Well folks, I’m glad we can come back together and be in a familiar place. The Rockets are sitting at 33-32 with one game left against the New Orleans Hornets. Although the season is not over from a literal standpoint, there are no playoffs in Houston for the third straight season and there’s nothing to play for but pride. Just about a week ago the Rockets were shakily sitting at 6th place in the West and in control of their own destiny. Unfortunately the Rockets went Tommy Boy on their hopes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1EyN9xTK94). Unfortunately for us fans we’re left with questions, an abundance of cap space, a vortex of roster spots (coming up), fingers to point, and a front office to condemn. I hope to offer a glimpse on what went right, what went wrong, what we’re doing moving forward, and what we should be looking to do. Join me after the jump for my take on the Houston Rockets this year, the familiar place we’ve arrived at, and just what can we take from this season?
I am going to go ahead and ask for suggestions for a 5-on-5 mailbag of sorts amongst myself and a couple other writers. Please make suggestions in this thread, I will close it after one week and vote with your rec’s (Click Actions at the end of a post you like, click Rec), top 5 will get answered. Plus, who needs to bother studying for law school finals, right? My apologies for the formatting getting all weird.
What went right?
I know your pain, TDS, I really do. We had a season in which we seemed masters of our own fate and that proved to be too much for us to handle. The Houston Rockets DID notch some great wins and got this fanbase energized. The beginning of the year was a particularly exciting portion of the season and I will readily admit, I allowed myself to get carried away with emotion and proclaim that this team could be legitimate 7th or 8th in the West with Sam Dalembert. Without further delay, I present to you the Houston Rockets biggest plusses on the season:
o Kyle Lowry is legitimate.
o I approached this season in a cautious manner given his production in the second half last season. This year went off without a hitch and I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised with what Kyle produced. 14 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds a game from your point guard is nothing to wince at and when you give him about 2 steals a game to bounce off his 3 turnovers per game you’ve got a pretty good point guard. Is he untouchable? I hardly think so but he’s not bad to have around. Remember, just because Goran Dragic played out of his mind when he took over the starting role does not mean that Kyle is not legitimate.
o Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee are quality players.
o When injuries began to hit the Rockets Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic stepped up to put a hurting on other teams. These guys were pleasant surprises when the team needed someone to step up. Goran made many forget about Kyle Lowry and quickly Kyle’s most ardent supporters to anoint Goran a worthwhile starter. Courtney Lee happily reminded Rockets fans he started as a rookie for an NBA Finals Orlando Magic team. He is not a marquee two-way player but this team lacks the kind of two-way players you need (Only boasting Kyle Lowry and Courtney Lee in my opinion).
o Luis Scola recovered his form.
o Luis Scola started the year making many people regret his contract and, honestly, even towards the end of the year I have some doubts. Luis underwent knee surgery before the year began, his rebounding and scoring numbers diminished, and he seems to be stuck in his own head. Luis is the little engine that could and defenses focused in on him and that explains the numbers to an extent. Luis’s game has always been below the rim and he even attempted a dunk this year, so there’s that! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05Jm6oKi54w
o The Road Trip.
o The Rockets managed to hit the open road and took out four opponents. They took out the (Rose-less) Chicago Bulls, the Los Angeles Lakers and took care of business against the Sacramento Kings and Portland Trailblazers. This stretch of games earlier this month had many talking (including myself) of the potential of the Rockets managing to pull off a first round upset.
o The seven-game win streak.
o The Rockets took care of business during January and defeated their bottom-feeder slate and even slipped a win against the Spurs and the Wolves (Before injuries ravaged them, the team checked out on Adelman, and they dropped off). The streak was even so inspiring as to prompt praise and hope amongst the fan-base again.
What went wrong?
You can’t appreciate the good without the bad and this season contained bad for us.
o Kevin Martin is one-dimensional.
o There is no delicate way to approach this subject. I am going to get people complaining for talking about Martin honestly but keep reading, if you fail to do so I will just mock you. Kevin was injured, yes, but before the injury really surfaced Kevin didn’t do much different than he ever did. He doesn’t tend to move the ball around or rebound the ball if the shot’s not working. The NBA changed the rules to help take away his bread and butter: touch fouls translating to points. This change made him tentative and it showed in his game (Minding his injury and the likelihood of a no-call). Once his injury boiled to the surface Courtney Lee stepped in and provided as much scoring punch with better man defense and rotational defense. Kevin McHale had already begun to bench Kevin Martin when defense was needed on the court and perhaps one of the best things for the Rockets was Martin going down.
o The team clearly got exhausted this season. There aren’t many other ways to explain the road trip sweep and the subsequent collapse. The lockout shortened the season and the Rockets were very young prior to their trade deadline moves. Marcus Camby (long-established veteran) and Sam Dalembert began to experience back pains and spasms, players began to lose their legs in jump shots, and in general, the team just began to sputter out. If I were an agitator I would say the road trip wins were the death throes of a team that knew it was going down.
o Failure to finish strong.
o This team has not seen toughness since The Rock, err, Metta World Peace, err, Ron Artest (Screw it, you elbow a guy like that you’re a scumbag) left this squad. The Rockets have long lacked the killer instinct (A common criticism of the Yao-led Rockets was that they wouldn’t put their boot on a team’s throat. Houston had disappointments in the third quarter to close out the year (Yet another recurring theme). The Rockets also managed to finish their schedule strongly in general, especially with high playoff seeding. The margin for error was minimal and this team showed a lack of toughness, a lack of endurance, and a lack of killer instinct.
Where are we now?
Well, this is where it gets awkward. The team is currently stocked with question marks (Where we were last year), a roughly .500 record (Where we were last year), the need for a franchise player (Where we were last year), and a pick at the ass-end of the lottery (Where we were last season). The Rockets are loaded with cap space for the off-season with the common chatter centering around Deron Williams to Dallas and no other free agents worth throwing money at. The majority of free agents worth looking at are restricted free agents and the teams with the player’s rights are reticent to part with the player. Houston can use the cap space to take on salary in a trade, maybe take an albatross contract off a team if it comes with a draft pick. Houston currently has the 14th and 17th pick if the draft happened today and this order should be set. The fans are left with a great deal of anger and questions as to where to point that anger. Rockets fans are upset at the coach with his late rotations and blaming McHale for the collapses because he’s suited up for the Rockets for 65 games so far. Fans are upset with the owner for handcuffing his GM and trotting out a sub-par product in the name of sales because the reality of how to improve is not something he wants to deal with right now. Fans are upset with the GM for his failure to do anything more than tack this ship slowly along (Sailing reference, kids!) a path that leads to nowhere. The sum total of all of this is the fans are upset. Hopefully the Rockets can salvage something.
What needs to happen?
The Rockets find themselves exactly where they were three years ago. Einsten is quoted as having once said "insanity is defined as repeating the same experiment multiple times and anticipating a different result." While the Rockets have been pursuing different parts in this experiment the flat level of talent hasn’t changed. This team is in stasis and we keep repeating the same experiment and expecting something better than the middle of the pack. This season, all things told, had injuries to thank to explain things at least in part, but the end results are the same, we’re stuck at the end of the line, again. We have to take an honest look at what this roster contains, what is actually attainable, and what the sore needs are. If you’re looking for a point by point of what we need to do, you’re barking up the wrong tree. I’m not the GM, I have no say in the decision making process of this organization, and this piece is intended to spark conversation, not for me to try to hit the ESPN trade machine and get Lebron James for a bag of funyuns.
o What do we have?
o The Rockets are slated to lose Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic in free agency, Samuel Dalembert has a contract that we can disavor for less than 2 million dollars next season (A savings of 5 million dollars), and Marcus Camby to free agency (If things stay the same). The Rockets stand to have a minimal amount of players under salary with the youngest pieces being Patrick Patterson, Chandler Parsons, and Marcus Morris. Donatas Motiejunas is slated to come over.
§ Patrick Patterson will hopefully bounce back from his sophomore slump. This is a common phenomena that a player will be hot their rookie year and slump the next year. I would look for him to improve in major categories this next season.
§ Chandler Parsons will have a major task in front of him to continue to produce at the rate he has this season. That dreaded sophomore slump is right around the corner. People can choose to ride high on a rookie all they want but that does not refute reality, he has a better chance of regressing slightly next year than he does improving.
§ Marcus Morris will improve greatly if he manages to get 3 fouls per game next season. That’s how little time he saw this year and how ineffective he was in the trash time he got. Though, to be fair, if he were Terrence Williams we would say he had an attitude problem, wastes too much time on Twitter, and is a lazy guy who doesn’t show in practice.
§ Donatas Motiejunas has some lofty expectations placed on him this season. I don’t see why. It’s time to face facts that the Rockets need someone to save them but everything I see of Motiejunas makes me think Mehmet Okur, not Dirk Nowitzki. I know it’s trendy to label 7 footers who can shoot the next Dirk Nowitzki but people are expecting the Donatas to come in and bail us out, draw free agents to us, and go off for 40 points a game and it will only lead to massive disappointment. If he comes over and averages 12 and 8 as a starter, I will be thrilled and consider him someone to keep around to build.
o Houston has known commodities in Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, and Kyle Lowry. In regards to these players, executives around the league know what they’ll get and these guys most certainly have value.
§ Luis Scola can still net you points and won’t make too many mistakes out there. He will occasionally frustrate you by outsmarting himself but you take the good with the bad.
§ Kevin Martin has had some flare ups of attitude problems (Moping after the failed trade and complaining about being benched when defense is needed) and has an injury concern that could be chronic (The shoulder) but I could see him being moved for a team looking for an elite back up (Elite as a back up, average as a starter due to diminished value with the shoulder) or for a team willing to roll the dice on his shoulder problems (Doubtful). At the very least he’s an expiring deal next season.
§ Kyle Lowry began playing his way into the upper echelon of point guard’s doorstep. His bacterial infection won’t diminish his value but his sports hernia could raise some questions. Fortunately his contract is at a point where he has a friendly contract you could ship out and teams would be happy to take it as a low-risk high yield reward if he had injury concerns.
o What do we need?
o Get the stick out cause this dead horse is gonna get beaten. The Rockets need a franchise star. Does he have to be a Center? No. Ideally he’s a 3 or a 5. There is no need for an elite point guard as point guards historically require someone to pass to rather than let them dominate the ball. Shooting guards have fallen out of favor in the NBA (Unless you’re Dwayne Wade or Kobe Bryant) as franchise players, small forwards and centers tend to carry more versatility. The only reason I avoid saying a 4 is what would work best here as a franchise player is that we’re overstocked on the position.
o The Rockets need to quit hoping they can convert someone to fit their needs. The selection of Marcus Morris, a player who barely saw the floor this year and played his entire career at the 4, came at the cost of Kawhi Leonard (Acquired by San Antonio, one of the most revered drafters in the NBA and a divisional rival).
o To move their veterans for what they can get. The rebuilding process cannot afford to keep prolonging this process. If you’ve seen Hoarders the Rockets are becoming a prime example of it. Lateral moves keep being used and there is no interest in a firesale that really needs to happen. You can’t continue to be a middling talent in this league and hope it works out.
o What should we look to do?
o First, attempt to move up in the draft. If history is any indicator, we will be drafting 14 and 17. This draft would have been the perfect one to draft in because even if you don’t land a franchise player in the top 10 picks you are landing a foundational player that you can work with. When Lamarcus Aldridge was playing second banana to Brandon Roy everyone felt like Aldridge was not franchise but very nice to have (Foundational) and now that Roy is gone, people are viewing Aldridge as franchise and he’s warranting the praise.
o Second, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, and even Kyle Lowry need to be moved if it gets you something special or a top 5 pick. Trade partners in the top 5 are not likely to accept any deal that makes them compete now because usually if you’re drafting top 5 you’re so far removed from that idea it’s not worth it. Portland is the only exception I can find at 7 and 11.
§ If the Rockets are lucky they could try to make an offer to Sacramento for Tyreke Evans and their pick for the 14, 17, Kyle Lowry, and Kevin Martin (Pass-first PG, SG to back Thornton and drop 11 million off the books, two picks to compensate for a top 5 and continue upgrading, they move Tyreke Evans to allow Cousins room to flourish). The hope here is the Kings stay in their draft spot and you can get access to Andre Drummond.
o Third, overload an offer to Roy Hibbert or Eric Gordon. Someone to play 2A to build around if you can’t make noise in the draft. No matter what, this roster needs to make a splash.
o Fourth, shake this roster up. I don’t care who it is for and how it gets done, this team is in a state of stasis because marginal parts are being moved for contributors who either don’t have much tread on the tires or players who have unfulfilled potential to live up to. No player is safe on this roster and no player warrants that kind of treatment but after a while you just need to put your money on a specific amount and roll the dice for the payoff .