GODDAMIT. BEEN SITTING ON THIS FOR A MONTH, AND NOW IT'S ALL BEEN BLOWN TO SHIT.
Maybe it stays the same since Morey was likely 'inspired' to step down so that Tilman could get the China money back and will continue assisting the new regime from the shadows, but as I have no clue at all what the future is going to bring and don't want to re-write this piece for the planned 'GM write-up' series that was supposed to be starting after the Finals, I'm just gonna drop it here and let anyone else who wants to take over do it.
FUCK TILMAN FERTITTA.
State of the team
After a disappointing bubble performance that did not end in a Championship, many people are questioning if the Rockets window has officially closed. In all likelihood, it has; but it is not yet locked, so with the right moves it can be opened enough to squeeze out another deep run or two that can finally break through if the team finds a brick of luck for once.
What those right moves are and how to accomplish them are the challenge posed to Daryl Morey and his crew. There are a number of constraints that will make this difficult, including a lack of draft assets and moveable contracts that are not integral to the team's success, but the most challenging proposition will again be owner Tilman Fertitta's finances.
While some critics may believe that the Rockets small ball experiment was a failure, management will likely point to the fact that 'defense' was not nearly as much of a problem in the playoffs as 'offense' and that Russell Westbrook's obvious impairment from a quad injury was the primary factor in underachieving desired expectations. The general belief in the front office is that the formula is not broken so much as unlucky. Another couple of chances will hopefully bring the health necessary for a breakthrough.
Daryl Morey's top-stated priority entering the off-season was re-signing coach Mike D'Antoni. Well, D'Antoni ended any talk of that by opting to take his services elsewhere before the team plane had even departed Orlando. This leaves the team in search of a new head coach before any other moves can really be considered, since whoever gets the position will likely hope to have a bit of say in any of the roster decisions that need to be made.
The team is casting a wide net in their search having interviewed candidates like frontrunners Tyronn Lue and Jeff Van Gundy, as well as Kenny Atkinson, Wes Unseld Jr., and Stephen Silas. The new coach will need to garner the instant respect of a veteran-laden team (possibly possessing enough cachet to actually inspire a different style of play?), and may need to fulfill Fertitta's desire to make headlines, favoring a big-name hire. It must be included that there is even a slim chance that D'Antoni returns to the role now that Doc Rivers has swooped his pre-supposed landing spot in Philly, but I expect the final candidates may come from the following list of assistant coaches and thus (completely coincidentally)
cheaper names in case a need arises to go in another direction: Sam Cassell
- The former Rockets legend is currently serving as an assistant coach for Doc Rivers. Frequently cited as one of the top assistants ready to take the next step. As a former All-Star point guard, he may be able to command the respect of Westbrook and Harden enough to offset his lack of head coaching experience. His big balls could "Make Houston Clutch Again". John Lucas
- The Rockets Assistant Coach is very familiar with the system and the current players. He provides continuity and a cheap, short-term contract that would allow for an easy 'out' if things do not work in the next year or two (which is the optimistic extent of the title hopes for this current iteration of the Rockets) Chris Finch
- An ex-RGV Vipers Head Coach now working as an assistant in New Orleans. He is a savant on offense, on very good terms with Morey and his philosophy, and due for his 'chance' in the bigs. Given the success of Nick Nurse, another coach who won a G-League Championship for the RGV Vipers, I feel as if Chris Finch should end up getting the call (although he appears to have dropped off the radar).
The new head coach will have a challenging job of needing to instantly compete with a roster of vets who are notorious for not being as flexible in their approach to the game as might be desired. This team is not only 'set' in its ways mentally to the point where an attempt to change the team philosophy could easily backfire and result in another lost season, it is also relatively 'set' in its ability to make personnel changes. So expect the new coach to provide more of an 'extension' of the current Moreyball philosophy than a completely different style.
2021 Houston Rockets Roster and Salary
|PLAYER NAME ||SALARY CAP HIT ||DETAILS (contract values rise) |
|Russell Westbrook ||41,358,814 ||2 more yrs + player option |
|James Harden ||41,254,920 ||2 more years + player option |
|Eric Gordon ||16,869,276 ||4 more years |
|Robert Covington ||12,138,345 ||2 more years |
|PJ Tucker ||7,969,537 ||expiring |
|Danuel House ||3,717,000 ||2 more years |
|Ben McLemore ||2,283,034 ||expiring |
|Chris Clemons ||1,517,981 ||2 more years of team options |
|David Nwaba ||1,862,250 ||team option |
|TOTAL ||128,971,157 || |
Things look relatively straight-forward for the Rockets. All of their main rotation guys are already signed and set to return with the exception of Jeff Green and Austin Rivers. The Rockets are prime candidates to start the season off by basically "running it back".
Considering Green has enjoyed great success in Houston's system and seems to have established good chemistry within his role in the system, he will absolutely be considered an important piece to re-sign. He has played on minimum-level contracts for the past few years, so unless another contender surprisingly decides to use part of their MLE on him, he should be able to return on a 1+1 veteran minimum contract.
Austin Rivers has a player option for $2,369,663. It is considered highly unlikely that he will opt-in to this (although he will be welcomed back with open arms if he does). If he leaves, the team will likely look to find a replacement ball-handleperimeter defender.
The hopeful addition of Jeff Green to the list of signed players takes the team to a total of 10 contracts, meaning Morey will look to add 5 more players into the fold. Positional needs:
The Rockets took one big step closer to the idea of 'position-less' basketball by banishing their traditional centers last season. The big question is, will they continue this philosophy into 2021?
The answer to this may partially depend upon who the next coach is. As previously stated, the advanced age of this particular roster resulting in an extremely small window for success, combined with the players' familiarity with the current roles and system and the reduced off-season leads me to believe that the small ball experiment will continue into the 2021 season. Not only was it proven effective offensively at unlocking the best version of Russell Westbrook since his 2017 MVP campaign, the hybrid switching system the team utilized in the first half of the season to account for Clint Capela's reduced ability to guard perimeter players was not as successful as the switch-everything system the team implemented in the playoffs; so unless the team can get a larger center who can effectively switch 1-5, it is unlikely that 'Center' is going to be seen as a top priority.
Look for the team to try to focus their search on finding long, stretchy, big forwards, as they did with the late-season signings of Jeff Green, DeMarre Carroll, and David Nwaba. They will also try to fill the position of 'tertiary ball handler' should Rivers choose to go elsewhere.
Although Austin may sign another 1+1 minimum deal with the team, it is more likely that he will look for a bigger role (and payday) on another team. There is a small chance he could be used in a sign and trade (Houston has his Early Bird Rights allowing him to sign a contract up to around $8M), so he may serve as salary filler in building a larger sign & trade, but note that such a move will surely push Houston well into the luxury tax, bringing us to... Luxury Tax Issues:
The expected threshold will probably fall around $132-133M. Houston is brushing up against that with only 9 players under contract currently.
Bear in mind that ownership has suffered catastrophic economic distress this year due to Fertitta's business interests in casinos and restaurants (not to mention that he was never interested in paying tax even in better times with a stronger team). Unlike this season, next year should see a large cash pay-out to non-tax teams as many contenders who were below the tax last year due to their participation in Free Agency will be utilizing exceptions that push them into the luxury tax (Golden State in particular has been making overtures at filling its TPE, which would result in one of the largest tax bills on record). Despite his questionable claims that he is financially solvent and ready to pay tax to field a contender, Tilman Fertitta will be happy to be an owner that avoids paying tax again and instead receives a check from the league. Daryl Morey will have his work cut out for him to achieve that, but after accomplishing it in 2019 and 2020 with masterful tax-reducing moves at the trade deadline, there is little doubt he can (and likely will) do it again in 2021. 2 years ago, he reduced Ryan Anderson's $20M contract through a series of moves to Iman Shumpert's $12M and last year he reduced Capela's $17M hit to Covington's $11M bill. Eric Gordon's $17M is the obvious candidate for reduction this year, and there are a variety of ways in which it could be done.
Potential roster moves Draft
Per usual, Houston does not have any draft picks. They do have almost $5M in cash remaining with which they could purchase a draft pick (potentially even 2 late ones); but most likely Morey will work the pool of undrafted talent to try to find a couple new 2-way contract candidates. Free Agency:
There are unlikely to be any major moves in the off-season aside from signing 6 players to veteran minimum contracts. Jeff Green and Gerald Green are likely signings. Michael Frazier may have earned a promotion to the main squad, but will more likely continue to stay in the G-League on a 2-way contract. Tyson Chandler and Austin Rivers are candidates who are less likely to be re-signed, but may end up filling the same roles they did this year. Otherwise, expect Morey to take fliers on guys who have high upside in the system that are cut by other teams or don't get the larger contracts they are hoping to find and willing to take short term deals in Houston in an effort to rebuild their value.
Although technically below the tax, using the Full MLE would hard-cap the Rockets at a level providing almost no flexibility for in-season maneuvers, something Morey despises, so the taxpayer mini-MLE is the only practical option available this off-season. However, if avoiding the luxury tax is a priority (Narrator: "It is."
), then using the MLE at all is not going to be feasible. Houston has avoided using the MLE for the past 2 seasons (with the exception of utilizing small portions of it to lock up undrafted players on cheap 3-year deals), and is likely to follow in that path this year.
Morey traditionally does his best work at the trade deadline, and will likely look to that time frame again in the 2021 season.
There is one (unlikely) way that the Rockets could utilize their full MLE - by sending a current player to another team for less salary in return, leading us to... Trades:
The Rockets do not have a lot of positive-value contracts they can part with that are not a critical part of their core.
Danuel House is on a good contract, and the team may be looking to move him if they believe his bubble antics were problematic for future chemistry. He could likely be moved with no problem. This would also be an easy way to cut a couple million dollars in salary, if necessary.
PJ Tucker and Robert Covington are also on good deals, but are crucial to the Rockets scheme. It is extremely unlikely they will be dealt. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are also unlikely to go anywhere in the off-season. If disaster strikes or a deal that can't be refused arises, then there is a small chance one or more of these 4 could be moved at the deadline.
As stated before, Eric Gordon is the most likely candidate to be traded. While his improved bubble play may have gotten his contract closer to 'neutral' value, it is likely that a pick would need to be attached to it in order to bring back a player of value, particularly from a rebuilding team, which is also the traditional place where he could be sent into cap space to avoid bringing back 80% in matching salary. However due to his age and injury history, he is probably only of interest to a team that fancies itself as 'contending' for something. There is a small chance that he could be sent to Golden State, as his contract fits within their Traded Player Exception and he fills a position of need, but it is unlikely that Houston is anxious to improve a conference rival (however, the idea that he could possibly bring back draft capital and increase the size of the league's payout check to non-taxpaying teams make this a scenario that can not be discarded outright).
Sending Gordon into space is the best way for Houston to access its full MLE (as well as creating a hefty TPE of their own). However, it would likely have to happen in the window after the draft and before free agency shakes out in order to be an option. And it would likely entail losing Houston's only first round pick that is available for trade, making later moves more difficult (so I don't expect this to happen). Available Picks that can be traded:
|YEAR ||ROUND ||DETAILS/NOTES |
|2021 ||1 ||worst of HOU, OKC, MIA |
|2022 ||1 ||cannot be used this year in conjunction with the 2021 pick |
|2021 ||2 ||swap rights with Philadelphia |
|2024 ||2 ||from GS |
*All of the team's own second round picks from 2024 and beyond
Houston does not have a lot of draft capital. Morey will surely look to use the 2021 first at the trade deadline to move a contract, allowing him to keep the 2022 first (Houston's last tradeable first round pick thanks to the Stepien Rule) for use next year if necessary. Possible scenarios:
Which contract(s) and for what type of deal are the only questions, and only time will tell what those needs are (best player available/positional need/salary cap savings) and how to best fulfill them. There are a ton of options and no one can tell what sort of needs or opportunities will arise by mid-way through next season. But by waiting to strike until that point, Morey maximizes his potential to do the best thing for the team going forward, whether it is a small move for tax savings, a big splash for a disgruntled superstar, or even the beginning of a total rebuild.
Waiting until the deadline also gives guys like Gordon and Westbrook a chance to overcome the injuries that plagued them in 2020 and raise their trade value. Trading either one of these contracts for multiple smaller contracts (at 80% value) is the fastest and easiest way to get to within striking distance of avoiding the tax again this year, and allowing Morey to 3-peat in cap wizardry.
I suppose I'll predict that 1) Gordon and a pick will be headed someplace like Philadelphia, who could use his shooting (maybe for Josh Richardson and Zaire Smith?) or perhaps, 2) Morey will work with Monte McNair in Sacramento to do a deal for someone (maybe Nemanja Bjelica and Jabari Parker?), much like he did with his other recent protégé-turned-GM, Gersson Rosas, at the 2020 deadline.
Of course, there is always the chance that Fertitta will find some money in his couch cushions, or have a come-to-Jesus moment that inspires him to pay the tax, which would open up the possibility of trading for a player who makes equal or more money or potentially even using the MLE this year. In the extremely off-chance that that happens, a perfect candidate would be Myles Turner in Indiana, who would provide the stretch-big rim protector that would fit so well in Houston's system. Aaron Gordon would also fit really well into Houston's system as long as he can hit a corner 3. Doing either of these trades and avoiding the tax is within the realm of feasibility if another contract (e.g. House or Tucker's) is included with Gordon's.
And to wrap this up, a few potential FA targets to use the MLE (or a potential S&T) on if it somehow becomes possible: Serge Ibaka, Jerami Grant, Aaron Baynes, Davis Bertans, Bogdan Bogdanovich, a Morris twin, Danilo Gallinari, Anthony Davis.
Continuing. submitted by
After the third pony keg of beer was delivered, it was decided that the next few days would be spent in the conference room discussing what we thought was the best way forward.
We wanted dry-erase boards so we could start taking detailed notes, even though I was well ahead of the curve in that regard. We instead ended up with some mobile elementary-school blackboards and a pile of grainy, sooty chalk.
Leave it to Dr. Cliff to go into a discourse on the genesis of chalk and its economic importance.
Bloody carbonate geologists.
Bloody White Cliffs.
We geologists need to punctuate their conversations with pictures, so these would suffice quite well.
At 1700 hours, the official end to the workday was called; we’d meet here again tomorrow. I’m not certain by whom, but it was readily agreed upon. We were more or less on our own until 1000 the next day. I needed to spend some time in my room with my notes and update a number of dossiers, field notebooks, and other items I was using as a running chronicle.
Several folks decided to invade one of the hotel’s restaurants for dinner. Some wanted to head to the casino, a couple wanted to get a massage, and others wanted to do what tourists are normally wont to do on the second day of being a foreigner in a foreign land.
I declined invitations to dinner and other activities, as I had a long writing session in front of me. I wanted to get this all in its proper place while the memories and notes were still fresh.
30 minutes later, in my room after a 25-minute wait for the elevator; I’m updating dossiers, creating several new ones, and updating my field notebooks. Suddenly, after an hour’s work, I notice something is amiss.
“I don’t have a drink or a cigar,” I said to the four walls. “This. Will. Not. Do.”
I was used to Happy Hour in Russia. Happy hour is slightly different; there are no ice cubes or orange-peel twists in the vodka. Also, it lasts all day.
I remedy that situation by finding and clipping a nice, oily oscuro cigar and digging the bourbon out from under my boxer-briefs in my dresser drawer. I heft the bottle and feel that it’s significantly lighter than when I left it last night. I happen to look in the trash can and spy the wrapper for a box of my festively colored Sobranie cigarettes I obtained back in Dubai.
“Hmmm”, I think, “It would appear that we have some light-fingered Cho Louies or No Louises around here. I’d best guard my supplies a little more securely.”
I move all my smokeables into one of my now emptied aluminum travel cases. They lock with the stoutest of combinations and it will be readily apparent if anyone is fucking with them.
I move some of my best booze into the pretty much worthless in-room safe. With a deft application of duct tape, I seal the safe. It may not be the most secure spot on the planet, but if anyone tries anything troublesome, they’ll leave an immediately recognizable record of what they were up to. It’s just too obvious; they’d have to be crazy to go in after anything inside there.
My money, keys, and passports are in the safe deposit box down in the lobby that the hotel supplies for visiting dignitaries. Even so, they let me keep my shit in one of them anyway.
That handled, I spend another hour writing like a madman. I suddenly realize I’m tired of all this and need a diversion as well as some food and, of course, drink.
30 minutes later, I’m down in the byzantine basement tunnels of the hotel. It’s crowded with hordes of Chinse tourists, and the casino is ground zero for the incredibly loud chatter.
I look in on the bowling alleys all three of them, and they’re full. The massage parlor is hopping, although I leave my name and they promise they will call over the PA when a suitable masseuse is available. Evidently, I ‘intimidate’ some of the more demure ones.
I wander over to the bar, now there’s a surprise, and see it’s packed to the rafters as well. I decide to wait for a seat to open up on Mahogany Ridge when there’s some gargling over the PA and a pair of Chinese nationals leave the bar in great haste.
I grab one of the two newly open seats, much to the chagrin of a couple of Oriental Unidentifiables (OU) who had their eye on them as well.
“Sorry, mate”, I said, “First come, first served. It’s the capitalist way.”
One of the pair grabs a seat and the other just stands there, looking annoyed unspent bullets in my direction. Forget that I’ve literally twice their size and could be an aberration as an angry American. They just order a couple of drinks, and content themselves in giving me dirty looks and probably say nasty things in their own indecipherable language about my national origin and familial heritage.
As if I gave the tiniest of rodental shits.
I fire up a cigar, as literally everyone else in the joint was smoking something more or less tobacco. However, there was a definite barnyard aroma, a regular Dairy Air, in the room. I think some of what was being smoked there was more bovine or equine in origin than botanical in nature.
With numerous hilarious attempts at Korean, pointing at a garishly photographed drinks menu, I was finally served a cold draft house steam porter and 100 milliliters of probably ersatz ‘Russian’ vodka, vintage late last Thursday. This bartender that could at least form some of the phonemes found in American English. A few. A definite few.
Since it all cost the equivalent of US$0.50, I really didn’t care.
Apparently vodka helps flowers last longer when they're dying. But you can put vodka in anything and it'll make it better.
Being a trained observer, I rather enjoy just sitting in any old bar, smoking my cigar, drinking my Yorshch, and watching people. I try and not be intrusive and I never eavesdrop, but I like to try and think of what strange set of circumstances brought us all here together in this place at this time. It gives me writing ideas, some of which I jot down in a notebook I always carry. It also gives me a good shot of nostalgia when I look back at something I wrote some 40 or so years ago.
Yeah, old habits do die hard.
I take a drag off my cigar and set it in the ashtray in front of me on the bar as I go to correct another egregious misspelling in my notebook. I have to immediately proofread what I wrote, or I’d never recall later what the fuck I was trying to convey; especially if it’s in a noisy, smoky, or murky milieu.
Quicker than a bunny fucks, Unidentifiable Oriental #1 (UO #1) deftly reaches over, snags my cigar, and helps himself to a few mouthy puffs.
I look at him, the empty ashtray directly in front of me, him again, and then UO #2.
Since I speak no real Oriental, much less Korean, language, and my Mandarin at this point is worse than laughable; I just point to the cigar, turn out my hands and shrug my shoulders in the international “What the actual fuck, dude?” gesture.
He just smiles a gappy, toothy, and snaggle-toothed at that, grin at me and makes a point of ensuring that I see him enjoying a few more drags on my own damned cigar.
Not able to contain myself any further, I venture a “What the fuck, chuckles? That’s not your fucking cigar.”
Like gasoline being tossed on a fire-ring full of embers, they both go unconditionally incoherently insane.
Yammering, chattering, jumping up and down, and getting right into my face. They wanted me to unquestionably understand that my few words of English insulted them far more than their filching of my $20 cigar.
OK, I’m pretty well trained in Hapkido; an oddly, given the present situation, hybrid Korean martial art. I’m at least 6 or 7 inches taller and who knows how many stone/kilos/pounds/Solar masses heavier than these two clowns. I could easily go all Gojira on their hapless asses and mop significant expanses of the floorboards with them.
Instead, I look around for the bartender. I figured since I was keeping him well supplied with Korean won via tips, and he spoke some English as well as perhaps whatever the fuck these characters were chattering; maybe he could get to the bottom of what was happening.
The bartender walks over and I ask him to ask the two unidentifiable twins why they stole my cigar.
He nods in agreement and goes on in whatever the fuck dialect was being used today by the pair.
“They say they wanted it. So they took it.” They ask, “What are you going to do about it?” the bartender relates.
I deftly reach inside my field vest, as everyone concerned ducks and covers.
I extract two fresh cigars; not a .454 Casull Magnum.
I give one cigar to the bartender and one to OU#2.
“With my compliments.” I pleasantly say.
I was well apprised of the fact that in certain places like this, the local authorities often approach foreigners with, for the lack of a better term, ‘Agents Provocateur
Like the Westboro Baptist “Church”, they try to get a rise out of you so you’ll lose your cool and either create a scene or take a poke at the miscreant. Then they have all the pretext they require to drag you to the local hoosegow, shake you down for every penny on your person, as well as any phones, notebooks, wallets, passports, cigars, cigarettes, etc.
Basically, they goad you into a fight, then drop the thousand-pound shit-hammer when you retaliate.
It’s all so parochial. So obviously clear as vodka; this elementary charade only raised a single eyebrow.
I’m not going to even raise my voice over a couple of cheap cigars that neither of them noticed I slipped them instead of the premium ones I was smoking.
Thus defeated, I asked the bartender to ask them if they liked the cigar.
“What do you think?” I asked in cordial English, “Too tightly rolled? Not caged enough? Too green?”
UO #2 slipped and said “It smells very good…” where he realizes he’s blown his cover.
“Yeah, I like it too.”, I replied, “So much so, I buy my own. What are your badge numbers, boys? I will be reporting this incident to Inspector P'aeng Yeong-Hwan, the head of security for the IUPGS conference to which I was invited as special scientific consultant.”
Of course, they immediately dummy up and feign illiteracy.
I say loudly and very clearly, “You bastards aren’t gonna get away with this. I mean, what is going on in this country when scumsuckers like you can get away with trying to sandbag a Doctor of Geological Sciences?”
I ask the bartender to translate, but alas, it was too late. They vamoosed when I turned to talk with the bartender.
They left so fast, they didn’t notice me snapping their pictures with my ancient but trusty Nokia 3310, revised edition, during our little chat. Even with a mere 2-megapixel picture, I have enough to show the North Korean leaders of the project to get an identification and make known my displeasure of being treated like some commoner or buffoon.
They left both my cigar and the one I gave them. The bartender tucked the cigar I gave him into his pocket and stared lustily at the two remaining on the bar.
“Take’em”, I said. I sure as fuck don’t want them. “Just a clean ashtray and a refill, if you would be so kind,” I say, as pleasantly as possible, considering the situation.
Both the unsmoked and my smoldering, as well as well-traveled, cigar disappear as quickly as minks rut. A clean, new ashtray, double beer and ‘vodka’ suddenly appear.
“No charge, Dr. Rock”, the bartender grins, as he shoves my erstwhile high-mileage cigar between his teeth.
“OK, fair enough.”, I say, “Spaseebah.”, and deposit a raft of won on the bar. The pile won’t be touched until after I leave in a few hours’ time.
“Stranger in a strange land.” I muse over a couple of further beers.
The call from the massage parlor never came, or it did and I couldn’t hear it over the clamor of the casino. I went up to the hotel’s Korean restaurant; had some salty soup, a sad, sad salad, and some form of funky fish, I think, for dinner. I retired that night in a slightly foul mood.
I called Es then the next morning and caught her before she retired. With a 14 hour difference between us, I was getting up at 0700 and she was getting ready to hit the hay at 2100.
I told her of the events of the day previous, and she was glad she wasn’t tagging along. She would have never accused the Korean geologists of being behind the times and would have probably bent the guy’s nose that swiped my cigar.
Agreed, that she’d probably be unimpressed with this place. I promised her that we’d go on a holiday when I returned from all this. It would be up to her to find out ‘where,’ and I’d supply the ‘when’ when I could.
Everything else was going along smoothly, more or less, on the home front, and I didn’t want to give the local listening-in federales
too much to say grace over, so we said our parting admirations and rang off.
Shower, shower sunriser of real vodka and citrus, a quick brush and comb, and spiff of cargo shorts and new ghastly Hawaiian shirt; 30 minutes later, back down in the restaurant for the inevitable breakfast buffet.
After what some would consider breakfast and others would consider a vague attempt at nourishment, we reconvened in the conference room precisely at 1012.
Nothing like precision with this group.
We spend the next two days going over, in various groups, what we think would be required to set forth proper the quest for oil and gas in North Korea on track. Everyone got in on the act, and we advocated for that. We needed everyone’s input to make this happen. Or to even map a way forward to present to country officials. Those from the West on what was needed and those from the East to tell us what was available, and the combined wetware to make what needed to be done happen with what existed.
It took no small amount of doing, but we secured a set of maps that covered the entire country. We were watched very closely by the shiny suit squad that we did not copy, photograph or otherwise take any extraneous information from these sheets of infamy. All other maps in the country were intentionally skewed, with errors deliberately added in to confuse “interlopers, spies, or other personas non grata
I made a massive stink and told them that if we didn’t receive the unfuckered maps, aerial photographs and satellite imagery pronto, we’re packing up and leaving that afternoon.
“We don’t have time for monks resisting the carnival. We didn’t come here to try and guess if the maps are correct or if our remedies will actually work on maps that say one thing and reality says something else entirely.”
They hemmed and hawed, but as I made the announcement to all before lunch that if the real maps didn’t appear by the time we returned from tiffin, we’re gone.
And we take tiffin purty durn early round these parts, buckaroo.
No one was surprised as I when we returned and there were folio after folio of government-uncensored maps, photos, and imagery for our program. I guess they finally reasoned it would be a relatively good idea to begin to take us seriously.
We spent one whole day just going over our field geological apparatus. They had a good idea of how to use a direction-finder compass and Jacob’s staff to measure sections. However, they were totally flummoxed by our Brunton Compasses, GPS systems, curiously referred to as ‘position finders’, notebook mapping applications, and electronic data storage and retrieval systems.
Gad. It was like being back in the 1970s before PCs were a glimmer in IBM's corporate orbs.
We spent the next week working to bring our less fortunate colleagues up to, well, not date, but at least up to the brink of the 21st century. We explained that plate tectonics, continental drift, and the precession of the continents was accepted geoscientific principles, not some arcane Capitalist or Socialist plot to undermine the quality of science in the east.
Yep. It was that mindset we had to first conquer. I think we’ve made great headway in that direction today.
The next Chautauqua session had us split up into two separate groups. We decided in a fit of Cesarean inquiry to ‘divide and conquer’. There are two distinct milieus
which are able to contain economic deposits of hydrocarbons: onshore and offshore.
Instead of attacking both head-on, we’d focus initially on the offshore domain. Once we had a good handle on what was going on under the East Korean Sea, the Huangai (Yellow) Sea and surreptitiously, the South Sea; we’d collaborate our findings and work to tie them in and extend them onshore.
The singular Phyongnam Basin is the one large depositional, sedimentological, and structural basin in North Korea. It is filled by the Joeson and Pyeongan Supergroups of sediments, which are Cambro-Ordovician and Permocarboniferous, respectively. These are good hunting grounds for oil and gas. Could be elephant–hunting
But before we could undertake that, we had to get ‘back to basics’. That is, we had to understand and delineate the ‘frame’ of the Korean Peninsula. In other words, we needed to figure out how and when the peninsula came into existence.
South Korea’s geology is much more complex, fortunately than that found in the North. There were nasty side comments that were due to the relative development not of the geology, but of the geologists who studied each country’s geology.
It was, perhaps, a mean way of characterizing the situation. But, unfortunately, it was also probably fairly accurate.
The Korean Peninsula is characterized by huge massifs
, which are sections of a crust that are demarcated by faults or flexures. In the movement of the crust, a massif tends to retain its internal structure while being displaced as a whole. The term also refers to a group of mountains formed by such a structure. It’s basically one huge, semi-resilient rock.
The basement rocks of the Korean Peninsula consist of high-grade gneiss and schist, Paleoproterozoic Precambrian massifs, which formed in the early stage of Earth’s history. These rocks are unconformably overlain by metasedimentary rocks; schist, quartzite, marble, calcsilicate, and amphibolite, of the Middle to Late Proterozoic. The Korean Peninsula is floored by a collation of about five of these huge Precambrian massifs that acted like ‘microplates’ during the aggregation of the peninsula. These massifs consist of thick dolostone, metavolcanics, and schist, which were intruded by Paleoproterozoic granites.
These Paleoproterozoic metasedimentary and granitic rocks underwent repeated intracrustal differentiation, followed by the events of cratonization, i.e., regional metamorphism and igneous activity, at 1.9-1.8 Ga. Sediments deposited in the peripheral basins during the Mesoproterozoic and Neoproterozoic lead to stabilization as the basement of the peninsula.
These early depositional basins formed the locus of deposition that continued on from the Proterozoic through the Phanerozoic. There are at least three, perhaps four, depositional basins in the south which are delimited by structural zones, such as the South Korean Tectonic Line (SKTL), a huge zone of continental transform faults and forms the basis of boundary demarcation between the Okcheon and Taebaeksan basins.
The boundary between the Seochangri Formation of the Okcheon Basin and the Joseon Supergroup of the Taebaeksan Basin in the Bonghwajae area is a thrust (or reverse‐slip shear zone). This thrust is presumably a relay structure (i.e. a restraining bend) between two segments of a continental transform fault (the South Korean Tectonic Line or SKTL), along which the Okcheon Basin of the South China Craton was juxtaposed against the Taebaeksan Basin of the North China Craton during the Permian–Triassic suturing of the two cratons.
In the late Proterozoic, sedimentation was initiated in basins of the Korean Peninsula, accompanied by deposition of siliciclastic and volcaniclastic sediments as well as carbonates. The massifs were submerged in the Early Paleozoic during a greenhouse period, forming a shallow marine platform and associated environments.
The Cambrian-Ordovician succession unconformably overlies Precambrian granite gneiss. It consists of mixed carbonate-siliciclastic rocks of sandstone, shale, and shallow-marine carbonates. Sedimentation was initiated in the Early Cambrian with a global rise in sea level on the stable craton of the Sino-Korean Block.
There was a major break in sedimentation during the Silurian and Devonian periods in the entire platform. During the Carboniferous to early Triassic, sedimentation was resumed in coastal plain and swamp environments with progradation of deltas.
Major tectonic events were initiated in the Triassic when the South China Block collided with the Sino-Korean Block. The eastern part of the Sino-Korean Block rotated clockwise and moved southward relative to the South China Block along the SKTL.
In the Middle-Late Jurassic, orthogonal subduction of the paleo-Pacific plate under the Asian continent caused compression and thrust deformation. A number of piggyback basins formed along the thrust faults in the east of the SKTL. At the same time, the entire peninsula was prevailed by granite batholiths, especially along the northeast-southwest-trending tectonic belt.
In the Cretaceous Period, the paleo-Pacific Plate subducted northward under the Asian continent, forming numerous extensional (left-lateral strike-slip) basins in the southern part of the peninsula and the Yellow Sea. A large back-arc basin was initiated in the southeastern part.
In the Paleogene, both the volcanic arc and the back-arc basin ceased to develop, as volcanic activities shifted eastward, accompanied by a rollback of the subduction of the Pacific plate. In the Miocene, pull-apart (right-lateral) basins formed in the eastern continental margin.
The Korea Plateau experienced continental rifting accompanied by extensive volcanism during the extensional opening of the southern offshore basin. It subsided more than 1000 m below sea level.
So, as South Korea was mix- mastered by a half-a-billion years’ worth of structural tectonism, which created several depositional basins quite capable of generating and storing economic quantities of oil and gas, the scene to the north was much more quiescent.
The North was composed, from south to north, of the relict Imjingang Belt, which was an old back-arc basin between the Gyeonggi Massif to the south and the Nagrim Massif to the north. It is a paleo-subduction zone, full of volcanics, volcaniclastics and other non-hydrocarbon bearing rocks. It was mashed and metamorphosed, and basically forms a convenient boundary between the complex geology of the South and the more relaxed geology of the North.
Heading north, we come across the Pyeongnam Basin, the only North Korean basin thus far defined that could contain hydrocarbons. Further north is the huge Nangrim Massif. It’s a huge block of igneous and metamorphic rocks that weather very nicely and form some spectacular scenery, but from an oil and gas economic outlook are worthless.
Offshore North Korea, there are two possible petroliferous basins. The offshore West Korea Bay Basin and East Sea Basin, along with five onshore basins could be offering exploration potential. At least ten exploration wells have been drilled in the West Sea, with some showing “good oil shows” along with the identification of a number of potential reservoirs.
The West Sea potentially has oil and has reportedly flowed oil at reasonable rates from at least two exploration wells when they were drilled and tested in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the East Sea has seen Russian exploration efforts previously including the drilling of two wells, both of which reportedly encountered encouraging shows of oil and gas.
Onshore, there has been little exploration to date, apart from efforts by the Korean Oil Exploration Corporation and also recently by Mongolia’s HBOil JSC (HBO). Among five main onshore sedimentary sub-basins, the largest is south of the capital; while unconfirmed reports point to a 1-trillion-cubic-foot (tcf) discovery in 2002.
Historically DPRK was thought to consist of five under-explored geological basins, the
• Gilju-Myongchon and
• Sinuiju, Basins.
These basins are all located more or less along the coast, rather than inland. This also points to a certain degree of geological aptitude; as it’s much easier to explore along the more populated coast than it is to venture inland. There may be more hiding in the interior of the country, it’s just that no one’s looked as of yet. That’s difficult. Exploring along the coast is much easier.
With 3 basins supposedly proven to have working petroleum systems; 22 wells have been drilled and the majority are said to have encountered hydrocarbons with some wells testing production at 75 barrels of oil per day of light sweet crude oil. This has yet to be documented or confirmed by the Korea Oil Exploration Corp (KOEC), North Korea’s state-run oil company.
Yeah, our work was definitely cut out for us.
It was decided that a series of excursions offshore in one of the few remaining seaworthy, which was a real judgment call, KOEC seismic boats would be appropriate. The one we received use of was an old, decommissioned Chamsuri-class patrol boat, one Chamsuri-215(참수리-215), PKMR-215 in particular.
It had been basically stripped to the gunwales and completely retrofitted as a seismic acquisition and recording vessel. It had been renamed: “조선 민주주의 인민 공화국 영광” or “Glory of Democratic People's Republic of Korea Science”.
In reality, it was an aging rust-bucket piece of shit that might have possibly seen better days but wasn’t letting on. All the military nonsense, except the powder magazine, had been removed and a new superstructure consisting of slap-dash hunks of poorly-welded low-carbon, cold-rolled steel were erected to form a pilothouse in the area where the bridge once existed. They also built, extra haphazardly, a shooter’s room, galley, cold and wet storage areas, recording room, and storage of tapes and the extra bits and pieces needed for a none-too-extended stay on the sea. It was, being charitable, almost utilitarian.
They could not make their own water, so trip times were limited to about three days in length. Besides, they didn’t really have a hot galley, so it was cold, canned Chinese chow for the next 72 hours. They had a couple of fairly sturdy yardarms with heavy winches to handle the towed seismic arrays of geophones, which were of ancient heritage and showed it. These were probably appropriated back in the 80s or perhaps earlier when they first thought about opening their waters for seismic exploration.
They ‘borrowed’ most of the sensing and recording equipment back then from oilfield service companies and simply forgot to return it once finished. Since they burned that bridge so glowingly, they couldn’t get parts nor service when things failed. Being delicate seismic sensing and recording equipment, fail they did.
So, we had to use what was leftover, or what DPRK industries could cobble together, or what could be salvaged from salt-water drenched recording equipment that hadn’t been too heavily cared for over the span of the last 50 years.
We weren’t terribly optimistic.
So, we load the good ship ‘Rorrypop’, as Viv christened the thing, and head out to the wilds of the Yellow Sea. It was an abbreviated foreign crew, as there was really nothing other than upchuck and curse me soundly for insisting the non-geophysical scientists came along.
Aboard were the two geophysicists, naturally; Volna and Activ. I was there stick-handling the logistics and hoping to help out with the geophysical signal source explosives.
Morse and Cliff, the two other geologists accompanied us on the trip, and Dax decided to go with me as he figured I’d have access to the best booze no matter where we went.
The remainder of the team, the geochemists, Erlan and Ivan, the geomechanic, Iskren, the PT, Joon, and the two REs, Viv and Grako, remained behind onshore at the hotel. They set forth cataloging what data was available; from what sources, it’s vintage, veracity, and usefulness.
Augean tasks, both. Not as fecaliferous as Hercules’ jobs, but still, they held their own rations of shit for each sub-team.
Heading seaward, the Yellow Sea extends by about 960 km (600 mi) from north to south and about 700 km (430 mi) from east to west; it has an area of approximately 380,000 km2
and a volume of about 17,000 km3
Its depth is only 44 m (144 ft) on average, with a maximum of 152 m (499 ft). The sea is a flooded section of the continental shelf that formed during the Late Pleistocene (some 10,000 years ago) as sea levels rose 120 m (390 ft) to their current levels. The depth gradually increases from north to south. The sea bottom and shores are dominated by sand and silt brought by the rivers through the Bohai Sea and the Yalu River. These deposits, together with sand storms are responsible for the yellowish color of the water referenced in the sea's name.
Being shallow, the Yellow Sea is more perturbed by the frequent seasonal storms of the region. The area has cold, dry winters with strong northerly monsoons blowing from late November to April. I was told that the summers are wet and warm with frequent typhoons between June and October; but now all we had to contend with were swelling seas, spraying saltwater, waggling waves, and a shivering, shimmying ship.
All the navigation, communications and other shiply duties were being handled by both members of the DPRK Coast Guard Auxiliary, mostly older guys who were of great and high humorous jest; and an actual pleasure to be around. They were like their scientific cadre on this cruise, basically a political ‘give a shit’ attitude, and a desire to get the job done, smoke the American’s cigars and drink as much as we could get away with.
The scientific portion of the cruise was being undertaken by students of the various universities and members of the North Korean national oil company. The demeanors of these characters ranged from extremely earnest and stringently North Korean politically correct in the students and academicians, to a more relaxed ‘yeah, let’s just get the fucking job done so we can have a lot of drinks’ sort of view of the older members of the DPRK scientific team.
It was a fun admixture of cultures, ages, professions, and behaviors.
Oh, forgive me for forgetting to mention our ‘guides’, or handlers. They were also chosen, nay, ordered to come along. Landlubbers all, they were less than thrilled with the assignment and inevitable seasickness; which seemed endemic to those of Oriental extraction on the cruise. However, our guides did enjoy drinking. As we learned that alcohol is a central part of Korean culture, and they encouraged us to socialize with them when the time was appropriate.
Or, not appropriate, as I was being denounced by one of the geophysical students after only a few hours into our very first day. Hell, we weren’t even in the Yellow Sea proper. We started here at Pyongyang, down the Taedong River, over the Giva Dam, through Pushover, across Shmoeland, to the stronghold of Shmoe; into the very belly of the frothing Yellow Sea.
Most everyone, other than the foreign elements on board, were either making the trip in the bowels of the ship; nursing and cursing seasickness; or by rail, doing exactly the same thing.
“Chum it over the side, ya’ blinkered mucker!”, I admonished one bottle-greenish national. “This ain’t the Captain‘s mess, Chuckles. You
have to clean up your own spew!”
I was reveling in getting back out on the water and regaining my sea legs. I never
Be it a seismic vessel in the heaving Arctic Ocean, a pirogue in the swamps of Louisiana, my cousin’s fishin’ johnboat back in northern Baja Canada, a US nuclear submarine under the permanent pack ice of the North Pole, or VLCC in the Straits of Somaliland; I just don’t get seasick.
Airsick? Nah. Carsick? Nope. Ready to puke in a Hind-20 over the Caspian Sea during a strong local thunderstorm? Close, but no cigar.
So, I’m doing a Titanic scene recreation. Up in the very bow of the craft, standing in stark defiance of the gusting winds and blowing salt spray, smoking a huge cigar, and totting out of one of my emergency flasks while trying to hang on to my Stetson. I am also endeavoring to remain upright, field vest and really, really ghastly Hawaiian shirt billowing in the breeze.
I’m not certain if it was the cigar smoke, the wind-whipped beard, and hair, the give a fuck attitude, or the flapping of the Hawaiian shirt to which the little local geophysicist objected. But he was pissed
. Olive-green with seasickness, rubber-kneed but still standing a good social-distance away, reading me the riot act in high-pitched Korean.
As I usually do in such delicate situations, I just smile and wave. Show them I’m mostly harmless and they either cool down or get pissed off even more and stomp off in disgust.
Either one was a winning situation for me in my book.
So, I return to doing my ship’s figurehead imitation and revel in the wind, spray, and feeling of really being booming. Sure, some might complain of the cold, but not me, the sting of the salt-spray or the windburn; but I eschew what most people enjoy as ‘normal weather’. I live for pushing the boundaries. I love rough weather and situations that thrust the edge of the envelope further past normalcy.
Besides, we were still in sight of land. Hell, if everything went south at this very minute, one could practically walk back to shore. I can hardly wait to see what these wigglers will do if a night storm comes up when were 100 or more kilometers from land.
The boat’s thrumming heavily from both the thrust of the Soviet-era diesel engines and the craft’s bludgeoning its way through the waves. Most hull designs are so the ship will ‘cut’ through the surface waters. This craft’s flattened trihedral hull design didn’t so much ‘cut’, as ‘slam’ it’s way through. The boat would then crash up one side and smash down the other of each large wave we encountered. The boat would shudder whole, adding a new note of resonance along with the monotonous one-note song of the aged Russian diesels.
The spray would fly, the boat would convulse, time would seem to freeze until we bashed into the next wave. The captain of the vessel took his orders very seriously. “Get to coordinates XXX
by the most expedient means possible.” If that meant charging, full-throttle into the teeth of the oncoming monsoon-force wind while we were traversing the worst kelp jungle I’ve seen this side of the Sargasso Sea; well, piss on it, full steam ahead.
“Fuck it”, I thought, “Not my pony, not my show. Let’s see how this plays out.” While I light a new cigar and search for Emergency Flask #2.
After I’d been upbraided by the geophysical student for transgressions still unknown, Cliff and Dax wander out to ask me what the hell I was up to.
“Have you gone completely barmy?”, Cliff asked. “It’s a full gale out here and you’re standing in the teeth of it like it was a warm, sunny Sunday in Piccadilly.”
“Nope, not at all”, I replied, “Just reveling in the delights of an angry atmosphere.”
“He’s nuts, I told you”, Dax smirked, “He’d go anywhere and do anything to have a cigar.”
“Not just a cigar, me old mucker”, I smiled and waved my second emergency flack under his nose.
“Figures”, they both respond in unison.
Dax departs and returns mere seconds later with paper Dixie-style cups he liberated from the ship’s one head. We are going to do our very best to extend the lifetime of the onboard water supply for our scientific and military friends. I pour them each a cup full.
“Whoa, Doc”, that’s gotta be 100 milliliters!” Cliff objects.
“As the Siberian saying goes: One hundred versts, roughly a hundred miles, is no distance. A hundred rubles isn't worthwhile money. And a hundred grams of vodka just makes you thirsty. Prosit!” I say in reply.
We retire to the overhang on the fantail of the boat. It’s a sunshade and keeps the worst of the weather out for the lightweights on the cruise. I decided we’d withdraw there to keep these Dominionites out of the worst of the wind and sea spray.
“Rock”, Cliff notes, “You are a complete throwback. You do not belong here in the 21st century. You need to find a way back to the Calabrian and ride herd on the continental Neanderthals. Give them the gift of distilling and tobacco agriculture, and you’d reframe the world.”
Dax agrees, but notes if I do find a way back, he and Cliff would be selected against.
“Good point”, Cliff agrees. “Rock, stay here. We need your expertise now more than ever. Plus your ready supply of strong drink and cigars.”
“Glad to know that I’m truly appreciated around these parts.” I chuckled slightly acridly.
“Ah, Rock. Buck up. You know we’re only takin’ a piss.” Cliff says.
“Aim it starboard. Don’t want it blowin’ all over the seismic gear”, I reply, laughingly.
The trip continued, and I found a not-bolted-to-the-deck chair and moved it outside under the shade back by the boat’s fantail. I refreshed my emergency flasks and replenished my cigar supply. I’m not about to sit inside and listen to the wails and gnashing of teeth of the landlubber crowd, the patter and timor of the geophysical throng as they titter and argue about array design, nor the military hut-hutting all over the fucking boat.
A couple of times, one or more of our ‘handlers’ would venture out as I had the only supply of readily available smokeables and drinkables. Oh, we had food, lots of beer, soju, some knock-off vodka, and some of that faux
homebrew bourbon for later once the workday was declared over; but for now, I was the one and only dispensary.
We’d have some random chats while they screwed up their courage to ask me for a smoke or a tot of drink. I brought several bundles of really cheap-ass cigars for just such occasions; besides, I figured one of my Camacho triple-maduros would have them chumming for the remainder of the trip. I had also many, many cartons of Sobranie pastel-colored cigarettes, and many more cartons of knock-off Marlboros I bought at the duty-free when we hit town.
It was chucklingly funny to see these harsh, military, no-nonsense characters walking their duty beats smoking pastel green, lavender, and mauve cigarettes.
We got bogged down a couple of times when one or more of the ship’s twin screws fouled with kelp as we tried to put some distance between us and the shore. Each time, one really dejected low-ranking young Coast Guard character would go over the side with a rope around his waist and a knife in his hand to free the props. I was going to object as this was moronically dangerous; but, again, not my pony, not my show. This called for full proper tethering and SCUBA gear.
They had neither aboard.
Welcome to the wonders of a centrally planned economy. To be continued.
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