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The Rockets, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard: You’ve Been Had

It’s been an eventful past few days with all the rumors swirling around. Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Nene, Tyson Chandler, and Samuel Dalembert have all been hot topics of discussion. The direction this Rockets franchise is going has been confusing to say the least. They’ve been placed in this awkward spot between trying to go full bore to compete or to rebuild.

In the time since Daryl Morey took over the Rockets position back in 2007 he was charged with maintaining a competitive roster in Houston but also ensuring longevity. In that time he has brought us a trio of Ron Artest, Yao Ming, and Tracy McGrady, one of the most expensive arrays of suits to see the sidelines in Houston. His tenure has brought a lot of hope, a lot of disagreement, and a lot of questions to Houston and he’s not alone. After the jump we’ll investigate the myths and lines that the fan base has been sold and the inherent flaw in this thinking.

Myth: The Rockets are a team with a ton of assets so a deal is inevitable

The fact of the matter is the Rockets have a lot of players on affordable contracts. What the Rockets don’t have, however, are players that entice a team to go through with a deal. The current Rockets roster is the result of having to get out from under the contracts of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. The current roster also has a smathering of 2009’s draft picks that didn’t manage to stick with their teams. Also on offer are late first round draft picks and traded player exceptions (TPE) on offer.

When you consider the Houston roster as it is put together the collection of players on offer is middle of the pack at best when you consider PER, production, long-term sustainability, and durability. Unfortunately what gets lost in this offering of players is the simple fact that you’re not going to land a notable player (often coming from a team that is about to go into a rebuild) with a bunch of average players. The majority of our roster is unproven or a known and exceedingly average commodity.

TPE’s are intriguing for the simple fact that they can be used as a fill in for a player except in the one most critical way you need living human beings in a trade. You can combine players to make salaries match in a trade. Unfortunately a TPE is only good for that exact or lesser value. So as it stands the Rockets have chunks of cap savings that teams aren’t desperate for. Once the free agency class of Lebron James and Chris Bosh finished TPE’s were no longer the hot ticket item. The best part of the TPE is that it expires after the season starts, which will clear the air about literally getting something for nothing off a trade with a TPE.

The late draft picks the Rockets have available aren’t particularly enticing when it comes to trades because of the simple fact that you want to pick at an impact spot in the draft. That impact spot is not anything below number 10. The draft is a crapshoot but a competent scouting department can maximize their top ten pick. Unfortunately attempting to package the 14th pick with the 25th pick is not going to entice a team to give up a top 7 pick.

Myth: The Rockets assets are prized around the league

Now that we’ve had a chance to look at what these ‘assets’ are we can go ahead and assess their value. Rockets fans love to talk about deals that never were but none of us are privileged to the discussions that go on behind closed doors. We read reports of after the fact players that the Rockets were interested in and rarely get to hear the actual reason that these deals fell through. The only discernible trade we have that fell through was when the offer was on the table for a rental of Amare Stoudemire for Shane Battier and Luis Scola. The only reason that fell through was refusal on the part of the Rockets to accept Stoudemire without a physical.

Given our legitimate information is so lacking I find it absolutely stunning that Rockets fans will consistently tell everyone that their players are so valued that they come up in deal talks with major players around the NBA.

The one thing that has me consistently scratching my head is that none of these deals materialize and none of us know what was actually offered. Further, the fact that none of these deals ever materializes should tell us that what we have just isn’t that attractive. I ask you, critical readers, if I offer to sell you a car, and everyone tells me that car is worth 10,000 dollars and I tell you I want 25,000 for it because that’s what I feel it’s worth, what is the actual value of my car? I’m more inclined to take the market opinion of value than my own sentimental attachment, which is what, I believe, is the most decisive factor in this debate. Rockets fans tend to attach massive sentimental value to their players to over-estimate what they should be able to net in return. As I said before our players, as our record reflects, are painstakingly average. Lowry? Average. Scola? Average. Budinger? At best average. Our record? Average. At the end of the day, we all love Scola, but what’s he worth? His contract is at around 9 million this year and ends are 12 million, he’s in his thirties, and has had knee surgery. Now if I told you the Rockets are prepared to fling 10 million dollars at a 30 year old with knee problems at the power forward position, you’d tell me we were idiots. Instead, since he’s Luis Scola, we’re convinced he should be traded for a high draft pick from a rebuilding team or a pat on the butt from a championship contender who would clearly trip all over themselves for him? Not hardly.

Myth: Our assets are a collection of draft busts and castaways

This is the most confusing bit of double speak I see so common amongst Houston fans. In one vein we have wonderful collections of assets that teams should be fighting to get at. Then, in a later breath if we’re expected to use these players for our own purposes we’re at best average and hoping against hope that players who couldn’t stick and were lottery busts will produce anything. The Rockets have collected the 2nd, 6th, 8th, and 11th picks from that draft, all from teams with checkered pasts about developing players at the time. Everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Hasheem Thabeet, carries a five million dollar price tag. Some would have you believe Daryl Morey was forced to pay Hasheem this amount through some effort of Hasheem’s but ultimately what gets ignored in this discussion is the fact that you need bad contracts to make worthwhile trades in the NBA.

Teams want to swap bad contracts or large numbers to move big pieces, it’s how it works. Johnny Flynn was getting discredited the moment he got traded to Houston when Morey has been pursuing him for quite some time. Neglect the fact that Flynn played for a team that is notorious for squandering talent and not developing players in Minnesota and they have a point. Jordan Hill? No player on this team has ebbed and flowed so much as he has to the chagrin of so many Rockets fans. He shifted positions on the fly last year and was discredited as though he demanded to move to the 5. Last is Terrence Williams. Physically he is a specimen and his attitude is infamous. What’s lost amongst all of the critique is that although he might be a pigheaded player, he is one of the most physically gifted players on the team.

So this begs the question, do these players have ceilings or are they destined to exit the NBA for good? Further, why do Rockets fans insist on praising them when it comes to the idea of trading them away but discrediting them when it comes to investigating what talent we have on tap? It’s an exercise in hypocrisy to do such a thing but its become common. The fact of the matter is that these players were drafted where they were for a reason and come from teams with questionable history for developing players. In Houston, the focus is on big men and point guards with a special emphasis towards getting the most out of a player. Houston is one of the few teams with a D-League affiliate to ensure they can monitor player improvement in accordance with what the Rockets want to see on their team. How this is a negative, I am unsure. Thabeet put up great numbers in the Rio Grande Valley Vipers while showing major improvement in his game.

Myth: The Rockets are trying to rebuild and compete at the same time

This is perhaps the most atrocious lie that has been sold to Houston Rockets fans. Leslie Alexander has made it well known that he "believes a team can rebuild while being competitive at the same time." This ignores conventional wisdom, practical observation, and the broad swath of NBA History. The Celtics did not always have Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, they went through 10 years of mediocrity and downright shamefulness to get the draft picks and pieces needed to deal for Allen and Garnett. The Lakers? A few years of mediocrity only buoyed into the playoffs by the fact that their division wasn’t that strong and Kobe Bryant was the best player in basketball. The Spurs? Built through drafting and intelligent scouting. I don’t even need to explain the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Heat? Drafted Dwayne Wade and gutted their roster salary-wise, along with some collusion, to pick up Bosh and James. The common thread here is glaringly obvious. If you want to contend you must pony up for a harsh road of suck.

So, my friends, why is it that we insist on lying to ourselves? I implore you just follow through with these next few sentences. If rebuilding is the floor, and contending for a championship is the ceiling, the only way to compromise between them is the middle. The Rockets have drafted at the end of the lottery and finished just outside the playoffs for two years.

We are perfectly in the middle. We are right where Leslie Alexander wants us to be. Year in and year out Rockets fans insist we are one player away or can be competitive in the playoffs. I ask you, my friends, if we fix the hole at center, shy of Dwight Howard, do we have significantly more games won to make it out of the first round? I think it’s well established we don’t have enticing players to make a trade for a key player. Why, then, does it seem to be the rallying cry that we can somehow rebuild and somehow be contenders?

The Lakers aren’t in stasis they’re improving. The Celtics are looking to infuse some young blood on a roster that is competing but the writing is on the wall, they’re going to rebuild soon. The Thunder? Firmly competing, making trades and moves to bring in win-now players. Teams heading towards their twilight understand they need to prepare for some irrelevance. Rockets fans have been force-fed this drivel about somehow it’s ok to merely make it to the playoffs, don’t expect a title if you’re not going to demand that your owner pick a direction with the team. If anyone can reconcile for me how it’s ok to have an owner who wants your money to spin the tires and fail to move rather than to have an owner who is willing to do what it takes to build a long-term movement in Houston, I’d love to hear it. The Wizards are my Eastern Conference team because of where I live and I’m actually happy with the strategy they have employed, acknowledging that it’s a long, arduous road to relevance, even in the East.

Myth: Chris Paul will help land us other players, force us to rebuild, or sign an extension.

No, he won’t. Chris Paul won’t sign an extension in Houston for the same reason free agents don’t want to come here. No one wants to come to an ailing franchise with an entitled fan-base, low level of glamour in the city, a GM who makes it apparent that everyone is moveable, and an owner that says he’s willing to spend to win but continually green lights cost slashing moves to mitigate the fact that he won’t do what is necessary to make the team relevant. Any trade that lands a guy like Chris Paul will result in having to ship out a bunch of players to return anything.

This is an unfortunate side effect of the contracts the Rockets have acquired. You have to send out a plethora of players to make salaries match, accommodate any contract dumps a team wants, and sift through what you have left over after the fact. In the case of a Chris Paul trade it would require that the Rockets give up Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin, and Patrick Patterson, most likely some draft picks, and that’s if New Orleans didn’t want to dump another contract with Paul. The issue here is that Chris Paul has made public statements and his agent has made his intentions well known, Paul will be heading to New York as soon as he can. Whether or not New York has tons of money or players to deal for Paul is beside the point because when you’re Chris Paul, you command money in endorsements and New York will definitely open up whatever coffers it has in order to make it work.

If you’re the Rockets and want the one year rental of Chris Paul you have to reconcile the fact that you had a potential stud in Patrick Patterson sent out, along with an efficient scorer (One dimensional but a quality scorer), and a point guard that could have kept the position steady for years. Do you feel comfortable in trusting all the point guard duties to Goran Dragic and Johnny Flynn? I want to see what Flynn has in him before I make that call, I’m not sure about you.

So whom do I blame for mediocrity in this organization? Morey? Alexander? The Fans? It’s a mixture. That’s the cop-out answer but still I think it fits. I really hold little to no blame to Daryl. Daryl Morey has been doing his job and doing the best he can with his hands severely limited. I do fault him for his adherence to sports analytics and for publicly calling his players assets. They’re players, not chattel, they’re not movable assets, they’re human beings with family and you should really value what you have on hand before you start dealing people out. No point in running talent out of town before you know what you shipped out.

Alexander? I put most of the blame on his head. He’s a brilliant businessman so he knows clearly what he’s doing to make money off his franchise but I question how much he knows what he’s doing with the team now. He acquired the team in 1993, when Olajuwon was already on the team along with a lot of the foundational players around for the title runs that they went on. In recent years he has switched the Rockets from a defense first style under Van Gundy to an offensive first team under Rick Adelman. This, mind you, was for a more entertaining brand of basketball, not for one known for its ability to yield championships as Alexander had a couple years to observe the failures of the Phoenix Suns. After a few years of failure under the Adelman offense first system and a basketball team that has been tailored to run and avoid defense the gears are shifting back towards a traditional style of basketball.

The astute reader may ask: Why the reason for our change initially? Sales. People will pay to see fast paced basketball regardless of whether or not it wins because it’s a back and forth contest. The Rockets delivered on that. We didn’t have to win more than half our games because we had entertaining games, which puts people in the seats. This is why I feel the idea of mortgaging the future for Chris Paul has more to do with selling seats this year and when he bolts, Leslie can pin the fault on his GM for pulling the trigger on a "short sighted" deal. My gripe with Alexander is that he receives so much praise for essentially doing so little for his team.

The Fans? Yes. Blood is on your hands too. By buying in to Alexander’s cockamamie concept of "rebuild and compete" fans have acquiesced mediocrity. One cannot simultaneously be both here and there. Unfortunately this fact has been ignored because it’s easier to convince ourselves that we’re better than we really are. To see this team stagger out of the gate like a drunkard after last call had many fans calling for heads everywhere. As soon as a second half rally came about everyone was convinced we were a playoff team. The better question to ask is why should we continue pinning our hopes on promises that never get delivered?

Morey has acquired what he could and is handicapped by his boss yet we’re convinced a collection of mediocre things will yield a top 10 object? It’s not plausible. The expectation should be building a winner. Not building an also ran. We currently have a team that is an also ran, even if we were to sign a center. Tragically the Rockets need to elect to either rebuild OR compete. We don’t have the pieces to compete so it’s best to go the only proven way to actually build a contender. Welcome to the NBA, my friends, badly managed teams are rewarded. How else did Washington get John Wall after Leonsis got hold of the team? How did the Clippers land Blake Griffin? The Bulls get their hands on Derrick Rose? At the end of the day you have a better chance of striking gold if you’re willing to bite the bullet, the Rockets have refused to do so, and sadly, many of the fans have bought the lie.