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Stuck in the Middle With You - AKA The Failapse

Other teams would be thrilled to have a guy who can do what Budinger does for less than $1 million a year.  Rocket fans just seem mad at him.
Other teams would be thrilled to have a guy who can do what Budinger does for less than $1 million a year. Rocket fans just seem mad at him.

This story could have been written at any time after the Rockets imploded their way out of a possible 5th seed into their customary 14th pick. I chose now because the pain has faded a bit. Eventually I want to cover not only theRockets fade down the stretch, but also move on to some topics regarding team composition, future direction, and long-standing gripes.

Just Missing The Playoffs, Again - The Rockets were in the catbird seat with 8 games left. They'd just completed a very impressive road trip that saw wins in Chicago and Los Angeles. They'd recently beaten the Thunder at home. (In fact the Rockets went 2-2 versus the Thunder, one of the better showings in the NBA.) Everything looked promising. Maybe we'd see a first round exit, but there are few teams I didn't think the Rockets would take to 6 games, and who knows, maybe they'd get lucky. Maybe the Rockets would get Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin playing at full strength and make a series of it.

Going .500 would have done it, for the 8th seed, anyway. Of course that didn't happen. The Rockets dropped 7 of 8, many in heartbreaking, and some in humiliating, fashion. Goodbye playoffs, hello grist for the mill, and well-earned grist at that.

Why did it happen? It's complicated, but I think the answer doesn't have anything to do with heart, or grit, or chutzpah or anything like that. The Rockets wore out, and they wore out for several reasons.

Here's my breakdown. After that clicky little jump.

The Rockets are a high effort team. They must move on offense to score, with only one ISO-capable player (Luis Scola). They must work hard on defense. This is an effective, attractive, but tiring, way to play basketball.

I often felt the that the Rockets needed to play near the maximum of their capacity all the time to achieve good results. That's fine, you want to see a team that fights hard, and I think the Rockets rarely gave less than maximum effort.

But fighting that hard every game can wear a team out in a normal year. In a (hopefully unique) compressed year like this one, the effects are amplified. To the Rockets credit, they didn't fade until the very end, and without the injuries, I think they wouldn't have faded at all.

A high effort team that lost its "stars". This sort of exhaustion is one reason why stars are valuable. Its not because everyone says they're great, because some "stars" actually aren't at all great. (Hello Rudy Gay!) Its not because they were a high pick in the draft, though that's where they're most often found. It is not even because they're "closers", whatever that really means, because evidence is sort of sketchy regarding "closing". It's not even because they can score 40 plus sometimes, though that's nice.

I think it's because star players can carry a high scoring, and adequate defensive, load without wearing down over a season and the playoffs. The rest of the team doesn't have to play at playoff intensity at all times, because the star player can throw in 25-30pts without playing an atypical game. Which leads me to some comments on our favorite villian Ersatz Star.

Say what you will about Kevin Martin, the Rocket really missed his contributions on the scoreboard. Despite rule changes Martin was still capable of scoring about 20-24 a night, as he showed shortly before he got hurt (you know, the period between cancelled trade pouting and injury).

We can debate if this season or last is his real level or not, but in either case, I think he can still be an effective scorer, and not easily replaced at the (very) thin SG position.

It also struck me that Martin was being punished by the officials for his method of drawing fouls in previous years.*

Anyhow, even with his injury and off year, Martin still lead the Rockets in scoring. That's right, even with a year that had people calling for his head, his blood, his spleen, his very soul, on a platter, Kevin Martin was the Rockets scoring leader. Lee didn't pass him when given the job.

I'm not saying Martin is your star, he doesn't fulfill the "adequate defense" part, but he fakes the scoring part pretty well. He's a guy who can score 20-25pts consistently. As we learned this year, those guys aren't plentiful, it takes more than opportunity to do it. If Courtney Lee scores 20, its a fairly big deal, when Martin scored 24 last year it was an average night.

(Courtney Lee struck me as almost a starter - he seemed like a guy who might win a 6th man award one year. Why? Because you couldn't count on his offense, and when he started playing big minutes, he defense started to slip noticeably.)

A high effort team desperately needs a reliable scorer to take some of the pressure off it. Martin wasn't around to do it.

Injuries had eroded the Rockets depth. When a team plays a high-effort style it relies on its bench depth. To end the season, the bench was very short, to the point of non-existence.

The reason for the Rockets success often boiled down to a bench that was essentially as good as the starting lineup. Earlier in the season, the bench bailed us out in many games. Games where the bench played poorly often amounted to losses.

In the final weeks, with so many players down, or at reduced strength, the Rockets bench was essentially some LA D-Fenders, plus Earl Boykins. And McHale wasn't going to play any of them that much. I think he needed to, but he wouldn't.

Kevin McHale seemed like a jockey who went to the whip too early, and too often. When he needed the team to respond down the stretch, their legs were cooked. Maybe he'll learn from it. Maybe he'll realize that the 1986 Celtics really were exceptional in every way. Maybe he'll just keep talking about coal mining. We'll see.

Trades were a mixed bag. Jordan Hill is getting significant minutes for LA in the playoffs. It seems fair to say he would have been more handy to us than a Derek Fisher (ugh) buyout and a putative Dallas draft pick we may never see, down the stretch. To say Hill was never going to be a star is not at all the same as saying he's not a quality rotation big man.

We did turn Hasheem Thabeet and poor old Jonny Rae Flynn into Marcus Camby, which was a a fantastic deal for us. Until he got hurt, twice, Camby was a revelation, and I think, an inspiration to some younger guys. I hope he's back next season. He's still one of the better defensive big men and rebounders in the NBA. I'd forgotten what "the rebounding gene" looked like in a center. Thanks for reminding me, Marcus.

We turned Terrence Williams into a real "Best Player on a Bad Team" candidate and got squat. Anyone who thought his potential was in some way valuable, consider that that Rockets must have gotten no, nada, zero, offers for him. Sacramento signed him on a 10 day contract, and that, perhaps, finally woke him up. And awakened, I saw him play well for Sacramento at times. I think for eight minutes a night he could have helped us more than releasing him did. For whatever reason though, he was poison in Houston. Now he's gone and this is likely the last I'll write about him outside of game recaps or game threads.

One of the problems with a total team concept is that you need a total team. LAL can afford to have 5 clowns on the bench against most teams because its starters are so strong. The Rockets can afford no clowns within their top 11. Lose two starters (and their 31 points and 9ast a game) and the whole thing starts slewing off the rails.

You may think Dragic is better than Lowry (I don't think so but its a fair question) and you probably think Martin is Evil Incarnate (he's not), but they're NBA starter quality players. They're hard to do without. I can't think of an NBA team that lost its starting backcourt for so much time and made the playoffs.

Finally, how hard is it to lose your star PG? Ask Chicago. The Bulls got knocked out by a Philly team who matched the Rockets swoon for swoon down the stretch. But the 76ers swooned without severe injuries, or any other major visible problem. Philly still limped into the playoffs, but no one expected more than 5 games against Chicago. Rose went down. Now they're tied with Boston in the 2nd round.

The old old refrain, Injuries matter. Once again they mattered too much to the Rockets. But see below for more.

NOTE - This content below was added after the initial piece went up. TDS commenters made me realize that I had laid out some arguments, but didn't draw what I think are the conclusions that follow. Or if I did make the points, I didn't make them forcefully. So again, what follows is added after the fact, but I hope it contributes to the discussion.

So, injuries do matter, and I think the Rockets make the playoffs without their starting frontcourt going down. That said, let's put this year's injuries into perspective.

In years past losing Yao and McGrady basically meant the Rockets could not contend for a title. That's the level of pain Chicago is suffering right now, losing a precious year in which to contend. (The LA window for contention has been open a freakishly long time because Kobe Bryant has been effective for a freakishly long time. The same goes for Duncan in San Antonio. That is by no means to be assumed. Just look at Yao and TMac. I suspect Derek Rose's window of greatness will be about 1/2 that of Bryant's, for example.)

Injuries this year meant the Rockets wouldn't make it into the playoffs as an 6th-8th seed. That's a vast gulf from past seasons. The Rockets, even with Yao and McGrady missing time, generally won 50 or so games and made the playoffs easily. They won (a) playoff series without only one star, and nearly beat the eventual champions without both stars. We cannot say the same for this years vintage.

This speaks to a problem with team construction.

If your team cannot afford to lose key players for any length of time, in order to simply make the playoffs, your team is not where it should be.

(We can discuss (once again) how we think the Rockets can get to where they should be later.)

If your team needs to play at maximum effort all the time to win games, your team isn't where it should be. Its hard to recall easy wins for the Rockets this season. I can recall some big leads but very few easy victories. Maximum effort leads to exhaustion down the stretch. We've seen this three years running, basically. I think we have enough evidence.

Some people will call this a front office failure. I don't beleive it is, and I don't say that without due consideration, but it is a topic for another post.

I think the front office has managed to spin a team of Best Supporting Actor nominees from moonbeams and spider webs. If there was a FA star out there with some sense, he'd realize the supporting cast for a championship run was already assembled, waiting for him to join them and stride into history. The Rockets are a tough, talented and respectable team. They play very attractive basketball. At this point, however, we have enough evidence now to conclude that won't put us over the top, or even in the playoffs without perfect injury luck, or significant player growth.

Next we'll tackle what we have, and what is to be done.

* The refs seemed to single Martin, Lowry, and some other Rockets out for no calls whatsoever on offense. They didn't receive even quite standard, time-honored, NBA foul calls. Why the officials chose to punish the very players they themselves had rewarded the year before, is beyond me. Its like fining smokers now because they used to smoke in bars, before the laws were changed.

The Rockets lack of FTs was typically blamed on them "being a jump shooting team", but I think its a chicken/egg problem. If you never get a call on a drive, you have to shoot jumpers. Being mugged in the lane, and turning the ball over with no whistle, is a lower percentage chance than a jumper.

That said, I think very few Rockets tried to finish scoring through contact. Dragic was the best at it. Most other Rockets didn't finish strong at the rim, and that also cost them calls. I'll single out Patterson for complaint. Too many times he attempted a layup or a hook when a dunk attempt was the correct play. I hope that he sorts himself out next year.

In general I thought the officiating was horrific throughout the league this year. The brutal schedule hurt the zebras too, I guess. I truly hope they're better next year, because they were almost Olympic level bad this season.