The Houston Rockets are stuck in limbo.
Daryl Morey was brought in to fix the supporting cast around Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, and he did his job. Morey brought in players like Luis Scola, Ron Artest, and Kyle Lowry on the cheap to create a terrific supporting cast for his stars. But the stars couldn't hold up their part of the bargain. In a league where players are increasingly trending towards lasting longer and missing fewer games, Yao and McGrady both dealt with long-term injury problems that kept them from contributing to the team as much as other stars have.
Two years after an impressive playoff appearance where the undermanned Rockets took the soon-to-be champion Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference Semifinals, despite Yao going down in the middle of the series, the Rockets and Morey are faced with a new dilemma: finding a star in a league where the stars control where they go. Morey has chased Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Amare Stoudemire in the last year and came up empty. Bosh hooked his wagon onto LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Stoudemire took the Knicks money, and while Anthony isn't completely gone yet, all signs are pointing towards him joining up with Stoudemire at this point. Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, and Deron Williams have all had leaks come out regarding their upcoming free agencies recently. The Rockets weren't mentioned prominently in any of them. The Decision changed the game: the stars of the league want to play with each other rather than spread the wealth around the league. That means it's more likely we'll deal with another Miami Heat scenario, and every team that has a star to begin with is a bigger threat to acquire another major star later.
Could things change? Possibly. An impending lockout means that a lot of the NBA's structure is up in the air. But as of right now, the Rockets are on the outside of the power structure in the league, trying to find their way back in. Houston can offer a lot to a potential free agent: no state income tax, a gorgeous city that's warm nearly year-round, a new arena, an owner willing to spend when it matters, and a GM who has proven that he knows how to find the right little pieces to optimize his team. But without the first star in place, it's all for naught. Yao could have been that star had he stayed healthy, but it's now obvious to any unbiased observer that the next star the Rockets acquire will be their first.
So what does Morey have to do? While it would be foolish for him to give up on his pursuit of the established stars in the game, most of the best rebuilding projects in the NBA have started with great scouting and high draft picks. Oklahoma City, Orlando, Cleveland up until this year: the best way to rebuild in the NBA is to find a star through the draft and surround him with supporting talent. As scouting gets more and more advanced, stars just aren't slipping to the teens as often as they used to. Patrick Patterson might wind up being a perfectly solid power forward, or he might even be as good as Danny Granger, but it's unlikely he'll ever be the kind of star that makes Chris Paul want to play for the Rockets.
Morey recently defended the Rockets' approach in a recent interview on 1560 The Game, stating that he thought it was better for a team to win games than it was for them to intentionally rebuild by putting a weak product on the floor to attempt to get a better draft pick. He also thinks that while it's better to have a team that knows it's roles, having as much talent and assets as possible is a good approach when the team is still trying to find the star players it needs to slot into the alpha dog roles on the team.
To Morey's credit, he did try to do what he could to ensure he could get a higher draft pick in the future in his recent trade with the Knicks, picking up a potential swap of picks in this year's draft and the Knicks first rounder in the 2012 draft. Unfortunately, with Stoudemire picking the Knicks and Anthony supposedly joining them soon as well, this looks like a gamble that Morey lost.
The Rockets continue to wait for their star. The role players who are overqualified for their purpose on the team continue to wait for their chance, losing trade value all the while. While it's not Morey's fault that Yao and McGrady couldn't stay healthy, we're now in Season 2 of the post-Yao era and the Rockets still haven't been able to find the player they need to get them back into the playoffs. Will the trade deadline yield the climactic move that pulls the Rockets back into the thick of it, or will they continue to stick in limbo as Morey waits out the market?