We may not have a season, but gosh durnit, we're still rolling out season previews! Hope you enjoy my contribution to Jeff Clark's annual basketball preview jamboree.
Team Name: Houston Rockets
Last Year's Record: 43-39
Key Free Agents: Yao Ming, Chuck Hayes
Team Needs: A center, a firm plan for the future and better attendance in the lower bowl, you lazy, rich season-ticket holders.
1. What are Houston's biggest needs this offseason?
Little Mindy ran home from Sunday school and posed this exact question to her Grandma Sue before they both broke down laughing and simultaneously exclaimed: "Gah! The Rockets STILL don't have a center!"
True story. The Rockets remain center-less. In two years, the most Daryl Morey has come up with is Hasheem Thabeet, a lottery bust whose time could be better spent constructing tree houses.
I'm picturing Richard Karn on Family Feud, saying the following to the studio audience:
"All together now, folks: name the missing piece for Houston in the past three years!"
"ANY RECOGNIZABLE FORM OF RIM PROTECTION!"
The front office has spent countless nights on the patio star-gazing like a bunch of Newtons and it hasn't gotten them anywhere. Stars aren't coming to Houston. They had their chance. It was the free agent equivalent of Orion's Belt in 2010, and the Rockets came away with casual hunter Brad Miller.
It's not as if Morey hasn't tried to bring in a skyscraper. Remember, Dallas basketball's Lord and Savior, Tyson Chandler, was on his way to Houston before a physical drove a proposed trade into the ground. Once Chandler left the market for the Mavericks, the options dried up. Legitimate centers are as difficult to find as ever. It is the reason Kevin Martin-for-Marcin Gortat offers exist in the realm of sanity, at least to one South Floridian team.
On the micro-scale, the Rockets need help in the middle. On the macro-scale, the team needs a new young star, and of course, it would be just fantastic if the Rockets could kill two birds with one stone. Unfortunately, Morey hasn't solved even the micro-level problem since Yao Ming took his tumble against the Lakers in 2009, so it's time he makes it his priority. If the Rockets want to win, they must shore up the paint.
Now, does that mean the Rockets should go spend a bunch of money to lure Chandler, a free agent, away from Dallas? No, probably not. There is a middle ground to be found in this process, and it lies somewhere between Chandler and Thabeet.
2. What are the Rockets' biggest strengths & weaknesses?
Strengths -- Houston's backcourt is its engine and its driving force. Point guard Kyle Lowry will be on a quest to prove his breakout season wasn't a fluke. Goran Dragic is the backup, a sharpshooter with a knack for being a really good bench player without possessing the true credentials to keep Lowry on any form of a hot seat. Third stringer Jonny Flynn will get his chance to play outside of the triangle offense for the first time in his young career, a move many think will help place him on the right track.
Shooting guard Kevin Martin gets his first mention nearly ten paragraphs down -- a fitting designation for a player often overlooked. Martin stepped his game up in 2010, playing in 80 games while showering opponents with flowers of efficiency. He averaged 23.5 points on only 15.8 shots per game, but at the same time, he only played 32 minutes per game. I like backup Courtney Lee as much as anyone, but Martin will need another five minutes on the floor each night for the Rockets to have more success.
The Rockets are loaded at forward, more so with bodies than with actual talent. But the talent remains a strength, led by power forward Luis Scola. All Houston eyes will be on 2011 lottery pick Marcus Morris as soon as a season appears. Morris was a productive college player who will be making the switch to small forward in all likelihood, especially given Houston's depth at the four. Fellow rookie Donatas Motiejunas figures to garner intrigue at the PF position; he will play behind standout rookie Patrick Patterson, who will be looking to improve on a solid first season.
In all, Houston can shoot and score and they can do it fast, ranking among the league's best in first-quarter scoring. But there's a catch.
Weaknesses -- Houston ranked dead last in fourth-quarter points allowed last year. Many confused Houston's fourth-quarter deficiencies for a lack of shot creating ability on the other end, but it was the defensive side of the ball that yielded to the late-game collapses.
So, about that center problem. We've been over that. It exists.
The Rockets' biggest weakness may not be known at this point. Whatever it is, it could surface once the season begins under new head coach Kevin McHale. It's no knock on the former Boston Celtics great -- I'm in the crop who thinks McHale was a strong hire and fits the current Rockets mindset.
The aforementioned catch: We're about to find out how great an effect former coach Rick Adelman had on the team. Did his famed genius offense turn Houston's big scorers into overachievers, or did it simply tamper the defense?
We don't know yet, but odds are, there will be a significant drop off, at least to start. A changing of the guard will provide fresh look at the roster and at the true talent the Rockets possess.
A final issue is a possible lack of continuity, which is always difficult to measure from the outside. Morey's trigger-happy nature and penchant for labeling his players as "assets" must leave players feeling in limbo whenever they have a bad game. Kevin Martin even mentioned as much to the press. The roster is in its makeshift stages, meaning that more changes are on the horizon. The players know this, and it should only make it harder for them to band together comfortably.
However, at the end of the day, as fans, we can only guess the real impact this has on professional athletes, especially those who are currently in a battle not about basketball, but about business.
3. If there is no season in 2011-12, how is Houston set up for 2012?
Oddly enough, the Rockets could actually benefit from a missed season. Nobody is going to retire from this squad any time soon. It's not even a finished roster. Unlike with Dallas or San Antonio or other veteran teams, Houston is in no rush to win championships. Extended time off and another shot at landing a dynamite draft pick only help the Rockets.
Houston's "veterans" are still in their primes and are signed on through the 2012 season. Only Courtney Lee and Dragic will be free agents. Morey's power-forward-ridden roster could is nowhere near its completed stages, so if basketball isn't in session, Morey can look to shift parts without possibly ruining team chemistry during the season.
The Rockets are in good shape financially. Aside from maybe Luis Scola, they aren't scared of aging. A lost season wouldn't be much fun, but then again, for a team whose attendance constantly underwhelms, perhaps Houstonians could use a wake-up call to see what they'd really be missing.
4. If you could make one change the NBA's new CBA, what would it be?
I won't shame myself by trying to answer this blindly, so I'll keep it simple: small market teams need help. If that means revenue sharing, so be it. If that means a hard cap, so be it. (Though as SB Nation's Tom Ziller writes, a hard cap may do more harm for small market teams than good). I've always stuck to the idea that the NBA thrives on its big cities and on its star players, and to a large degree, it does. But where has it gotten them? Hasn't business tanked? There is a need for parity in basketball, and while I'm not sure it will solve the league's problems, given the sad state of its business side, there has got to be a leveling of some sort.
5. How do the Rockets escape The Middle?
For the past two years, Houston has been just good enough to make a playoff run, but just bad enough to ultimately miss the postseason. How do the Rockets get out of this predicament?
The simple answer: lose. This team isn't good enough to win deep into the playoffs, so why not tank and hope for a Tim Duncan scenario? Doesn't that sound just peachy?
For those who missed it, I elaborated on the subject in my recent email exchange with Red 94's Rahat Huq:
Trading Scola and Martin makes sense on the surface, but the return package is the key. Martin could probably score Houston a lottery pick, but it's risky: for every Yao Ming lingers a Kwame Brown or even a Jay Williams. And what would Scola bring to Houston? Another batch of mediocre semi-veterans or a few early burnouts like Jonny Flynn? Been there, done that. Would he procure a lottery pick? Certainly not. So then, I wonder: what's the point?
The point. Hmm. The point, sadly, is to lose. The point is to get rid of winners and those who best contribute to winning - i.e. Scola and Martin. The point is to do that and then to run the young, crazy, off-the-wall talent onto the court with the hope that they'll turn into studs, but secretly, we kind of hope they'll stink so we can move on and select Andre Drummond or some other incoming draft dynamo with our first overall pick. We did it with Yao Ming. We also basically did it with Steve Francis. That's the flawed, stupendous point.
So again, is it that easy? Tank, lose, win? No, not really.
I wish returning to prominence were a quick and simple process, but it's not. This isn't a video game: this is a business. If Houston were to take such a risk as to trade away its fan-favorites and best players with the hope that they could score a franchise player in the draft... it could lose them their precious attendance numbers and ultimately could cost front office folks their jobs. But alas, what alternative is there?
The roster complicates the problem. It presents little to no ideas for a direction. It's a giant contradiction. In its most basic sense, the problem is that the roster is:
A) Young... but not elite in potential.
B) Experienced... but not in playoff games.
C) Filled with players who need more minutes than their roles might suggest.
D) Dependent on Terrence Williams... but not dependent on Terrence Williams.
E) Perhaps one star player away from serious contention. Just one.
Does Morey risk his job to fully rebuild -- not reload, but rebuild -- when he could fix everything with one single trade? That's the million dollar question. We'll likely find out by the end of next season after a year under McHale. Make no mistake: the Rockets will try to win games. No question about it. It is each player's and coach's job to win games. No matter the situation, everyone will try for victories.
Yet, if the season proves unsuccessful, perhaps that will green light Morey and Alexander to rebuild. On the flip side, an overachieving year and another mid-conference finish could make matters worse for a team looking for a direction and a sign.
As fans, we face a challenge: we want to root for a team who could possibly benefit from losing. But that doesn't mean we should encourage losing. There is a way to go about rebuilding: it lies in development and in progress. If Houston wins a lot of games and if its young players contribute to that success, that's fantastic. If the young players sit while the veterans lead the Rockets to 45 victories, I might have a problem with that.
If you couldn't tell, this is the season of questions marks for Houston, ironically in the midst of the question-markiest year the NBA has seen for some time. If a season is indeed played, expect the unexpected, but don't think Adelman's exit won't hurt the win total.
Predicted Record: 36 -- 46