Three seasons of finishing just out of the playoffs. Three years of the #14 pick.
In those seasons, the Rockets played solid, at times inspired, basketball. The team played hard and never gave up. Not in a season with 60% of their payroll injured, not in the year Yao Ming was supposed to return but didn't, and not in the season that saw a superstar player whisked away after a trade was agreed upon. (I'll never believe the official NBA line - when David Stern and Mark Cuban say the same thing the only thing that statement can be is a lie. Besides, these sorts of long-held grudges are a part of beauty and zest of a team's history. From my cold dead hands, etc.)
At the start of the time of our years in the Wilderness of Pick #14, the Rockets were built as a contender with well-chosen veteran pieces arrayed around a dominant center and shooting guard. Health transformed them almost overnight into a team struggling to remake itself with its payroll tied to the deadweight of stars whose bodies didn't take them past the Age 30 threshold with stardom intact. At the same time management was likely constrained by an ownership brief that ordered rebuilding and contention (for least for one round of the playoffs anyway) simultaneously.
It almost worked. The team just missed the playoffs three times - they were arguably the best team not to play in the second season the last three years. I can excuse the first season on the basis of McGrady and Yao's contracts hanging over the roster. The second on the hope that Yao might return (and the impossibility of moving him). The third we can more or less chalk up to "Basketball Reasons" and a ridiculously compressed offseason. Of course injuries played a role, but with three years of evidence, that role is less important. For reasons both good and "basketball", it adds up to a three-year load of mediocrity. Good excuses for middling results only go so far, as the level of frustration amongst readers here amply demonstrates.
Read more, ever so much more, after the jump. Including hot, sultry, DHo speculation. Jump! Do it now!
During this whole period though, Morey and the front office never stopped moving, never stopped working to make the team better, by big moves (like the never-to-be Basketball Reasons) or little ones. Sound picks were made, astute trades executed. It's tough to point to any move (besides Trevor Ariza, quickly rectified) as a bad one, and most are clear improvements.
Last season the Rockets second unit was almost assuredly better than the Charlotte Bobcats, with many players being ready for primetime, as the Goran Dragic signing, the interest in Courtney Lee and the completed deals for Kyle Lowry, Marcus Camby, Chase Budinger and Samuel Dalembert indicate. Dallas has already expressed interest in Luis Scola's services. It's easy to say "No one wants what the Rockets have" , but that is demonstrably false.
And, goodbye to Luis Scola, a scholar by name, a gentleman by deeds, and one of a dying breed of artists in the low post. He's one of my all-time favorite Rockets - we won't see the likes of his arsenal of moves in a Rockets jersey anytime soon. Better or not, the Rockets are a less interesting, less fun, team without him.
Lately the Rockets have accumulated more valuable, or at least intriguing, players than they could keep, or play. With three first rounders coming aboard this draft, and last year's other first rounder Donatas Motiejunas crossing the Atlantic, the roster is chock full of young players who need time to develop and veterans who have earned their minutes in the NBA.
So what now? Well, Morey and company have unquestionably recognized that the core of Rockets from the past three seasons wasn't going to contend without a bona fide star in their midst. Last season the Rockets traded for a star center in Pau Gasol, but ended up with an aggravating piece of NBA skulduggery. This season most of the Rockets roster that couldn't quite get over the top is gone, or will be soon. Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, Chase Budinger, Samuel Dalembert, and Marcus Camby are elsewhere already. Luis Scola will be and Courtney Lee may soon depart.
If anyone thought the Rockets were going to stand pat, they stand corrected.
Now we arrive at last at the tedious human soap opera that is Dwight Howard. AKA the #dwightmare. Howard is clearly the best center in this fallen age of NBA centers. By PER, he was the 6th best player in the NBA last year, achieved during a season in which he loafed around more or less dispiritedly, while still finding time to get his coach, and front office, fired. Does he like his new front office better? No. Evidently he does not. And yes, that's a real damn worry when it comes to Mr. Howard.
Yet Dwight Howard is the best center in the NBA, and he's only 26. As glittering prizes in the NBA go, only two or three sparkle more brightly.
He's worth the having. Is he worth the getting? I'd say yes, not yet knowing just what his services will cost the Rockets. I also believe that if Morey brings in Howard, and signs him to a long-term deal, the Rockets will be a legitimate contender within two years, health willing (always a big if for the Rockets). Howard would only be 31-32 when his putative long-term Rockets deal expires. Like LeBron James, he's that rare UFA superstar young enough to carry a contender for years.
If we get him, I believe he'll sign. Deron Williams wasn't going to sign in
New Jersey Brooklyn, but money talks, and the Nets landed Joe Johnson and his max deal to keep Williams mollified, apparently. The Rockets would have the room for another max contract to join Dwight Howard, as well. (Thanks Tom.)
So, Dwight Howard is one of the few NBA players you can build an instant contender around. He's also petulant, unrealistic, and manipulative. He makes non-negotiable demands that reflect, at best, a poor understanding of the economic realities of the NBA. (Just where does he think the Nets can put him in their cap at this point, anyway?) The Rockets could give up a lot for Dwight, take on a slew of bad contracts for worse players and end up with Howard refusing to sign a long-term deal to stay Houston. (I honestly don't know if I'd have the stones to take all that on without a Sign and Trade.)
So let's imagine something much worse than a long-term Dwight Howard signing. Let's assume that Howard comes for one season, wanks his way through the schedule, or pretends to be injured. He then signs with another team at the end of the year. This is irrational, but Howard appears to be irrational.
Where does that leave the Rockets? Rebuilding. Playing to land a top draft pick, and hoping he's a superstar who also has a long healthy career. In other words, really no worse off than they are now. The Rockets can also, probably, extract assets for Howard in a Sign and Trade with whomever Howard thinks will fulfill whatever major metropolitan dreams he has left unfulfilled as yet.
What will the Rockets be doing if they don't make the trade for Howard?
Rebuilding. The only high salary (and its not all that high, and its expiring) left belongs to Kevin Martin. (Kevin Martin by the way is a great pairing with Howard, should it somehow occur.) You've got a roster full of young players, and more draft picks coming.The team the Rockets might field in that case has a very OKC feel about it. It may be that one of the four new youngsters (plus the "veterans" Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris) will become a star. I think one or two could well be "secondary stars" anyway. Whatever happens, should the Rockets finally draft that keystone player, they've got the supporting cast in place to grow with him, just like Occupied North Texas.
So that's where I see the Rockets.
The Rockets are ready to build a contending team if they land a top player in Howard, ready to build through the draft and other means if not. The Rockets are shooting for the top, or the bottom of the table, they aren't aiming at the middle anymore.
My question for you, gentle reader, is - Will you stay tuned if the Rockets rebuild? Will you still read and post here? Will you stand by your Red Nation? I hope so, because it's going to be an interesting couple of years, but it may not be pleasant.
Whatever happens, I think we're done with Pick #14 for a while.