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Treating players as commodities, the lessons of superstar GMs

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Houston Rockets General Manager Darryl Morey took a couple giant swings at free agency, gambled on a contract, and ended up with Trevor Ariza. While it's easy to pile on, maybe the lesson for Morey is to remember that humanity is just as important as the numbers.

Daryl Morey ... superstar
Daryl Morey ... superstar
Bob Levey


Darryl Morey is the nerd to which all other nerds aspire to be, I mean this as the ultimate compliment. He is analytics based, aggressive and has a savvy with Twitter and other social media that puts almost every user to shame. Charm ... he has it in spades. Up until this offseason he has been quite successful at dramatically upgrading his roster in pursuit of a championship team, it's undeniable. His multiple appearances at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conferences over recent years has made him a superstar among numbers people. How can anyone be critical of that?

Well, they can't ... really. There's an irritating "cult of personality" thing associated with Morey, but you only see it if you are on Twitter all the time like I am (that goes for Morey and all the other superstar GMs). I can't sit here and say that I would absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, change anything that Morey has done. There's been a ruthless efficacy about what Morey has been doing ... accumulating "assets"  in the pursuit of upgrading his roster. The turnover in three years has been massive, and has so far resulted in a trade for James Harden and the free agent acquisition (in 2013) of Dwight Howard. I'm sure that everyone who reads Denver Stiffs would absolutely love that sort of thing to happen here with the Nuggets. So Morey deserves absolute kudos for getting the Rockets from there to here in such a short time span without tanking.

Who can nitpick that? I mean only a moron woul- ... well ... There is a quibble I have. A complaint if you will, regarding Morey's personal approach to his players.

I don't know if it's a result of the analytics movement in the NBA, or if it's something that is more indicative of Morey himself, but the use of the word "assets" seems to be a recent thing. You know, going out of your way to refer to a player not as a human being ... but as a commodity you trade on the stock market. A sheet of paper littered on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, trading up for something better.

I'll use a phrase that's been used in reference to me before ... ahem ... not that there's anything wrong with that.

There's always been a struggle in the "it's just a business" aspect of sports. In the NFL, players and contracts are generally treated like used toilet paper. It's (almost) acceptable because roster sizes/specialization combined with non-guaranteed contracts. In other sports you have to be more balanced. While there are those who decry the spectacle that is NBA free agency, in essence it is what it is. Half of free agency is feeling "wanted". A very basic, human need for validation.

Morey made two mistakes this offseason that, while minor in the grand scheme of things, may hurt him in the long run. The first was, while displaying how much the Rockets may love having Carmelo Anthony in Houston ... they managed to show just how much they don't care for Jeremy Lin by displaying an image of Melo in Lin's jersey number (7) on a banner outside Toyota Center in Houston. So, you know, another gut punch to Lin who had his issues with Melo prior to leaving the Knicks.

Melo is better than Lin and it would undoubtedly be an upgrade. Yet, in the rush to "improve" the roster the Rockets managed to flip the bird to Lin and say to him not only are we gonna ship you out, but we are also going to kick you in the balls with a stiletto pump before we trade you. All in pursuit of getting better. In the cold light of day it looks worse than it should have. The interesting thing is, I'm not convinced it was intentional or done with malice. In fact, I think it didn't cross their minds that it was wrong, because in the pursuit of high value free agents it's just business right? Yet if the Rockets saw Lin as an actual human and not a number, would this have happened at all? Would it have been handled better?

Fast forward a couple weeks. Jeremy Lin was discarded to the Lakers and Lebron James goes to the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Rockets, having been out of the running for Melo by that point, saw an opportunity to court Chris Bosh away from the Miami Heat. What unfolded was something akin to the middle section of the song Siberian Khatru, as in short order Bosh went from imminently going to the Rockets to ... back to the Heat on a max deal.

Restricted free agent Chandler Parsons, the Rockets erstwhile small forward and pretty boy, decided to sign a rather large offer sheet from the Dallas Mavericks (three years, $46 million) after the Rockets let him go into Restricted Free Agency a year early, before the madness of the coming deals. After the Bosh fiasco it was up to the Rockets to decide to match or not ... and they declined. Prudent decision that can be defended on the basis of keeping "flexibility". Once again, you can look at this move and think that the logic is sound. However, they ended up signing Trevor Ariza ... after a contract year which, well, there's a reason he's "called contract year Ariza". The Rockets, of all teams, should have known that, as they handed him the contracted that just expired (and traded back in 2010).

No real criticism from me on the moves (although I hesitate to sign Ariza after a contract year, the contract itself wasn't bad at all), but I'm left with a quote from Parsons about how he felt he was treated by the Rockets after the dust settled:

"Honestly, I was offended by the whole process," Parsons told Yahoo Sports on Monday in a phone interview. "They publicly said that they were going out looking for a third star when I thought they had one right in front of them. I guess that's just how they viewed me as a player. I don't think I've scratched the surface of where I can be as a player and I think I'm ready for that role.

"You can't knock them for always trying to get better. [Houston general manager] Daryl Morey is very aggressive, is a genius, a great GM and I have nothing but respect for those guys. And they are looking to make their team better. That's what they were doing. I just thought I could be that guy that could do that."

*Italic emphasis mine.

While Parsons sought to soften his remarks a day later, on the heels of the Rockets banner fiasco with Lin it pointed to something that could be a problem in the future. Treating players as if they aren't humans will catch up to you in the end. In a sport where one player matters, where you need to lure free agents to your city, where you need to have a deft touch at both player management and player movement, well ... Morey seems to have the movement down, but as far as player management...

Every athlete will tell you "it's a business". True enough it is, and loyalty goes as far as your trade value and next contract. In this new-era of the NBA, it seems as though the analytics movement is attempting to make superstar GMs rather than superstar coaches. The guy who gets the players gets the glory nowadays (i.e.: the often overwrought praise of Sam Presti) and veteran coaches are often minimized. That's just the way the league has gone. The consequences: If your GM has a reputation of caring only about player value as an "asset" rather than as a player ... you may be treated as an organization to avoid via free agency by said player(s).

How long before your reputation as that kind of organization, catches up to you? Can dehumanization lower your ceiling as a team?

It's the GMs who know how do play both ends of the numbers games that will come out ahead in this league. Needing superstars is not going to change, and not having a "chop and change" reputation will only help you, in the end. While front offices want upgrades, the process needs to be handled with both confidence and efficacy, but knowing full well that you are not trading pieces of paper that have no feelings.

The GMs who do both, and don't just see their players as a commodity to trade on the stock market, will be the ones who lead their teams to the promised land. Maybe the key lies beyond the numbers?