• James Harden turned 26 this past week, the age which ushered the end of Tracy McGrady’s place amongst the league’s elite.  The year was 2005, McGrady’s second with the team.  It was also the year the Houston Astros went to the World Series and were last relevant.  The Houston Texans, on the other hand, went 2-14 that year and were again irrelevant, as they have been for the entirety of their existence.  And thus, I’ve found a way to open this column by arbitrarily tying all 3 of Houston’s major sports teams together to the year 2005.
  • McGrady’s demise seems a lot more sudden in hindsight than it did at the time, while living through it, partly because we were all in denial.  He still had a few more All-Star level years, leading up until 2008, but he was never again the MVP caliber player the Rockets acquired from Orlando, and the level of player James Harden is today.  It’s absolutely crazy thinking back.  Imagine signing Kevin Durant next summer, witnessing one typical Durant season, and watching him steadily decline from there on out.  As I’ve written at length, Harden should age very well, due to his style of play.  But I would like to see a few less drives to the rim, even at the cost of efficiency.
  • Even for a basketball junkie such as myself, there’s really nothing quite like October baseball.  Basketball is joy and excitement.  Baseball is anticipation and agony.  Even turning one’s head for a mere moment to check one’s Twitter feed can prove reckless, in a game where a misplaced fastball left a little too high can end the hopes of an entire season.  And so here we are, inching closer to what is appearing to be an almost inevitable postseason appearance by the Astros.  Even if they somehow blow this division lead, where are the people who lambasted general manager Jeff Luhnow every step of the way?  Apologies are due, and I haven’t read or heard too many.  Daryl Morey, of course, also endured the same sort of short-sighted criticism before building a team that has climbed to the top of the Western Conference.  The problem is that too many people with voices don’t understand the obvious dichotomy between process and results.
  • I’ve remarked before, it’s fascinating to observe the stark contrast between the two aforementioned Houston teams and their counterparts on Kirby.  The Rockets and Astros are forward-thinking, cutthroat and process oriented, in line with the modern ideologies of business management.  The Texans, mired in their own ineptitude since their inception into the league, are the polar opposite, exhibiting everything from front office nepotism to reckless cap mismanagement with seemingly no real plan in place.  The Texans are the fossil of team sports, a vehicle which slowly has moved towards extinction with the rise of MBA GM’s.  One empathizes now, in watching J.J. Watt, with the late 80’s Houston observer, witnessing Olajuwon waste away his physical peak on also-runs with no chance at the title; except, as sacrilegious as this may sound, Watt’s legendary greatness right now is more apparent than Hakeem’s was then, before the two titles.  To echo the sentiment voiced by some of my favorites on the Houston airwaves, I’m just not quite sure I understand what the hell the Texans are doing with regards to their masterplan, as evidenced by their quarterback decisions.  If the assumption is that in 2015, one cannot win a Super Bowl with merely a game managing quarterback, what exactly are they doing?  If that premise stands, isn’t every snap taken with someone who isn’t the long term guy an utter waste of everyone’s time?  Shouldn’t the team be taking chances on wild cards, no matter how long the odds may be?  I’m not really sure what the appeal is in going 8-8, aside from gate receipts and merchandise sales, but history has shown those revenues won’t be diminishing regardless of the product on the field (see: 2005).  Mediocrity is something very frustrating to me.
  • I suppose the thinking might be to build inside-out, having the rest of the team in place, until an appealing option at quarterback presents itself in the draft.  But with the time it takes these days to learn the position, your opportunity cost is the risk run of losing critical pieces to free agency, by the time you’ve found your guy and gotten him up to speed.  Wouldn’t sound logic dictate just flipping the order?
  • If they get in, the Astros have as good as chance as anyone to win the World Series because that is just the nature of baseball.  All it takes is a couple of arms getting hot, and the bats staying steady, and a team can go the distance.  How about that for a story?  From worst to first.  Would that change opinions on Sam Hinkie’s project in Philadelphia?  Of course ascendency into the league’s upper crust is much tougher in basketball because of the dependence upon singular generational talents (as opposed to a full crop of great prospects).  But doesn’t that make tanking even more logical in that sport?  Without being awful, it’s much harder to get that one great talent than it is to find a lot of really good players.

in columns

More opinions on Jones/Motiejunas

From the forums, thejohnnygold:

Here’s something to consider when valuing Jones.  Where does he rank at his position?  I don’t just mean based on PER, or RAPM, or other such things.  Simply, if we ranked the league’s power forwards where would Jones fall?  After that, determining his value and how easily he could be replaced dictates how much we should reasonably pay for his services.  I mean, Earl Clark is just sitting out there right now.  Is Clark that much worse than Jones?  Would we be better with Clark for $1-$2M or Jones at $15M?

I can’t think of a starting PF in the league I wouldn’t take over Jones at $15M and there are quite a few back-ups I would take in lieu of paying Jones that much money.  (Does Jared Sullinger start?  I wouldn’t want him.)

Who the heck is going to pay him that much!?!?!

NorEastern on Motiejunas:

It is impossible for me to imagine a more important player over the next four years on the Rocket’s roster than DMo, except of course for Harden. There are few bigs in the NBA both willing and able to hold down both the four and the five positions. I am a much lesser man than Morey and so I would probably be sitting on DMo’s doorstep right now with a 4 year $64 million contract in hand. I doubt Morey will seek to extend him right now.

in from the editor

In a recent 5-on-5 feature, only one respondent ranked the Rockets among his top 5 teams entering next season.  The exercise itself holds little bearing – Houston was expected to finish among the bottom half of playoff teams last season, before ultimately claiming the second seed.  But for our purposes, where do the Rockets really stand among contenders?  To begin, the most striking thing about the Western Conference is the existence of the Oklahoma City Thunder.  When recounting the absolute brutality of the conference, one easily forgets that it did not feature the team that entered the season considered to be the very best in all of basketball.  Even with Kevin Durant’s health in question, it’s more likely than not that the Thunder are back near the top, and thus, should not be discounted.

For all of the crying we Rockets fans do about perceived disrespect, Grizzlies fans have a whole different gripe.  For a team that would probably run away with the East were it in that conference, you’d think they were like the Bobcats or something given the respect they receive overall.  It’s true that Memphis must probably change its archaic ways to rise to the very cream in the modern NBA, but on the flip side, what if Mike Conley’s face hadn’t shattered, and Tony Allen hadn’t gotten hurt?  Isn’t it likely Memphis crushes the Warriors’ soul and holds onto that series lead?  Are we then still talking about pace and space as necessity?

And then there’s the Clippers who come back improved with the addition of Paul Pierce’s manhood, but featuring the hilariously ironic bench duo of Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson.  Has any team in league history featured a more combustible pair?

Are the Spurs necessarily better than Houston?  They are the Spurs, so it’s a safe bet they’ll be in the mix, but do we know if Tony Parker is still alive?  Maybe it takes longer than expected to integrate LaMarcus Aldridge into the offense, whereas Houston will just be looking to plug Ty Lawson into the same sets run for James Harden.  And on a related note, has any other supposed top-10 player gotten anywhere near the free pass Kawhi Leonard received for the dud he turned in in the Spurs’ finale?  Just thinking out loud.

Then of course, there are the new kids on the block in Utah and New Orleans, waiting for any slippage from the top ranks, to ascend into the next tier.  The only real constant we can expect is that Dallas will suck, because, well, they struck out again, unless paying a recovering Wes Matthews more than James Harden is to be deemed any sort of victory.  As marvelously as this offseason has gone for Houston, the biggest loss was that DeAndre returned back home to California; had he not backed out on his promise to Dallas, even with Chandler Parsons’ “best center-shooting guard duo” in tow, the Mavs would not have posed a threat in the pecking order, but the Clippers would have been crippled.  Instead, well, the Mavs still don’t pose a threat.

Ultimately, the championship will be determined by health.  Despite record setting regular season differentials, I’m not entirely convinced in the Warriors’ perceived unequivocal superiority.  Things might have played out differently had they faced a single starting point guard in the playoffs, or a starting power forward in the latter rounds.  You could essentially throw the top 6 of GSW, HOU, LAC, SAS, OKC, and MEM into a bag, and dump them out in any order, with health as the ascending factor.  The Rockets could finish sixth, or, they could just as well finish at the top.

in musings

Lowe: Terrence Jones at $15million?

Zach Lowe today wrote extensively on the extension-eligible class of 2012, a group that includes Houston’s Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas.  On Jones, specifically:

Would it be insane for Jones to hold out for at least $15 million per season? Probably not, even though he would likely be the least accomplished player ever to sign an extension that pricey. Would it even be insane for Houston GM Daryl Morey to accept that kind of deal? No one really knows, but Jones’s team will begin extension talks at an eye-popping number.

That kind of market sounds about right given the expected cap increase.  I wrote last week that if Motiejunas proves he’s recovered from the back injury which saw him miss the postseason, we’ll possibly see Jones moved closer to the deadline.  One interesting byproduct of the new cap universe is the premise that, because there’s more money, it can necessarily be spent with indiscretion.  To put it in other words, just simply because Terrence Jones will garner offers at such high figures does not mean such a signing would be wise, or a proper appraisal of the player’s real value.  The market itself, with the cash available for buyers, cannot be trusted.

To some meddling Eastern Conference team, hoping to take a flier on a young building block, Jones might be worth the reach.  But for Houston, with a steadier option in Motiejunas, there are better ways in which that same figure can be spent.  Almost undoubtedly, with Motiejunas likely to command a similar sum, the Rockets will not bring back both players long term.

I’ve written extensively on Jones in relation to my deep mistrust.  Tantalizing in moments, but equally unreliable, at the most critical of times.  I have milk cartons from May bearing his visage.  It is certainly possible, maybe even probable, that with time, the inconsistency which has plagued Jones will be overcome.  But as I’ve written, Houston right now is not in such a position to wait, and now pay, for development.  They need steady production now in an unforgiving Western Conference where star power forwards loom on a nightly basis.  $15million may no longer be star money, but it is starter money, defined inherently thus as deserving only to a player who is a solid dependable starter.  How many times have you seen Terrence Jones languished on the bench, completely unplayable at the end of close games?

As I wrote at the time of his departure, the biggest loss in the Josh Smith parting was that the team almost had to hold onto Jones.  That wasn’t meant as a slight on Jones: I assumed at the time that such a trade chip would be necessary to acquire a player the caliber of Ty Lawson.  But now, the Rockets find themselves in a precarious position.  Assuming the team decides Motiejunas is preferable–and the team almost surely will not opt to prematurely extend either of the two–what does it do with Jones?  While the Rockets’ best bet would be a trade to recapture his value, there really aren’t any holes on this roster(!).  And a deal for a future pick and/or young prospect would only hamper Houston’s postseason chances.  Despite the reasons I outlined above in citing my deep reluctance to commiserate Jones with a payday, he still will be better as an immediate bench option than any other player on the market in February.  Houston might hope the newly drafted Montrezl Harrell can duplicate even a fraction of Jones’ energy to begin thinking about a deal.  It’s a development we’ll need to watch closely.

in musings

This was really predictable.  The team makes a blockbuster trade and team blogger subsequently scrambles to compose a list of the top factors predicating the team’s success, citing the recent transaction above all else.  Oh so, so predictable.  But this really wasn’t that obvious.  You could argue Harden’s the biggest factor; or you could argue for the Howard maintenance plan, depending on how you see it.  For instance, if Dwight’s not healthy, Houston doesn’t stand a chance.  But Lawson’s production is the item of greatest variation from last season’s mean.  Harden is pretty likely to be about as good again, and Howard is pretty likely to have better health, if even only slightly.  (If he only plays half a season again, they already won 56 games withstanding that output).  But Lawson is what can push the Rockets completely over the top.

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in essays

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