All great teams have an identity. Usually if sustained success is there and a championship (or multiple) is won, that identity stretches further beyond even the most universally known superstar. Here are some examples:
Right now the Boston Celtics are a group of talented veterans—gritty, tough, defensive minded, led by the best communicator in the league. They shake hands before games and tip their cap after, but for 48 minutes there’s no smiling or friendly mingling; before Miami came together, Boston was the least popular team the league had. They won one championship and were hindered from snatching another two by a pair of faulty knees. They’re good. They have an identity.
The mid-aught Pistons were a well-functioning motor of faceless brilliance. Detroit was built on defensive versatility and toughness—much like Boston except the Pistons didn’t have anyone who you might consider worthy of the Hall of Fame—with players who were good enough to understand if they sacrificed personal statistics, integrated success would follow.
The face of Los Angeles is Kobe Bryant, but their identity through the last two championships was defined by two giants in the front court; impenetrable length, a tried and true formula for success dating back to the sport’s very first days.
The 2011 Mavericks begin and end with Dirk, but they combined top to bottom experience, lethal shooting, bravery, and versatile defense to create an eventual champion. When you think of that improbable playoff run, what stands out most is when they swept Los Angeles by chucking grapes into a swimming pool. They. Could. Not. Miss. That was the fundamental attribute separating them from everyone else: Guys who didn’t hesitate to shoot and weren’t afraid to miss, probably because they didn’t.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are collegian wunderkinds pushing their older colleagues into early retirement—too good to be naive, but still developing.
All these teams are/were well respected championship contenders. So, who are the Houston Rockets? Here’s what we know: Last year Houston was one of the highest scoring teams in the league, finishing third in 4th quarter points per game and fifth in points from three-pointers; they have two players (Luis Scola and Kevin Martin) who are talented enough to make an All-Star team but aren’t quite franchise elevating superstars; only one player (Scola) is 30-years-old or older; they’re small (Jordan Hill and Hasheem Thabeet are the only players signed to a contract who stand 6’10” or taller); their roster is filled with guys who’re stuck in between positions (Hill, Goran Dragic, Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes, Terrence Williams, Chandler Parsons (?), and Marcus Morris to name a few), and they’re one of the more culturally diverse teams in the league (Dragic, Thabeet, Scola, and just for fun we’ll include Nikola Mirotic).
That pretty much sums up what we’ve got going on in Houston, but where do we begin scraping in our search for that sweet, juicy center? Looking at this list, some characteristics are positive, some negative, and others neutral. Right now it’s safe to say Houston doesn’t have an identity, which is okay because it’s still summer and over half the league could say the same thing. After digesting all this information, what we have is a fork in the road—a slightly irritating option Daryl Morey gets paid the big bucks to meet head on.
If the team doesn’t have an identity right now, what’s the most practical way of obtaining one? And what’s the path this team should be looking to forge with its current personnel? Should Houston be building around said personnel or devising a plan and sculpting an amended roster to fit that particular vision? The Rockets are young, offensively gifted, and in over their heads defensively. But they have fiery, motivated guys who for the most part have all proven to be capable at performing well at the NBA level. Not to overrate defense or underestimate its importance, but if you throw a healthy Hasheem Thabeet out there, with no pressure, and just tell him to block shots and defend the post like his livelihood depends on it (which it does) doesn’t that partly solve most of Houston’s defensive inabilities in one foul swoop?
Obtaining Dwight Howard, the best defensive player in basketball, would be great, but thanks to a questionable deal at last year’s trade deadline, the most feasible solution to Houston’s biggest problem might be solved in house. So far Thabeet is a bust, and nobody disputes this, but now that the expectations have tapered from franchise big man to 25-30 minutes a night of shot blocking mayhem, he just might become something useful.
Use Thabeet as a temporary Band-Aid over the height and defense issue, and the Rockets have a clearer focus: Making a good offense even better. By improving their defense from anemic (Houston managed to sandwich itself between Minnesota and Golden State for ninth worst defensive FG% last year) to on the cusp of respectable, this might be what the Rockets become next season: A young, hungry group who can score points and run opponents off the floor. A less skillful version of the Oklahoma City Thunder comes to mind. For a team which missed the playoffs last year, that doesn’t sound like a bad thing. At least its an identity.