958 STL MNL 25 years, 3 months, 7 days
Kyrie Irving 4 2017 CLE ? 25 years, 4 months, 5 days
Otis Birdsong 3 1981 KCK NJN 25 years, 5 months, 30 days
LeBron James 6 2010 CLE MIA 25 years, 6 months, 10 days
John Johnson 1 1973 CLE POR 25 years, 6 months, 6 days
Frank Selvy 1 1958 MNL STL 25 years, 7 months, 22 days
Sean Elliott 1 1993 SAS DET 25 years, 7 months, 29 days
Dennis Johnson 2 1980 SEA PHO 25 years, 8 months, 17 days
Alonzo Mourning 2 1995 CHA MIA 25 years, 8 months, 26 days
Andrew Bynum 1 2013 PHI CLE 25 years, 8 months, 22 days
Baron Davis 2 2005 NOH GSW 25 years, 10 months, 11 days
Bernard King 1 1982 GSW NYK 25 years, 10 months, 18 days
Vin Baker 3 1997 MIL SEA 25 years, 10 months, 2 days
Kiki VanDeWeghe 2 1984 DEN POR 25 years, 10 months, 6 days
Frank Selvy 1 1958 STL NYK 25 years, 11 months, 13 days
Kevin Love 3 2014 MIN CLE 25 years, 11 months, 16 days
Mike Mitchell 1 1981 CLE SAS 25 years, 11 months, 22 days

Irving didn’t sneak into only one All-Star game like Jrue Holiday and Andrew Bynum. Irving is a near-perennial selection.

And unlike several players on the above list, he’s also doing it in era where there are more NBA teams than All-Star spots. In the 60s, when the league was smaller, NBA teams averaged more than two All-Stars each.

Irving is under contract for two more years before he can opt out, and his salaries – and $18,868,626 and $20,099,189 – became bargains when the new national TV contracts caused the salary cap to skyrocket.

The timing of Irving’s trade request becoming public has certainly contributed to the frenzy, as other NBA storylines have quieted for the summer. LeBron’s enormous profile also draws attention to anything involving him and his team.

But players like Irving – young established stars – rarely become available. No matter when this story leaked or whom Irving was playing with, this is a special opportunity for whichever team acquires him.

Andrew Wiggins says he’s worth ‘nothing less’ than max contract extension

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I’d hesitate to offer Andrew Wiggins the full max on a contract extension.

He would not.

Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated:

While Wiggins said that he is taking a “day by day” approach to the contract discussions, he didn’t waver when asked whether he was worthy of a max contract, which could reach $148 million over five years with a starting salary of $25.5 million. “I definitely do,” Wiggins told The Crossover. “Nothing less.”

File this under: What else is he supposed to say? The two big questions:

1. Would Wiggins accept less than the max?

He might feel he’s worth it, but there’s value in security.

The Timberwolves could offer less now, knowing he couldn’t leave in restricted free agency next summer. There’s risk he signs a shorter contract next summer, but there’s also risk in overpaying Wiggins now.

Of course, Wiggins might get offered a max extension, anyway. But if not, he’ll have to decide whether he’d rather guarantee himself life-altering money or roll the dice on even more.

2. Would Wiggins’ extension kick in with Minnesota or Cleveland? Though the Timberwolves are negotiating with him, they could still trade him – even after he signs the extension – to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. Minnesota is a known suitor of the point guard, and Wiggins makes sense in a potential trade.