This hasn’t been the best week for the Houston Rockets. Starting with the moment Chandler Parsons signed an offer sheet in a nightclub to the moment the Rockets declined to match that offer, everything that could go wrong seemingly went wrong. What at first looked like risky but positive moves have now culminated in what can only be called a step backwards. It may be in the interest of taking a much larger step forward, but there’s a gap between this Rockets team and the one that stepped off the court in April. There’s a void.
The natural response is to shy from it, to turn away from that void and pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s easy to view this week through any number of lenses that ameliorate the unhappy knowledge that there’s a gap. That gap is there whether we look or not, and depending on the outcome of this summer, the void may spread out and negate the entire season. Unless a major move is made, the Rockets have stepped back from even the marginal contention they were at before. There’s no use in ignoring it. The only option left is to acknowledge this void, to embrace it.
There will be thousands of words spent explaining why the choices made were the right ones. We’ll talk ourselves into Trevor Ariza again, and we won’t be wrong. There will be fun wins and there will be talk of making a move to contend and there will be unfounded hope. People plus sports will always bring us this. What this roster won’t bring is a Finals berth, but that’s also true for the majority of teams. Only a few ever have a legitimate shot at it. For a few hours, the Rockets seemed to be one of those elite teams, but then reality set in. Now we have the void.
The narrative of the Rockets this season pivoted at about five p.m. central time on Friday. Instead of the world in which Bosh joined the most terrifying five-man unit in the league, the Rockets are instead a living embodiment of Icarus. The perception in Houston, the feeling in the organization and the world of the more level-headed pundits may be that the Rockets made the right moves and happened to miss out. In a broader sense, general manager Daryl Morey tried to fly to the sun and his rocket ship melted on the way. In some other universe, perhaps most universes, Morey and Bosh are planning their press conference together. In the one we’re forced to live in there’s no Bosh. There’s just an empty spot where he could have been, and another void where Parsons used to be.
It’s almost too much to comprehend. It would be one thing for the Rockets to swing and miss. Lots of teams swing and miss. Most do, in fact. Each superstar can only be on one team, and some teams have a few of them. That’s not what defies reason. The amazing part of the Daryl Morey Rockets is how they miss. Apart from his major home runs in acquiring James Harden and Dwight Howard, Houston’s failures have been memorable and improbable.
When the 2009 Rockets pushed the Lakers to seven games without Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady, a brutal run of bad luck in losing two stars turned into a rush of hope. The Rockets would have been a dangerous up and comer… except that their stars were aging, they were in win-now mode and they didn’t know yet that they had seen the last meaningful minutes from their stars. After losing in the first round again and again, at least the Rockets had lost in the second. But even that scant hope would be dashed as Yao Ming’s attempted recovery drew out Houston’s period of irrelevance lottery picks out from 2010 to 2012.
As insult to injury, the Rockets managed to miss the playoffs with a winning record three years in a row. They did the impossible, however, and blasted back to relevance and potential contention by trading for James Harden without ever tanking out. The Rockets somehow made the playoffs in 2013 against all expectations and even pushed the Thunder to six games before losing in round one. They barely lost two of those games and even looked like they had a shot at coming back from the dreaded 0-3 hole. It was, of course, not to be. This is, of course, to say nothing of the improbable way the Rockets managed, through the hardest of efforts and the most amazing of circumstances, to lose to the Portland Trail Blazers in six games in the first round. Lillard’s .9 second shot in game six of that series is yet another item in the vault for Houston.
This was only after having a seemingly-completed trade for Pau Gasol go down in flames the year before, and having Dwight Howard summarily turn them down in his first free agency hoopla. The infamous “basketball reasons” struck from nowhere to blindside the Rockets. This time, it was Pat Riley. Chris Bosh, who had spurred Moreys advances (and, famously, his iPad) before, was reportedly in the final stages of working out the finances of his contract when Riley and the Miami HEAT struck. Riley’s supermax offer to Bosh was reportedly a last-ditch attempt to keep him, and it worked. Contrary to endless reports and indications that Bosh was moving to Houston, the deal was shattered. Jeremy Lin and a draft pick were even traded to make way for it.
What began as an off-season in which the Rockets planned to either gain a star or tweak the roster, the Rockets lost two starter caliber players in Asik and Parsons, lost their own draft pick along with a rotation player in Jeremy Lin and ended with Trevor Ariza and Alonzo Gee. When most teams swing, they either get a base hit or a strike. When Morey’s Rockets step up to bat, every hit is a home run. On the other had, Houston doesn’t seem to be able to get a simple strike. Instead, the ball explodes on contact with the bat and somehow kills the catcher. It’s impossible to ignore this narrative any longer, if Houston ever wants to move past it.
We can’t pretend everything’s fine in Houston. We can only embrace the void and come out the other side.