In the past few years, the rise of the small market, young team going deep into the playoffs has been one of the more exciting developments in the NBA. After years of strong drafts and steady buildups of talent, the Grizzlies, Trailblazers, and Thunder have taken a presence in the Western Conference playoffs season after season.
With the Rockets struggling to find a star and get over the hump these last few years, there is certainly a case to be made for tanking. Still, with all the Rockets have built up right now, blowing it all up for the hope of some new impact talent is a bit of a stretch in my eyes.
As a completely disconnected observer of the game, it's easy to sit and say that two years of sucking in return for a five to ten year period of championship contention is the best thing for a franchise. Unfortunately, I am not an unbiased observer. The fact remains that those two years of sucking are miserable. And while I wouldn't give up on the Rockets based on two years simply because I have an incurable obsession for basketball and Houston basketball in particular, I am not the norm (what percentage of fans could last through 2 seasons of watching Jordan Hill start at center?). For a team that is potentially losing a huge portion of its fan base in China with the departure of Yao Ming (and potential departure of Chuck Hayes), is losing the best decision?
Looking at the Thunder, Trailblazers, and Grizzlies is one thing, but other teams that looked to rebuild tell a different tale. Despite a pretty horrible stretch biding their time and acquiring talent in the post-Jason Kidd era, the Nets have yet to rejoin the ranks of the Eastern Conference playoff team. They followed a strategy fairly similar to the Rockets, trying to draft well and waiting for a star to become available before pouncing. However, their years of tanking didn't leave them with a roster ready to play with Deron Williams when they landed him. Now, they have a potentially disgruntled star and little talent outside of a decent young center to play with him.
If the Rockets move Kevin Martin and Luis Scola, they would presumably get some decent young talent, but neither Martin nor Scola is going to net the Rockets a young star to bring the Rockets deep into the playoffs. Instead, that star would likely be found in the draft, which the Rockets would be guaranteed to draft first in if they sucked, right? Oh wait, the draft lottery exists! And even if the Rockets lose every last game in the season, they're no more likely than 25% to get the first overall pick to get Anthony Davis or whatever stud NBA scouts lust over. And, as has been well-chronicled, the draft is pretty much a crapshoot after the first pick. For every Wade, Paul, or Kobe out there, there are twenty Darko's, Hasheem's, and Marvin Williams' who have been complete zeroes.
Even if the team does get lucky and the Rockets return to contention after a rough stretch, there's no guarantee that the fans will come back when the team gets good again. For the Grizzlies, who built a culture of dysfunction over the last half decade, the fans have not really come back as they returned to prominence. Though that could change if they stay on top for years, but the alienation of fans that comes with tanking can be damaging to a team.
For now, the Rockets are just one or two players away from being really good. Is Nene that player? Probably not, but building a culture of winning can make Houston much more attractive to free agents and other stars. It's widely reported that Chris Paul wants to be a Knick next summer, but could continuing to win and go deep in the playoffs bring us the next young star who becomes available? At the very least, it's worth a shot.
Anyway, while some contend that any season that does not end in an NBA Finals bid is a failure, just being in the playoffs is pretty darn exciting. For me, one of my greatest Rockets memories remains the 2009 Playoffs where the Rockets didn't even get past the second round. Being the best of the best is certainly fun, but just being good is pretty nice as well.
Especially considering the era of player movement that we are in today, tanking probably isn't the best strategy. Instead, being good and staying good may be the best way to build a championship roster. So whether it is Nene, Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, or even Tyson Chandler, the Rockets need to find a way to get good so they don't go down the risky avenue of rebuilding. Perhaps tanking would lead to striking gold, but enduring a decade like the one Minnesota just has went though would be nearly unbearable.