Between the shoulder blades - where the Rockets like it.

You can say this pre-season has brought a keen sense of frustration, anxiety, and betrayal but you can't say it hasn't been memorable.

Looking at this pre-season through the lens of the past few years it is almost as if Daryl Morey and the Rockets front office had been composing a symphony. Beginning at the jangled, broken wreckage of the careers of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady the Rockets executed trades that passed by the consciousness of NBA fans with little notice.

But all those trades had been building a theme out of odd phrases, off notes and cast offs - that the Rockets burgeon with good, if not great, veteran players, and young players with untapped potential. There was a foundation of reliable, and not aged, veterans. There was a brace of talented young players written off too soon. Added to that were a few enigmas with equal potential to be waived, or yet become genuine stars. Where could it all lead?

It lead to a trade, one like few others. The Rockets had built from rubble to a crescendo that would bring Pau Gasol, evidently past the age 30 Big Man Abyss*, and then, surely, another big man who would seize the main chance of joining Pau in front court that could contend for the NBA's best. The violins were weeping for favorites gone away, but the brass was beginning to sound a triumph, a contending Rockets team brought out of nothing, no high lottery picks, no headline player signings. Thus a masterwork, signaling bright new days for the Houston Rockets.

Then the cliched needle gouged its way across the vinyl - the NBA and David Stern killed the music dead. Sure there was an effort to revive the deal, to pay more, but the conductor had suffered a serious blow to the forehead, the musicians weren't on the same page and anything further wouldn't sound the same at all.

Now what? Now Jump.

It's almost impossible to understand the magnitude of what the NBA did in its context. First, they emasculated Dell Demps, their own choice as Hornets GM, who had worked a good trade for a player who was surely, unquestionably, not staying with the Hornets, no matter who owned them.

One might speak of value to a future owner in New Orleans, but a team that makes the playoffs then rebuilds could easily be more valuable than a team that has no hope, no attendance and only one player of any value - the putative lottery pick. The NBA has negotiated all of Paul's suitors away for now, and New Orleans remains a shambles. Remember that Scola or Martin on short or expiring deals could bring picks or players to New Orleans, too.

Note also, games are starting soon and New Orleans, as of a day or so ago, had exactly 7 players under contract and available. Demps wasn't just filling a roster, he was adding real value - Lamar Odom (now a Maverick, and Mark Cuban is back to being pond scum, if indeed he was ever anything else), Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic to go with Emeka Okafor, Jarret Jack, Trevor Ariza and throw in a first round pick to aid the rebuilding to come. That's actually a good team, particularly given the shaky nature of the Western Conference this year (once unthinkable, now true, I'll write on it sometime soon). That team can fill it up, and still has defenders on the court in the form of Ariza and Okafor.

That team does not, and will not, ever exist because the NBA knows better than the manager they themselves picked.

Even the Lakers got screwed. I would never have dreamt it possible if I didn't see it happen. The Lakers were eager to get their payroll down from $90 million, despite their staggering local TV deal. Apparently they decided that the defeat at the hands of Dallas marked the end of an era. Phil Jackson's departure clearly delineates it as such, as Phil goes when the going is good, and at no other time - ever. So, move some salary, get Kobe Bryant a partner who can wring the most from his twilight years and tell Andrew Bynum (or maybe Dwight Howard) that its his frontcourt now. We saw a rejuvenated Paul singlehandedly win playoff games. We've seen Kobe do the same. Who's to say it would fail? Not even the Lakers were immune to the dog-in-the-manger tactics of Dan Gilbert, Pond Scum Cuban, et al.

Now David Stern must be reevaluated. I've always been a moderate defender of Stern as a man who accomplished what he set out to do, and built the NBA into the most internationally viable of American sports. Now? He looks like an old man, raging at the dying of the light, but raging, clearly, in the wrong direction. Always better to leave too early than too late, and by choosing (and make no mistake the owners chose it) to make this management-labor battle his final legacy, and then this, David Stern demonstrated that he overstayed his time. I don't think there's any going back, but who replaces him? Jackson and Litvin, his doughty lieutenants at the Battle of New Orleans? I hope not.

As for the Rockets, you've told key players they were traded, said sorry, but that this is the business we've chosen. Now those players are back. Luis Scola is a pro's pro, and he will bring maximum effort and be happy not to move his young family. Kevin Martin is a mercurical brooder. I expect he'll be fine, might even want to prove a point, but the NBA is the most human of the major sports. No one is anonymous, there's no hat or facemask to hide behind and humanity is revealed for good or bad, game to game and play to play. Just another cost for the Rockets to bear.

So the symphony Daryl Morey composed of broken bits, discards, waifs and strays now lies upon the hardwood with a FanTastic knife wound between the shoulder blades.. The big men are all signing big offer sheets elsewhere. The Rockets are still chock full of talent, potential and friendly contracts, with no place to put them.

Now what? Stay tuned.

* Big Man Abyss - centers, if they remain healthy and effective at 30 tend to remain effective into their mid 30s. Hakeem made it past the Abyss, Yao did not.

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