The fates of James Harden and Daryl Morey will forever be inextricably linked in the annals of NBA history. Both Morey and Harden were relatively unknown quantities when the former took a big swing by bringing the latter to Houston. Harden was a Sixth Man of the Year winner and could rack up points, but no one was sure what his game would look like when separated from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Before the trade, Morey was most known for giving Jeremy Lin a big deal after Linsanity and successfully turning around Kyle Lowry's career after bringing him into the fold in 2009.
Eight years after the fact, Morey is generally viewed as one of the league's best front-office employees and his decision to send Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and three draft picks to Oklahoma City for Harden will go down as one of the biggest coups in NBA trade history. Harden has cemented himself as one of the best pure scorers of this generation. Yet Houston has no NBA Finals appearances to show for it, much less any rings. For one reason or another, the Rockets have never been able to get over that final hump with Harden as their main man.
Morey believes himself to be responsible for that. In an appearance on Anthony Pomplian's Pomp Podcast, Morey said he feels like he's let Harden down over the years because of his inability to surround the superstar with the "right players" to win a title.
This is good leadership from Morey, and it wasn't like he was going to lay the blame at the feet of Harden or any of his running mates over the years, but I disagree. To me, Morey is the personification of the idea that general managers can do everything right when it comes to roster management, but at the end of the day, it's up to the players to execute.
Morey bought relatively low on Dwight Howard after his lone disastrous year as a Los Angeles Laker, and his first season in Houston was his last All-Star selection after he averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds per game. In Howard's second season, Houston got all the way to the Western Conference Finals before running into the Warriors en route to the first championship of their dynastic run. Howard and Harden then suffered some interpersonal issues that resulted in a first-round exit in the final year of their partnership, and Howard ended up in Atlanta. It is part of the GM's job to make sure the players mesh off the court as well as on it, but for two years, things worked out pretty well.
In 2016-17, Houston reloaded with a decent set of role players around Harden and fully leaned into iso-ball with Harden as the fulcrum of the offense. They lost in the semi-finals that season and Harden looked clearly burned out. Morey correctly recognized that in the landscape of today's NBA, you need at least two star-level players to win a championship. So he brought in Chris Paul and assembled the best Rockets roster to date in 2017-18. Then Paul hurt his hamstring with Houston up 3-2 against the Warriors with a trip to the Finals on the line, and the Rockets missed 27 straight three-pointers in Game 7, a mathematical impossibility that probably physically pained the analytics-inclined Morey.
The Rockets didn't have the money to keep that 2018 team fully intact and rolled into the next season with a lesser version of it, flaming out in the second round. Morey saw that the Paul/Harden partnership was over and acquired Russell Westbrook, an experiment that had its ups and downs in Year 1 before Houston really got on a roll prior to the season getting postponed.
The point of all that is Morey has regularly put a championship-level roster around Harden, but factors a general manager can't entirely control meant it didn't work out. It didn't help matters that Houston's best seasons came at the same time as the rise of arguably the most dominant dynasty of the century. Morey is saying the right things, but for the very little it's worth, this blogger doesn't think he has a lot to feel bad about.