The Houston Rockets are in the midst of a transformative offseason, with both head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey stepping down in recent weeks. Rafael Stone is stepping in as the new GM, but they’ve yet to find a replacement coach, and there have been trade rumors that suggest more changes might be in store.
While we wait to see what’s next in Houston, it’s a good time to take a look back and reflect on what happened in the fascinating Morey era. Any time there’s big changes like this around a team, stories always come out about what was going on behind the scenes. In the latest Lowe Post podcast with ESPN’s Zach Lowe, we have a perfect example.
Fellow ESPN writer Tim MacMahon was on as a guest, and gave some insight into one of the biggest decisions Morey made as GM, and perhaps the one that ultimately sealed his fate — yes, he stepped down voluntarily, but the writing was on the wall for the future of this team as a contender. Per MacMahon, the trade that sent Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Russell Westbrook was orchestrated by Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and James Harden.
While that was widely assumed, and everyone knew of the dysfunctional relationship between Harden and Paul, MacMahon gave some additional insight into the motivation that’s pretty notable. Apparently, Fertitta believed Paul had the “worst contract” he’d ever seen.
The full monologue from MacMahon:
That trade was made because Tilman Fertitta wanted it made — he thought Chris Paul’s contract was the worst that he’d ever seen in business or sports — and because James Harden wanted it made. James Harden, obviously there was a personality clash, this stuff has all been well documented and well reported. I still believe, and I wrote this last summer before things went down. I still believe that if necessary they could have managed that situation; I know a lot of people throughout the organization believe that.
But once Westbrook became available, they saw an opportunity that Fertitta and Harden wanted to pounce on, and they pounced on that. Daryl Morey was the biggest Chris Paul backer in the organization. Nobody — Daryl or anybody else — has ever told me that he made that trade with objections, that he made that trade despite not fully believing in it. But I just can’t help but think that it was a deal where basically, his two bosses — Fertitta and Harden — said ‘hey, we want this deal made, get it done.’ And he did what he had to do to get it done.
Paul is in the middle of a massive four-year, $160 million deal that is generally regarded as one of the worst deals in the league at the moment. Despite the fact that the veteran point guard is still playing at an All-Star level, and was fantastic running the show for the Thunder last season, it’s an enormous amount of money to pay a 35-year old point guard, and few teams want to be stuck holding the bill on the last few years of the contract.
To say it’s the “worst contract” he’d ever seen in business or sports, however, is a bit of a bizarre claim. For one, Paul is still operating at a high level and remains one of the best point guards in the league. The problem with his deal for most teams is that they would have trouble putting together a trade for him because of how much room he’d take up on their cap sheet, and don’t want to take the risk of him getting hurt after doing so, rather than a situation where he’s getting paid and not producing.
Besides, there are currently worse deals in the NBA right now — see Wall, John — and Fertitta isn’t exactly the best business mind of all time. So perhaps it’s not all that surprising that this move hasn’t worked out so well for the Rockets so far. In addition, this is a worrying sign for the franchise moving forward. Once your owner starts mandating moves for business reasons rather than basketball ones, it’s hard to turn things around.