There is a scene in the penultimate episode of Season 4 of Breaking Bad where Mike Ehrmantraut, the sage private investigator and fixer for supervillain Gus Fring and hack attorney Saul Goodman, visits Walter White with a final warning about his protecting of Jesse Pinkman and his increasingly insubordinate behavior as Gus’s ace chemist.
Mike calmly sits down and tells Walter a story from his cop days when he let a violent husband off the hook rather than kill him to protect the man’s wife from another attack. He stopped just short, and not long after, the battered wife was murdered.
“The moral of the story is, I chose a half measure when I should have gone all the way. I’ll never make that mistake again. [stands up] No more half measures, Walter.”
Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey went into the off-season looking to dump the contracts of Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, slot Carmelo Anthony or a similar max-worthy player as a stretch-4, and retain Chandler Parsons a year early by granting him restricted free agency and re-signing him in a time-sensitive manner. It was an ambitious plan, but one that would make the Rockets the early favorites to win the 2015 championship if he pulled it off.
Morey has never believed in half measures. Before LeBron ever took his talents to South Beach, Morey identified the need for multiple superstar, All-NBA players in order to compete for championships in the modern NBA. That model remains the path of least resistance. He assembled assets — picks, cap room, trade exceptions, cheap talent — methodically for several years. When the opportunities finally surfaced, he struck via trade (James Harden) and again via free agency (Dwight Howard) for two of the dozen most valuable assets in the league.
He was one player away.
Following Chris Bosh’s decision to become the centerpiece of the post-LeBron Heat, Morey seemed likely to wait another season. To let Parsons make near-max money in Dallas for his points-only game, replace him on the cheap, and roll over the cap space into 2015. Howard and Harden were not going anywhere, and the future was still bright.
Instead, Morey did something he never does. He moved quickly to bring in Trevor Ariza, a mid-market player pushing 30 who can do good things for a team, but who is not a significant enough upgrade on Parsons to vault the Rockets into the league’s top tier. And then he shied away from the cap, and let Parsons walk.
In the final analysis, Morey signed the Rockets up for another season with a second-round ceiling, and gave himself another contract to dump the next time a player who can put them in the winners’ circle hits the market.
He took a half measure.
It has been written repeatedly over the past five years that the worst place to be in the NBA is the middle, or perhaps slightly above the middle. Close enough that everyone associated with the team expects a winning product, but not close enough to the elite teams to realistically win a championship without a series of fortunate breaks.
The Rockets are not quite there. They are a half-step above that level, on par with the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies, or perhaps a hair above them in the NBA’s current pecking order. Ariza doesn’t move the needle. The Rockets will pay him $8.4M this year to increase their chances of winning a championship from 1.5% to 2.3%. And then they will try to dump him to open up more space and swindle their way into another opportunity to acquire a game-changer. If it works, no harm, no foul.
But, for the first time in his tenure, Morey is guilty of a series of moves that lack a greater purpose. It no longer feels like he’s ahead of the curve in pursuit of a championship. And for Rockets fans, that should be a bit unnerving.