According to VegasInsider.com, Houston’s current odds to win the NBA championship are 100:1, same as Utah, Portland, and Atlanta. Their chances of winning the West, and simply making an appearance in the Finals, are 40:1. Now, obviously those odds aren’t the best, and with Kyle Lowry—the team’s most important player—out indefinitely with a freak illness, they’re somewhat appropriately marked. For all we know the fumes this courageous bunch is currently running on could evaporate tomorrow, and the Rockets could miss the playoffs altogether.
(According to John Hollinger’s most recent Power Rankings, the Rockets have the ninth highest probability of making the postseason, placing them on the outside looking in.) But doesn’t it feel like if they can just get there anything could happen? With multiple shock waves from the infamous “Veto” and lingering lockout still reverberating throughout the league, some absolutely insane, totally unpredictable outcomes could be brewing in the months ahead. Veterans are wearing down, key players who have moved are shifting tides, and some franchises appear to have already set their sights on next season.
If you make the playoffs this season, especially in the Western Conference, the NBA’s current circumstances will give you a great chance to not only make a little noise, but force your neighbors to call the cops.
Hollinger’s current Playoff Odds give them a 0.2% chance at winning the title, but what would it mean if the Houston Rockets actually did it? What would it say about the way most organizations currently prioritize the allocation of their revenue, and would it have any impact whatsoever on the widely accepted fact that building a champion and acquiring the “best” players are one in the same thing?
Daryl Morey has gone on record as saying his team-building strategy revolves around acquiring a superstar, whether that be through the draft, making a run at a highly valued free agent with carefully carved cap space, or conducting a classic “multiple assets for transcendental impact player” blockbuster trade (the best example being the Celtics and Kevin Garnett). Year after year those first two options look a lot like that scene from “Deep Impact” where everybody from the East Coast is using the same highway to get as far from the Atlantic Ocean as possible. All these people are scrambling to do the same thing at the exact same time, and the result is one SERIOUS traffic jam. Once the asteroid hits Earth, pretty much everyone who thought taking the highway was a good idea gets obliterated. Using this analogy with team building, everyone who doesn’t have a top-10 player (all but about five teams) is either shedding cap space, or positioning themselves to rebuild through the lottery. The result is a major increase in demand with a seriously limited supply.
Looking at it from a marketing perspective, right now the Rockets are zigging while almost everyone else in their industry is zagging. Free agency and the draft are two scenarios where luck plays a substantial role, more so than any general manager would like. In the third option, the future is a bit more controllable. By acquiring young players with upside (in any of the methods described above) team executives have the flexibility to either cash in on a low cost, high reward asset, or keep the cycle moving and flip him for something of more value. This is the less traveled road Houston’s currently riding down. It’s a basic fact of life that nothing is free. In order to receive something you want, you must give up something of value you already have.
Only a few teams are successfully employing the same strategy as the Rockets, but none have publicly stated a desire to deal their assets for that elusive superstar. When done correctly, it’s an easier strategy that gives them financial flexibility to compete—which this season is synonymous with contend. At the trade deadline we saw the Rockets trade three busts from the 2009 draft class for a possible first round pick and a big man with playoff experience who strengthens the team’s largest weakness. The moves were brilliant in that nothing was sacrificed while something was gained; it’s indisputable that the team is closer to a championship today than it was one week ago.
If in the first round Houston faces off against Oklahoma City, a team that was constructed almost entirely through the draft, it won’t just be a seven game series pitting two basketball teams against one another. It’ll be more. This will be the great clashing of two separate ideological structures, two different means towards the same elusive end. If they make the playoffs, the Rockets can match-up well with every single team in the West, and right now their only real weakness is the lack of a universally recognized “superstar”.
The odds may be large right now, but if this team can just get one foot in the post-season’s door, the way we look at team-building strategies on a league-wide scale could undergo a dramatic modification. That is, if 0.2% can become a reality.