HOUSTON — Ahab and Moby Dick. Snoopy and the Red Baron. A Kardashian and a camera.
Talk about your classic chases through history.
Daryl Morey landed his (D)wight whale and finally has reason to throw up his hands and gloat, if not plan ahead for even more elaborate celebrations down the line.
In getting All-Star center Dwight Howard to pick the Rockets in the free-agent lollapalooza, Morey not only won the big prize, but also earned vindication for what was often characterized as a quixotic quest to land the type of player that could put Houston back into the conversation for an NBA championship.
Now in less than eight months, he has pulled James Harden and Howard into the boat and Morey is still sailing on with attempts to trade for wing man Josh Smith.
For a Rockets franchise that has not sipped from a champion’s cup in nearly two decades and has won just a single playoff series since 1997, it is heady stuff, like pulling a vintage Rolls-Royce out of a ditch.
Howard becomes the latest in a line of elite big men to play for the Rockets, the linear descendant of Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming. It was, in part, the urging of Olajuwon that nudged Howard toward his decision. But more than anything it was the maneuvering of the roster and the salary cap by Morey that convinced Howard that this was the place that he could establish himself as not only a highly-paid All-Star, but a true winner.
Howard forced his way out of Orlando because he didn’t believe Magic management was committed to doing all that it took after he led the team to The Finals in 2009. He turned his back on the Lakers after one miserable, tumultuous, underachieving season, probably because of the age of his key teammates — Kobe Bryant (34), Steve Nash (39), Pau Gasol (32) and Metta World Peace (33). He couldn’t risk what the Warriors would have to give up in a trade to get him and going home to play in Atlanta was never a real option.
What Morey has done — and is still working to supplement — is to put Howard back in the middle of a young roster where he can be the sun in the center of the solar system, yet feed off the 23-year-old Harden, who positively erupted as an elite level scorer last season.
This is a Rockets team that won 45 games last season by playing a pedal-to-the-medal offensive style and will continue to try to score in transition. But Howard gives them an interior force at both ends of the court and they will shift toward those strengths.
There is already talk of Howard resuming his offseason workout regimen with the Hall of Famer Olajuwon, the Houston icon and deliverer of the only two championships in franchise history. But the truth is that Howard’s game and his style and his physical skills are nothing akin to Hakeem the Dream’s. The key partner — and possibly one difference-maker in the decision — is coach Kevin McHale, a Hall of Fame member himself, who is generally regarded as one of the best big men in the history of the game and possessed unparalleled footwork in the low post.
Now, of course, the burden is clearly and squarely on the back of Howard to produce. If he thought the pressure of playing in the Hollywood spotlight of the Lakers was great, now he must live up to his four-year, $88-million price tag. He said he would choose the team that gave him his best chance to win championships and now that bill comes due with interest. See: LeBron James, summer of 2010.
It was all of these ingredients that Morey mixed into a stew that he was willing to let simmer for as long as it would take to get a plate this full. Constantly swapping draft picks and contracts and assets for six years, he went all in with a hand that for the longest time it seemed only he believed in.
After two years of a soap opera/clown show that traveled from coast to coast, Howard should be hungry as well as driven.
As recently as a year ago, Howard sent word out that he was not the least bit interested in helping the Rockets rebuild from the ground up. But that never even made Morey stop for a second to blink, and it was before the GM pulled a rabbit and Harden out of his hat four days prior to the season opener last October. Even when Howard went to L.A. and was presumed to have found his place among the pantheon of Lakers center, Morey pushed on. Now he has turned the equivalent of a pocketful of beans — Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb — into Howard and Harden, two members of the 2013 Western Conference All-Star team. It could turn out to be the greatest tandem trade of all time. Thank you, Sam Presti.
This is a once-proud franchise that had fallen into disrepair and disrespect following the retirement of Olajuwon, the dark ages of the Steve Francis Era, the crumbling of Yao’s feet and ankles and the wilting of Tracy McGrady’s spine. They had already changed coaches three times in 10 years. It was on that treadmill of mediocrity that one guy chased his plan, his hope, his goal.
Daryl Morey finally landed his (D)wight whale and now the real fun begins.