Welcome back to Five Out, where the losing will continue until morale completely collapses.
Next week I’ll be back with more player talk, rather than this top-down kvetching. I simply think the Rockets have reached something of a crisis point, and it’s really worth asking if this particular glass of juice could possibly be worth the squeeze.
Run to the corner. Stand there. No pass is coming.
Blowed It Up Good, Real Good
I admire the work of Kevin O’Connor at The Ringer. He’s a good analyst, and generally appears to be a positive and pleasant person, without a small-town axe to grind against Houston. But he always seems to be advocating that teams that aren’t performing well, with no obvious answer in sight, should “blow it up”. That is to say, get rid of all the veteran players, clear the salary cap, and rebuild through the draft, and shrewd player signings.
Like a lot of things young people passionately advocate, it’s a sound philosophical concept, but easier accomplished in theory than practice.
No team has been quite as thoroughly blown up recently as the Rockets. It’s been blowed up real good around here.
Do you have high conviction that this rebuild will lead to championships, or at least championship contention? Do you, further, currently see a much better rebuild path that might have been followed, absent the possession of perfect foreknowledge?
Are you enjoying the current Rockets bomb crater?
You probably aren’t. You might not be sanguine on the future outcome of this implosion. How could you be? Even if your rebuild includes drafting at least two Hall of Fame players, you can’t be sure it will lead to ultimate NBA glory.
Sam “McDuck” Presti GM of the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka (and a few others). They went to the 2011-12 NBA Finals in Durant’s fourth season in the NBA. They didn’t win a title that year. They didn’t win any titles. None play for the Thunder anymore.
“Blowing It Up” is a lottery ticket, not a mathematical proof, that if followed will lead to an NBA Title, QED.
Was Les More?
There’s another theory of team construction. I’ll call it the Les Is More Approach. Les Alexander owned the Rockets for many years, before selling them to Tilman Fertitta. Alexander didn’t believe in blowing it up. At all. He believed the Rockets should stay competitive, should try to build through the draft on occasion, trade for stars, sign great free agents, and look for bargains wherever they might be found.
Even taking away the lucky first two seasons of Alexander’s ownership, when the Rockets did in fact win two titles, the Rockets under Alexander won as many titles as the Presti Thunder, or The Process 76ers have. That is to say, none.
Which theory is better?
Of course a peak star drives things, but what if your team is blown up, and terrible, and your star draft pick isn’t the right one? How much better off are you? Is the absolutism of “Titles or Nothing” a useful approach, or something more suited to pundits, than teams?
I honestly don’t know, but in the depths of this rebuild, I look at Alexander’s approach in a different light. The Rockets didn’t win a title, but they got closer than the Process 76ers (who ironically seem to have their best shot at a ring with one Process 76ers player and a bunch of former Never Process Rockets, including their GM).
Fans need teams that make them feel excited, and hopeful. They need players to cheer for, and team that’s at least watchable. Right now, the Rockets theory isn’t very watchable, and it’s fair to ask, how long can it go on being that way, before too many fans walk away?
NBA fans pretty obviously don’t demand a title every season, or NBA arenas would mostly be empty.
The Rockets are pot committed to their approach, at least until the off-season, where they get some real cap room.
Sympathy for Silas
I’ve said many times, I like and admire Stephen Silas. I truly do. Right now I’m seeing a miserable-looking man, who seemingly has allowed no time for grief, try to defend something that simply isn’t working, while not visibly changing anything about his approach.
It’s true, his system would work better with veterans who really know what they’re doing in the NBA. He’d probably be a great coach for a team that never gets the real big shot FAs, but is competent, like Portland or Indiana, and has a star. He could probably take a bunch of highly competent veterans, and one middling star, and make them a playoff team.
That isn’t the team he has, however, and Silas hasn’t adapted to his personnel in any clear way in a season and a half of basketball. This seems like a large enough sample to know what his approach is, and will be going forward.
Given how distraught, miserable, pained and off-kilter Silas constantly looks right now, I don’t know where the adaptation will come from, or if in his current situation, he even can adapt.
Mike Brown, another talented coach handed some bad breaks, and worse defamation, has found a home with the Sacramento Kings. They’re playing attractive basketball, winning, and the fans of Sacramento, a good basketball town beaten down by decades of bad basketball, are delirious. Mike Brown is a coach who found the right situation, with the right amount of experience, and, sadly, adversity. Now he’s flourishing.
I expect that’s how it’ll go for Silas, too. I’ve said this before, but the contrast couldn’t be more apparent that with the side-by-side comparison in the game with the Kings. Sacramento is playing one rookie big minutes. The rest of the team is either solid veterans like Barnes and Holmes, or early peak young vets like Fox, Sabonis, Huerter and Monk - a world of difference from the Rockets.
Is Well Enough Good Enough?
Following up on the above section, let’s think about how things might look for the Rockets if the team wasn’t a dumpster fire, like it is now.
Here’s a question I often ask people who are upset about a situation:
“If everything was going well, but not perfectly, what would it look like, and why?”
This is a useful question to ask about the Rockets. If everything was going well under the current system, what do they actually look like?
I’m not sure, but I suspect a lot like Dallas. I understand it’s not “apples to apples” but the Dallas system, and the Houston system are very similar,. This is not simply because of the Harden/Doncic confluence, but because Stephen Silas is a key architect of both offenses.
That’s a chilling realization, and not simply because Dallas is involved.
Dallas has an MVP level player who pretty much needs to be otherworldly for them to win. That player, Luka Doncic, generates a huge amount of offensive threat. If an opponent doesn’t commit everything possible to stop him, he might well score 70 points. If the opponent does commit to that sort of defense, Luka will find his teammates for easy shots.
No one on the Rockets can do either thing at anything like Doncic’s level. No Rocket can generate the sort of offensive threat it would take to run such a system well.
But let’s pretend there was such a player on Houston. That this hypothetical Rocket was playing at Luka’s level right now. What does it look like?
There’s no 62 win season on the horizon in Dallas, which a similar system achieved under Harden, Paul and MDA when the five out concept was fairly new. A 45 win season is what Dallas is currently on pace to achieve, with the league well-aware of its offense by now. Again, it takes some of the best individual player nights in NBA history for Dallas to threaten 45 wins right now.
Is “the good version” of such a system even worth attaining for the Rockets? CAN it be attained with the people and resources on hand, if it is, indeed, worth attaining?
Does anyone think Dallas, the current “going well” version of the Rockets approach, has more than a puncher’s chance at a title? If 45 wins is the payoff, why are we playing this game?
Smarter than Us
“ D.A. Freccia : You’re a pretty smart fella.
Joe Moore : Ah, not that smart.
D.A. Freccia : [If] you’re not that smart, how’d you figure it out?
Joe Moore : I tried to imagine a fella smarter than myself. Then I tried to think, “what would he do?” “
This is from the underrated movie “Heist” with Gene Hackman as “Joe Moore”, a professional thief. Hackman is always watchable, and usually excellent. I’ve thought about that line a lot over the years.
So what would this smarter fella do with the Rockets, right now? In my imagination, it’s this:
Defense - Switch everything. Management has given you the best raw talent in the NBA for a switch everything defense. It’s simply perverse and stubborn not to use it that way. It might be ugly, but how much more ugly, really? How much easier could it be for opponents than it is now? And there’s a future in it, unlike the drop coverage, that simply doesn’t work without a dominant defensive center in today’s NBA.
Offense - Who on the Rockets do opponents rave about? Alperen Sengun. Why don’t we take them at their word, assume they know what the hell they’re talking about? Why would they all lie about the same thing, particularly after beating the snot out of the Rockets?
Copy Denver, but faster. Sure, it might look terrible for a while, but it’s doable right now, more or less. Will it look worse than 17+ generally bad and unproductive turnovers a game? Will it be nothing but forcing three shooting guards to pretend to be point guards? And not just point guards, but “Heliocentric Fulcrums”, when they aren’t suited for it?
Right now the Rockets could easily field a lineup of players 23 or younger for entire games. Right now these players are being expected to read NBA defenses and react to them. They don’t seem to be able to do that, with the exception of Jae’Sean Tate and Aleperen Sengun.
The fact that the Rockets do score, that they manage to have good games, seems more a testament to their innate ability, more than anything they’ve been empowered to do through their offensive scheme.
Wouldn’t it be nice to stop complaining about players who are more or less forced to create offense off the dribble, dribbling too much? Wouldn’t it be good to see players used at what they’re good at, instead asking them to display skills they simply don’t possess right now, and won’t, until they’ve learned more and developed?
They’ll lose anyway. But lose in a useful fashion.
Next Big Event?
This poll is closed
New Head Coach
The Dreaded "Vote of Full Confidence"
James Harden’s Triumphal Return