Since 1990, only eight NBA teams have hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Twenty-five NBA Finals and only eight teams have claimed a championship. Let that percolate your mind, allow it to marinate with you for a minute.
When you step back and think about it, the lack of parity in the NBA is astounding. The difficulty of winning the NBA championship is astronomical compared to other professional sports leagues. Even more intriguing is analyzing how the league’s lack of parity effects franchises attempts to build a contender.
Franchises understand how challenging it is to field a winning team, let alone construct a roster primed to compete for a title. The NBA is a star driven league, but has always lacked enough elite talent to supply all thirty franchises with a top-tier star.
Any combination of poor player management, poor coaching, poor drafting, or poor luck invariably eliminates a franchises ability to compete for a championship. While the title window concept has been around for ages, it seems most applicable to the NBA due to the inherent inequity built into the league.
Due to the tenuous status of title contention, the Houston Rockets present an interesting case study.
The Rockets already have two cornerstone players on the roster in guard James Harden and center Dwight Howard, placing them on the short list of teams with the necessary star power required to win a championship. Harden and Howard are a formidable duo, but Howard will turn 29 years old during the upcoming season and is in the midst of his prime. Essentially, this duo has a limited title window.
GM Daryl Morey failed to bring a third star into the mix this offseason, striking out on both Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. Losing promising forward Chandler Parsons to a division rival in the Dallas Mavericks provided further insult to injury (although his departure was negated after the team signed Trevor Ariza). At worst, the Rockets will remain stagnant this season. At best, improvement from young players like Harden, Patrick Beverley, and Terrance Jones will propel the franchise forward.
Questions abound after the team flamed out in free agency. Do the Rockets need a third star to win a title, or would the team be better served allowing its young talent to develop and adding the right role players through free agency?
Morey would be wise to study up on his history before making that choice.
Adding a third star sounds wonderful in theory. After all, many members of the sports media world gushed at the thought of a Harden, Howard, Bosh triage. The truth, however, shows that this approach is much more costly.
If Morey were to trade for a third star, he would undoubtedly have to give up some important assets. Trading away talented young players like Beverley, Jones, and Donatas Motiejunas would significantly weaken the rotation, and doling out first-round draft picks in addition to these players would hinder attempts to add cheap young talent in the future.
In 1996, Houston was in a similar position, one season removed from winning an NBA championship in 1995. Rather than keeping young talented players like Sam Cassell and Robert Horry, the franchise decided package them with Mark Bryant and Chucky Brown in a trade with the Phoenix Suns for ‘Sir’ Charles Barkley. Despite making it to the Western Conference Finals in 1997, Barkley was rather disappointing as a Rocket. Really, the team would have been better served keeping younger players like Cassell and Horry around.
A more recent example is the New York Knicks trade for Carmelo Anthony in 2011. While the Knicks thought it was creating a dynamic frontcourt by pairing Anthony with Amare Stoudemire, in reality the team hemorrhagic all of its depth and youth by trading away Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, and Timofey Mozgov, in addition to a first-round pick.
Even if Morey were to sign a top flight star next offseason, creating the cap space to sign a max level player would require an all-out roster purge. While the Miami Heat big three was an interesting four-year experiment, it is not a sound model for other organizations to follow.
Yes, the Heat won two titles in four seasons however they had the benefit of sporting two top five players in Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, masking the deficiencies of the rest of the roster.
While Howard and Harden are really good, and are arguably the best players at their respective positions, neither is a top five player. The Rockets cannot afford to surround Harden, Howard, and another star with lackluster talent, which would end up being the case.
Unlike the Heat, who got a discount from James, Wade, and Bosh, the Rockets are paying the premium price for Harden and Howard, making it even harder for them to round out a solid roster after adding a third star player.
A third star would bring more hype and recognition to the franchise, but what the Rockets really need is patience. With so many young talented players, it would behoove Houston to wait at least another season to see what it truly has. If Jones, Beverley, and Motiejunas improve incrementally, the team will have a solid foundation in place behind Harden and Howard.
The title window for Harden and Howard as a duo will close with each passing season, and while patience can be scary, it is the right step for the team right now. Like the Barkley and Anthony trades, the Rockets cannot be short-sighted in the quest for a title. No, Morey must remain poised despite the recent misfires and build a contender the right way.