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.

Orlando has become team worth watching for first time in long time

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, and today the young Orlando Magic are the focus.

A strange sensation came over me during Summer League in Las Vegas this year:

I wanted to watch Orlando Magic games.

It felt weird. It has been years since the Magic were must-watch, but I was intrigued by them and their potential. Part of it was they have zigged when the league has zagged — in a small-ball league the Magic (in Vegas and in general) went big with Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Isaac. And those two, for stretches, could dominate the paint.

“The potential between me and (Isaac) is unreal, I think in Summer League we’re starting to bridge that potential into production with the small things we do,” Bamba said to NBC Sports in Las Vegas.

That carries over to this season and expands to other players — which makes the Orlando Magic interesting and worth watching.

It’s been a long time since we could say that, but the Magic have the potential for a dynamic defense this season, especially up front: Bamba, Isaac, just-resigned Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Simmons. Put all of them under the guidance of new, defensive-minded coach Steve Clifford, and the Magic can be big and defense-first in an NBA leaning more toward the Warriors’ model of small and offense first.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even think (the team’s defensive play in Summer League) scratches the surface in terms of where Mo is going to be in a year or two years, or where I am going to be in a year or two years,” Isaac said of the team’s potential. “Physically, mentally, game wise, you throw in AG and all those guys we have on our team now, and I think we will be a defensive nightmare for a lot of teams.”

Isaac was one of the real head turners at Summer League. He missed much of his rookie season with an ankle injury, playing in just 27 games. In Las Vegas he looked healthy and like he spent time in the weight room getting stronger. He was a defensive force but was able to turn some of that into offense.

Bamba showed potential in Vegas as well, although he was more up and down and showed how he needs to get stronger and develop a better feel for the game. For example, the Suns’ No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton pushed him around physically for much of the night. But even then, Bamba blocked an Ayton shot and altered others, plus he flashed offensive potential (and in another game, showed a smooth shooting stroke from three).

“I just have to establish myself as a roller, it really opens up a lot for our team, even if I don’t necessarily get the ball it opens up guys in the corner or in spots as teams adjust to how we are playing,” Bamba said.

The Magic still are not going to be good, and there are a lot of questions to be answered. How well can both Bamba and Isaac play with Gordon (it would be hard to play all three together, with Gordon at the three, he has struggled in that role before)? Coach Clifford has said he wants to switch more and that these bigs can do it, but how will that really work in practice? Clifford also wants to see how Bamba and Nikola Vucevic pair together for stretches.

Gordon is the best player on the team, the franchise cornerstone guy who signed a four-year, $76 million contract this summer (with incentives that could bring it to $84 million). He averaged 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds a game last season, is a competent three-point shooter who can finish at the rim like a beast.

Can one of the other young Magic players step up and join Gordon as a cornerstone? Can this team go big and become a force? Those are the interesting questions for the Magic this season, what makes them worth watching.

The rest of the team… not as interesting.

The Magic still don’t have a point guard of the future — D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant will split the bulk of the time there — and beyond that have solid to good NBA players who are not great fits or parts of the future, such as Evan Fournier and Timofey Mozgov. Vucevic and Terrence Ross are in the final years of their contracts and the Magic will look to move them (they have tried to trade Vucevic since last trade deadline, and he could help some teams, but no deal has been found).

Orlando will lose more games than it wins this season, Bamba and Isaac will learn hard lessons. It will not always be pretty.

But there is real reason for hope, and with it this is a team worth keeping an eye on. It’s been a long time since we could say that.

DeAndre Jordan joins Mavericks, treats touchy history with humor

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DALLAS (AP) — DeAndre Jordan took off his warmup jacket, tossed it aside and declared that his decision to join the Dallas Mavericks didn’t mean he also would be playing for his favorite NFL team, the Dallas Cowboys.

Humor was the center’s way of easing into all the questions about his infamous jilting of the Mavericks in free agency three years ago, when he agreed to play for Dallas and changed his mind before contracts could be signed.

When it was pointed out to him that folks in Dallas hadn’t seen the fun-loving side of the native Texan before Mavericks media day Friday, Jordan did what he had done for most of his 15 minutes with reporters. He smiled.

“You haven’t seen this side?” Jordan asked, repeating the observation. “You guys hated me the past three years so I probably wasn’t very open in interviews. You know what I mean? I’m excited to get to know all of you guys.”

Jordan wanted to get one thing straight before agreeing again to sign with the Mavericks, this time after opting out of the final year of that four-year contract he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers in the summer of 2015. He wanted to make sure coach Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki, among others, didn’t have any hard feelings.

Well, Jordan was pretty sure he was cool with the 40-year-old German superstar who is about to set an NBA record by spending all 21 of his seasons with the same franchise.

“Dirk is an old man so he forgets a lot of stuff,” Jordan said, sending a wave of laughter through the interview room. “Like I said at the beginning, before I committed again I just wanted to make sure that we were OK and everything was positive. They said they forgot about all that and they were looking forward to the future.”

It wasn’t necessarily forgotten for Nowitzki, who started at center the past couple of years and likely won’t have a regular spot in the starting lineup for the first time since his rookie season of 1998-99. But it was definitely forgiven – long before Jordan actually followed follow through on his plan to be Nowitzki’s teammate.

“We’ve been over that a long, long time ago,” Nowitzki said. “It wasn’t only about basketball. He made some other decisions about what was best for him. We’re in no position to judge anybody. Everybody in a free agent situation has to make a decision that’s best for himself first. And that’s what he did.”

Besides, Nowitzki gets to see that other side of Jordan now, too.

“He’s got a crazy personality,” Nowitzki said. “He’s fun to be around. He enjoys life and he’ll be a great addition to our team. That’s off the court. I think on the court he’s going to be pretty great, some of the defensive stuff he’s going to wipe out.”

Jordan is one of the NBA’s best rebounders, finishing in the top three each of the past five seasons. Although his shot-blocking numbers have dropped off the past two seasons, the 30-year-old is still considered one of the best rim protectors.

Those are a couple of reasons Carlisle didn’t even have to forgive the 6-foot-11 Jordan when the exploratory phone call came.

“I said, `Hey, I’ve been waiting for this phone call for three years. You kidding me?”‘ Carlisle said. “And so we’re thrilled to have him here. Our guys love him. And he’s going to be a big asset for us.”

Harrison Barnes was a defending NBA champion with Golden State when Jordan jilted the Mavericks. But the team’s leading scorer the past two seasons still got caught up in the story a year later through a photo that was tweeted when Barnes signed the Mavericks immediately after the moratorium ended.

In it, Barnes is handcuffed to president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, standing alongside Carlisle and Nelson’s top assistant, former player Michael Finley. All four of them are smiling, and yes, Barnes played along.

It was a final nod to the emoji-driven drama that included Blake Griffin and Clippers coach Doc Rivers holing up with Jordan in his Houston home while Mavericks owner Mark Cuban tried to contact the former Texas A&M standout. Griffin and Rivers didn’t leave until Jordan had signed.

“I never thought all of us would be on the same team this many years later,” Barnes said. “I was like, `That is nuts.’ It was crazy, but everything happens for a reason.”

The Mavericks have been telling themselves that a lot, through their first consecutive losing records in nearly 20 years after yet another first-round playoff exit the season after Jordan stayed in LA.

Dallas hasn’t won a postseason series since winning its only championship in 2011. But with Jordan joining a pair of top-10 draft picks in Dennis Smith Jr. and rookie Luka Doncic, the Mavericks believe the franchise’s fortunes may finally be turning.

Jordan is hopeful fans who booed him incessantly all five times he came to Dallas after the decision will come around as well.

“I don’t think I would have changed what happened,” Jordan said. “I think I would have changed the way that it was handled. Because I don’t regret my decision staying with the Clippers. I’m excited about this new chapter. I don’t really think about it as much as I used to when I was younger anymore.”

 

Report: Jimmy Butler to miss Minnesota media day, not participate on court to start camp

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Welcome to the latest escalation of in an ugly situation for the Timberwolves. Or, if you prefer, the dumpster fire in Minnesota just got a little hotter.

What had been reported as something that could happen — Jimmy Butler missing the start of training camp — has come to reality. Butler has been given permission to miss media day and will not participate on the court to start camp, reports Jon Krawczynski and Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Skipping media day is an effort to make that less of a circus… good luck with that.

Not participating to start the camp is Butler’s way of exerting pressure and trying to get traded sooner rather than later.

In a meeting last Tuesday in Los Angeles, Butler asked for a tradespecifically to the Clippers/Nets/Knicks. That started a week where things devolved quickly in Minnesota, including social media drama with Andrew Wiggins and rumors about Towns’ girlfriend being at the heart of the problem. And those are just the side shows.

Thibodeau has forcefully shot down any other team that even tried to start a trade discussion, and would rather quit than move Butler for a rebuilding package of picks. Part of that is good negotiation tactics, right now offers are not going to be that good, however, the other part of it is Thibodeau realizes his job on the line and this team is not as good without Butler.

With Thibodeau wanting no part of trading Butler, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor — who has a rocky relationship with Thibodeau — is fielding trade offers and is taking charge of the situation, a bad sign for Thibodeau.

Looming over all of this is the future of the franchise — Karl-Anthony Towns has a $158 million contract extension sitting on the table, but told management he can’t coexist with Butler and reportedly will not sign the new deal until the Butler situation is resolved.

Sources around the league think Butler will get moved, but the demand for him is not as strong as the Timberwolves would hope (and ideally Minnesota would like to dump Gorgui Dieng and his contract in the deal). Teams that want him believe they can get him as a free agent and are not offering much, while others will not throw in much for a potential rental. Beyond that, teams are worried that if they sign or re-sign Butler next summer to a max contract (the team with his Bird rights can offer five-years, $190 million, others can offer four years at $139 million) they will regret the finals year or two of the contract, because while Butler is just 29 he has Thibodeau miles on him and has battled some injuries, including last season.

This drama is far from over, though if ownership is pushing to get this dealt with sooner rather than later it will.

Adam Silver defends penalty to Cuban for Mavericks’ misconduct

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NEW YORK (AP) — NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says he didn’t suspend Mark Cuban because the Mavericks owner was never directly implicated in the misconduct toward women within his organization.

Silver acknowledged Friday that Cuban should have been more aware of what was going on, but felt a suspension wasn’t warranted being that Cuban wasn’t accused of anything by any of the more than 200 people interviewed in a report into the team’s workplace that was released this week.

Silver also cited Cuban’s response to the original “Sports Illustrated” report detailing years of examples of a hostile workplace for women on the business side of the team, and the organization’s cooperation with investigators afterward in choosing not to hand down further punishment.

Cuban agreed to contribute $10 million to help further the cause of women in sports and raise awareness about domestic violence. Silver could have only fined him $2.5 million under NBA rules.