Milwaukee Bucks: The Houston Rockets are teaching a master class in building around a star

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 18: (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 18: (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

The Milwaukee Bucks need a vision, and Daryl Morey’s is a perfect example to follow based on what the Houston Rockets have done recently.

The Milwaukee Bucks have reached step one in their ultimate goal of winning a championship: they have a star player. Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the NBA’s best, and he’s just 22 years old to boot.

That’s great of course, but it’s just step one. These days, one star without much help isn’t getting you far in the NBA–just look at the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls, who had Paul George and Jimmy Butler, respectively. The operative word there is “had”, as neither team could surround their stars with enough talent to win much of anything last season, and subsequently traded away their stars.

Bucks fans should be worried about how things went for both Indiana and Chicago. They paint a worst-case scenario picture for Milwaukee: no matter how much Giannis insists he’s staying, a few seasons of losing basketball could sour the franchise and the star on each other. It’s happened before, and recently.

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The best-case scenario for a team with a star resides over in Houston. The Rockets got themselves their star in the James Harden trade a few years ago, but they didn’t have a ton around Harden back then. The core around Harden in his first Houston season consisted of Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, and Patrick Patterson, among other role players.

Those Rockets were pretty good–they won 45 games–but Rockets GM Daryl Morey knows enough to realize pretty good isn’t good enough when it comes to star players. Nobody wants to be tied down to a mid-40s win team forever, especially not a guy with the talent that Harden has.

That very next summer, Morey went out and got Dwight Howard. People love hating on Dwight, but in 2013 he was still a star in his own right, and a huge get for the Rockets. Houston won 54 games that season, a significant improvement from the fun young team they had the season before.

2014-15 saw Morey adding more role players like Jason Terry and Corey Brewer around Harden and Howard, and the Rockets got even better, winning 56 games and making it to the Western Conference Finals.

The next season, something just didn’t click. Howard and Harden stopped getting along and the team stopped playing well, winning just 41 games. Something had to change. Morey made sure several somethings did.

He let Howard walk, realizing that era of the Rockets had run its course, and instead paid for some of the better free agents on the market: Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. That duo’s ability to shoot, paired with Harden’s new role as a point guard thanks to new Rockets offensive guru/head coach, Mike D’Antoni, led to 55 wins and set up this past summer perfectly for Morey.

He managed to add Chris Paul in a sign-and-trade, and is earnestly working to add Carmelo Anthony as well, although the New York Knicks might end up bungling that deal. Still, the point remains that even though the Rockets have been very good, Morey has been determined to make them better whenever it’s possible to do so, and he hasn’t yet left himself unable to make necessary changes.

That determination has paid off, both in wins and in other ways. In an offseason that’s seen John Wall and Russell Westbrook balk at signing big extensions to stay with their current teams, James Harden eagerly accepted an extension with the Rockets.

According to Sports Illustrated, Harden said the following about staying in Houston for the next six seasons:

"“Houston is home for me,” Harden said in a prepared statement. “[Owner Leslie] Alexander has shown he is fully committed to winning and my teammates and I are going to keep putting in the work to get better and compete for the title.”"

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Trying to win and get better means a ton to players, which sounds obvious but might not be recognized enough. There was tons of talk about how this summer showed how much of a disadvantage small market teams are at, but it’s no coincidence that teams lost their stars to better basketball destinations.

The very best teams in the Association right now are so good because they strive for better, constantly. The Golden State Warriors adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team are the best example of that, but the Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder both added stars to playoff teams this summer in the latest update to the NBA arms race.

Smart teams are the ones with the biggest advantages, not big markets. By making moves that made the Rockets better without giving up long-term flexibility to adjust if things didn’t go well, Daryl Morey has created a culture that made staying in Houston a no-brainer for James Harden.

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Jon Horst and the Milwaukee Bucks should take note. The clock is always ticking in the NBA, and locking into a 40-something win team for the next half-decade doesn’t seem like a way to get into the upper echelon of the NBA.