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Why Houston Rockets fans remain spoiled by Hakeem Olajuwon

Heading into tonight's game against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Rockets sport a record of 27-24. That mark is currently good for a tie for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoff race. If you consider that Kyle Lowry has been out for a few weeks now, and that the Rockets have been playing banged-up and undersized most of the year, this is rather impressive. It is just another year of the Rockets playing the role of "plucky overachiever." Of course, it should be noted that I am firmly in the camp that believes that just making the playoffs is by no means parade-worthy. You compete to win it all. Kiss the rings and such. No one remembers who finished in fifth place in 2006 without having to consult an InterwebzTM search engine.

Meanwhile, the Rockets' front office continues its dogged pursuit of a legitimately elite superstar player, preferably a center. Though after the Veto, I am not so sure that Daryl Morey is going to be too picky if he can find a forward that can consistently put up 20 and 10 and lead the team to the Promised Land. As much as I love the guy, Luis Scola is not that player. Nor is Patrick Patterson. Or anyone else presently on the roster. On a related note: screw you, Dwight Howard. Make up your damn mind and stop making LeBron James look sympathetic by way of comparison.

But I digress.

Though this is where we have a major dilemma. Dating back to the 1970s, the NBA has demonstrated that it takes a "legitimately elite superstar" player to have any plausible hopes of winning the Championship.[1] Even in a strike/lockout-shortened season.[2] Similarly, the Houston Rockets were able to take advantage of this fact in the glory years of 1994 and 1995, riding the coattails of Robert Horry Hakeem Olajuwon to two NBA Championships.

And thus we have the point of this post. As fans of the Houston Rockets, we remain spoiled by the career of Hakeem Olajuwon. Nearly 20 years after the prime of his career, Olajuwon continues to cast a large shadow over the franchise. It is not his fault in any way. The issue is that every Rockets team that suits up will forever be compared to the Olajuwon-era teams. (Just look at the reaction the "Team of the 90's" got last week at the Toyota Center and you should understand why.)

The question we have to answer is: how do we as fans measure the success of the team when the roster lacks a top-5 or top-10 player? Even when he was playing out of his mind at the beginning of the year, Kyle Lowry was not even in the top 10 best players in the NBA. Also, without Yao or McGrady to pin the team's hopes on, how should we grade the job that Les Alexander, Daryl Morey and Kevin McHale are doing with this assorted collection of talent?

Follow me after the jump to see my more complete thoughts...

Who are the top teams in the NBA today and what do they all have in common?

By record order so as to not imply that I am playing favorites:

Chicago Bulls (41-11)

[city redacted] Thunder (39-12)

Miami Heat (36-13)

San Antonio Spurs (35-14)

Orlando Magic (32-19) [ed. note: really???]

Los Angeles Lakers (31-20)

These six teams are generally considered to be the "only" teams truly capable of winning the Championship this year. I rarely hear much argument on this allegation. Why is it that we just accept this to be true? I believe it is because of the following:

The Bulls have Derrick Rose

The Thunder have Kevin Durant

The Heat have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade

The Spurs have Tim Duncan (even if in decline)

The Magic have Dwight Howard

The Lakers have Kobe Bryant

Similarly, who are considered to be the top 5 players in the NBA today? Likely some order of:

LeBron James

Kevin Durant

Dwight Howard

Kobe Bryant

Dwyane Wade

Derrick Rose

I do not believe I am leaving anyone out. The point is that without a top 5 player, and there are rarely exceptions to this Rule, your favorite team is unlikely to have a reasonable shot at advancing deep into the NBA Playoffs, much less having any conceivable chance at winning the whole thing for that given year. And it is not like a 28 year-old Hakeem is walking through that door anytime soon.

Accordingly, if you are an NBA owner or GM, your goal should be to do whatever it takes to acquire a player that will one day be among the true elite of the game. Any other approach to team-building and roster management implies an acceptance of mediocrity. Since he has been the general manager of the Rockets, Daryl Morey has done amazing things with chicken wire and chewing gum. The Rockets' starting lineup essentially was constructed from the rotting carcass of Rafer Alston, Jackie Butler's expiring contract, Tracy McGrady's decomposing knees and expiring contract, one free agent signing from the MLE and a second round pick. That's some MacGyver-level shit right there. Even crazier, those pieces were thisclose to being turned into Pau Gasol, who prior to the season could legitimately say he was the second best center in the NBA (or the 3rd or 4th best power forward). And yet... I am not sure that would have been enough. Even a sneaky move like that would have only boosted the Rockets into "honorable mention" status when being compared to the Thunders, Bulls and Heat of the league.

What am I trying to say here? I am saying that the Rockets being 27-23 is simultaneously a really good piece of evidence of how awesome a general manager the Rockets have working for them; while also blocking the Rockets from being where they want to be: Championship contenders. It is quite the quandary and unless Dwight Howard changes his mind another 3-4 times this offseason, I do not think the Rockets can dream of a third ring any time soon. Again, we continued to be spoiled by what Hakeem gave us 20 years ago. It is really tough to shake those memories because it was such a good time to be a Rockets fan.

There are two ways to win rings in the NBA:

(1) Obtain a top 2 pick in an NBA Draft the year someone like Duncan, Rose, Durant, Howard or LeBron are available, or
(2) Be the Los Angeles Lakers

That is it. That's the list.

If you are a team like the Portland TrailBlazers... you must be nodding your head accordingly right now. Having had a top 2 pick on multiple occasions (but whiffing each time), the Blazers have routinely been an "up-and-coming" team but eventually disappointing the home fanbase for the last 35 years. But at least they put themselves in the position to have a chance.

The Rockets, by way of contrast, keep churning out mediocrity. The team's record the last ten seasons? How's this for consistency:

2011: 43-39

2010: 42-40

2009: 53-29

2008: 55-27

2007: 52-30

2006: 34-48

2005: 51-31

2004: 45-37

2003: 43-39

2002: 28-54*

I stop in 2002 for a very simple reason. The Rockets backed their way into the lottery and ended up with the first pick in the draft! (See the "two ways to win" list, supra.) That year the Rockets selected some guy named Yao Ming and for the first time in a handful of years had legitimate reason to believe that the Championship Era would return again. In the nine years after that? Injuries and mediocrity. It turns out that the 2002 draft was cursed and everyone was either really bad at basketball or struck with really bad luck. (Yao Ming, Jay/Jason Williams, Stoudemire's knees, etc. etc.) If only the Rockets could have delayed their lottery luck by one year, then they would have had the experience of being dumped by LeBron James on national TV. But at least they would have had seven years of being Championship contenders.

Who knows, with LeBron in Houston maybe Rudy T would have gone on a cancer-filled rampage and stuck with the team throughout the LeBron era? Or maybe JVG could have broken LeBron in and kept him from being an all-encompassing douchebag?[3] Of course, none of that happened and the Rockets now find themselves in the NBA wasteland. Not good enough to compete and not bad enough to have any shot at Anthony Davis. It is most definitely a problem.

For the last handful of years we have heard that the Rockets are trying to collect a bunch of players to make a big trade and/or collect a lot of expiring contracts to make a big splash in free agency. Well, when even Chris Bosh tells you "no" (even after the cool-as-shit iPad efforts), you have to realize that no marquee free agent is going to sign with the Rockets. Ever. Besides, in the history of the NBA, there has only been one occasion where a free agent signed with a team and later was named NBA Finals MVP. One. That was Shaquille O'Neal. Again, look to the "two ways to win" list, part (b). I think we can safely rule out "attract big name free agent" as an intelligent path to returning to the NBA Finals. Because Houston simply is not that attractive to free agents and also because free agency never really helps non-L.A. teams anyway.

Now, I am not saying "tank" because that is just cheap and I hate having to adopt that mindset. That said... how did the six elite teams of today get where they are?

Chicago? Nearly 20 years of futility before landing the #1 pick in 2008 and drafting Derrick Rose. They almost drafted Michael Beasley. Scary.

The Thunder? Years of near-misses in Seattle led them to trading Ray Allen. They also backed their way into the #2 pick in 2007 and drafting some guy named Durant. Laughing heartily at Portland for sticking to out-dated conventions and drafting Greg Oden.

Miami? They got LeBron... who is trying to be only the 2nd free agent to be the best player on a Championship team. They also drafted Dwyane Wade #5 overall in that loaded 2003 draft. Even with Wade, the Heat had to get Shaq, David Stern and Tim Donaghy on their roster to overcome a really good Dallas Mavericks team in 2005.

San Antonio? They needed David Robinson (a former #1 overall pick) to get injured so that they could tank their way through the 1996-97 season and select Tim Duncan #1 overall. Crushing the spirits of Rick Pitino and the Celtics in the process.

Orlando? They needed Shaq to leave in 1996 and Penny Hardaway's knees to collapse. Leading to many years of mediocrity whereby they could land Dwight Howard #1 overall in 2004.

Los Angeles? They just needed to be the Lakers. Seriously, f-k the Los Angeles Lakers. (Though it should be noted that they did not win shit with Kobe or Shaq until they traded for Robert Horry. Just sayin'.)

What have we learned from this? Since the Rockets are not now, nor will they ever be, the Los Angeles Lakers - Daryl Morey and Les Alexander need to do whatever it takes to get a #1 or #2 overall pick in an NBA Draft that might produce an elite player. It is certainly a gamble, but the alternative options are extended periods of mediocrity while internet commenters bitch and moan about you not making that "Big Trade" or signing that "Big Name Free Agent" while you scratch and claw just to retain any semblance of relevancy.[4]

As the 2011-2012 (truncated) NBA regular season draws to a close, I simply ask that you continue to support the Rockets and the front office and then use whatever good vibes you can conjure up to help the Rockets acquire a top 2 pick in a future draft. If you want a ring, this seems to be the only way to get one.

I hate relying on luck, but... the numbers and anecdotal evidence of the last 35 years backs it up.


[1] The 2004 Detroit Pistons being the exception that proves the Rule. Albeit in the most convoluted way, having four All-Stars and being able to exploit the Kobe/Shaq rift.

[2] Though the 1999 season never happened. It is not even asterisk worthy.

[3] Though LeBron's recent efforts to get the Heat to take pics in hoodies as a tribute was rather badass.

[4] I'm not going to name names here, but this includes a lot of you reading this. Demanding that Daryl Morey be fired because he has not done anything is without any sort of factual support and it makes you look stupid. Stop being dumb and take a moment to think about what his actual options are. Dude is like a genius or something and you best respect that!