It's not quite accurate to say that Daryl Morey has discovered NBA Moneyball down in Houston.
Chemistry, not any kind of numbers or spectrum of talent, is the hard currency of a team's nucleus; As front offices shuffle players and assign priorities, the best of them are mindful of this most precious of resources. Loading up on players, no matter how stat-friendly, is less important than preserving what chemistry a team's managed to cultivate. Imagine a land where fancy carts are all a man dreams of. As a GM, the goal is to not upset the apple cart while at the same time looking to add new racing stripes and keep from being overcharged on apple cart rent.
Morey's not really a revolutionary; like Sam Presti and (more or less) Kevin Pritchard, he's just a general manager who also happens to not be a fool. But Morey's also displayed an uncommon, and imaginative, ability to put together units that gel on the cheap, with some unlikely key players. In political terms, he's believe in the little guy finding fame in the scrap heap. Coming into this season, Trevor Ariza appeared to be his master stroke.
Morey is something altogether more radical, just not in the way we think. He has an eye for preserving chemistry that prides itself on avoiding the obvious, in some ways the starkest realization yet of this new model of thinking. Rather than suggest Moneyball's interchangeable sets of stats, Morey's philosophy leads to teams even more singular, and perhaps more fragile, than young, rational teams driven by superstars. For all his statistician's chops, Morey has remade the Rockets into a team that makes basketball sense despite itself, largely by recognizing the need to milk whatever works-no matter how odd it might seem.
There's a scrap-heap quality to it all, and Morey curates, tinkering insofar as allows for the blob to grow. There is no blob in OKC.
All of which brings us to the strange, tortured case of Trevor Ariza. Ariza had long been a fan favorite, albeit one who received limited minutes, in his youthful stops in New York and Orlando. He rose up above the gilded muddle that was the Lakers 2009 championship, distinguishing himself through the space food version of meat-and-potatoes basketball: Length that allowed him to make plays and hassle defenders; a strong, if deliberate, three-pointer from the same spot every time; the occasional drive to the hole or kinetic finish to remind us he was movin' on up.
His free agency negotiations this summer were a mess of hurt feelings and ulterior motives, with the upshot being that the Rockets swapper Ron Artest for Ariza, who was seen variously as a star on the rise and a guy who found his niche at just the right time.
In Houston, with Tracy McGrady off in the woods trying to walk, Ariza assumed the mantle of go-to guy. That meant firing threes at will, and not just from that one spot; revealing plainly to the world the limits of his ball-handling; and making us realize the difference between a slasher and a guy who creates his own shot. Red94 has compiled a handy series of graphs displaying just how ineffective, inefficient, whatever you want, Ariza's been this year.
But what's most disturbing is that Ariza was signed looking like the ideal Morey player and somehow ended up a broke man's McGrady. Gone was the functionality and sense of restraint; in the small pond, he suddenly became the star. His "I shall continue to fire" mentality, coupled with an abandonment of the very game that made him seem like a natural fit for the Rockets, hasn't just lead to disappointment.
We're now viewing him not as a joyous enigma, a bad-ass Shane Battier or James Posey sans venom. Ariza has gone from looking like the epitomal Rockets player to the kind of unfurled, witless entity that threatens the team's balance. By contrast, even Artest was a sliver of cooperation.
It's not just demoralizing to see Ariza promoted, unjustifiably so, to top dawg status. The Rockets shouldn't want or allow it, as Aaron Brooks is the only one who needs to make a point of manufacturing solo buckets, and that's within the flow of things. And it also reflects poorly on Ariza. He's fallen into this role through a combination of circumstance, morphology, institutional memory best characterized as trauma, some weird supernatural horror movie vibe that comes from him wearing #1 and sharing T-Mac's build, and a perception that coming in as a touted free agent -- even one barely paid -- gives you some kind of fiat.
This quote from The Houston Chronicle sounds, for me, like a man drunk on power without realizing he's changed flights:
Trevor Ariza won't be deterred - not by ghastly statistics nor the objections of Rockets fans.What made Ariza so appealing was that he seemed like a player who wouldn't fall for that, or at least one smart enough to, as they say, pick his spots. He was the glamor guy remade for Morey's laboratory. Instead, Daryl Morey has a most un-Morey-ish situation on his hands. That aside from the fact that Ariza comes so cheap. Then again, that only makes the irony more arch, like finding out Peanuts is really all about the rise of Fascist Italy and there's nothing you can do about it.
Sure, he's only making 37.8 percent of all of his attempts and just 30 percent of his threes, and his average has dwindled to 15.5 points. It doesn't matter, the first-year Rocket forward said.
"I'm going to shoot it," Ariza said. "If it's not there, I'm going to try to do something else. But if I get left open, I'm going to shoot it - definitely."