When the James Harden trade was announced last October, the world changed for the Houston Rockets and their supporters. In the three years prior, the Rockets had lost something crucial that they had been looking for ever since. It wasn’t scoring or wins or defense or cap space. All those things can help, but they aren’t the prize itself. Until James Harden arrived, the Rockets were missing relevance. Now, with a double shot of superstar talent in James Harden and Dwight Howard, the Rockets are as relevant as they’ve ever been, and the world is paying attention.
Houston has the holy grail of mass media appeal, and have a path to contention and domination, if everything goes right. That’s the good part. The bad part of having all eyes on you is that all eyes are on you. And sometimes, that’s the worst thing of all. Teams, like people, struggle to get into the discussion, to enter the debate, to be in the eye of the people. The spotlight can warm, but it can also burn, and we’ve seen that happen plenty. We need look no further than the Eastern Conference of the NBA for the dark side of anything.
New York is the so-called “basketball Mecca.” Only Los Angeles can compete with the streetball scene in New York, and the sheer amount of love and adulation the sport gets from the city is overwhelming. New Yorkers love their teams, as well, and have a fierce devotion to the New York Knicks, and are warming to the Brooklyn Nets. The biggest media market in the world has gazed upon these two teams for decades, and the world has gazed with them.
It’s too bad, then, that both of those teams are terrible.
In most cities, like Milwaukee, where the Bucks languish in isolated failure, the spotlight dims and fades as the wins dry up. Many teams lose year after year, and unless something strange happens, only the die-hard fan from another city will follow their exploits. The Bucks, the Sixers, the Kings, the Bobcats. All of these teams struggle and suffer on their own terms, with their own fans. They may have little chance of signing major deals or seeing their logo on the front page of the New York Times, but they also don’t have to be on the cover of the New York Times. The Knicks do. Win, lose, rise, fall, there they are. The light is on, and it won’t go off.
When the Rockets were irrelevant, the press wasn’t breathing down Chase Budinger’s neck, asking why the chemistry was off, or the shooting was poor, or the ball movement was sticking. Apart from the questions about Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, the goings-on of general manager Daryl Morey were wholly the purview of hardcore hoopheads and Houstonites. But in grabbing that coveted piece, that superstar, Morey and friends also grabbed a place in the spotlight. Houston has been reveling in the warmth, somehow convincing Howard to say all the right things, to lure in players willing to take the minimum.
But then when you lose games to the Kings, to the Sixers, to the Jazz, the spotlight doesn’t turn off. Now that that beam is chasing them, instead of the other way around, they have to be ready for it to hone in, to focus with laser intensity on everything. With twenty games on ESPN or TNT, the Rockets get to strut their stuff in front of tens of millions. Unfortunately, that means that tens of millions of people got to see the Rockets lose to the Lakers. And tens of millions of people got to pull out their eggs and rotten tomatoes on twitter and let loose.
Lakers fans know this feeling all too well. It was only last year that a seemingly unstoppable lineup of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash was rolled out, snapping the spotlight even closer on a team that lives there every day. What did the world get to see? They watched Nash’s health deteriorate rapidly. They saw Gasol wilt and age. They saw Howard stumble and stagger through a situation that rubbed him wrong. They saw Kobe Bryant try to hold it all together with everything he had, only to have his achilles tendon come apart. Last year’s Los Angeles Lakers were an unmitigated disaster. They’re still recovering from that catastrophe, and look likely to miss the playoffs entirely while precluding themselves from being players in the draft or in free agency. The sky has fallen in Los Angeles and it’s still on the ground.
The Lakers still have twenty nationally televised games. The Pacers may be the best team in the league, and they have less than half that amount. Embarrassment, despair and frustration may be setting in for the long haul, but the spotlight’s still there. Everyone’s watching, and the heat is building in New York and Los Angeles. The spotlight doesn’t help you get through the bad times. It makes them worse. Now Houston has a new puzzle to solve. They got everyone to pay attention, to turn that light on space city once again. Now they have to figure out how to keep from getting burned.