Analysis and the daily links can be found after the jump.
As a man who takes more than a minor interest in the Houston Rockets, I am very familiar with all of the excuses (I dole them out on a daily basis, though much less regularly lately). I know, the Rockets tend to accumulate injuries like honey attracts adorable, animated bears. I know that this team has tried to maintain and enact new systems through a couple of coaches without being able to keep the personnel on the court or team long enough to ever implement anything of substance. I know that no team (except maybe the equally cursed Portland Trailblazers) in the league has had to deal with similar setbacks to the roster. I also know that this team, as currently constructed, doesn’t really have an excuse. Yes, the injury bug has returned (who among us didn’t really expect it to?), but that isn’t why the Rockets are 3-8. It’s not why this team couldn’t keep a team of Earl Boykinses (that seems as good a plural form as any) from getting in the paint. It’s not why the team couldn’t move the ball past halfcourt throughout the first half of Wednesday’s contest against the Thunder. The reason for all of this is much less complicated than the litany of justifications Rockets fans have memorized throughout the Yao/McGrady era: badness. Nothing comes easily for this team because it just isn’t that good.
Currently, this team’s best options are an aging, if perfect, role player and an occasionally non-existent star who has never been on a team that was any better than an 8 seed. The team honestly isn’t the train wrecks that Detroit and the Clippers are, but those kinds of collapsed messes are the Rockets’ competition these days. I simply can’t write sentences about this team without mentioning some underlying flaw, some major concern, some other reason this team won’t win again. Last night, even as the Rockets hung in the game prior to halftime, everything seemed wrong for Houston. Though the team was tied at 30 and often found itself right behind the Thunder, most of Houston’s early “success” in the game could be attributed to a brilliant field goal percentage (59% in the first half, which Houston finished down by 11), and even that was mostly thanks to a brilliant half of offense from one Luis Scola, who has sadly been this team’s best player this year. Scola can not be described as anything other than consistently great, but his level of great just isn’t that of a star in the NBA’s. Honestly, no NBA team could survive getting the offensive looks the Rockets did last night; yesterday’s was a team that could easily rival last year’s Nets in an anti-arms-race of futility. No shots were easy (Kyle Lowry has taken an absolute pounding from Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook in consecutive games on both ends of the floor) for the team, which didn’t win a quarter of play last night. As aforementioned, not even bringing the ball up the court seemed possible thanks both to the ridiculous length and athleticism of the Thunder (trying to pass the ball into an interior featuring Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Nenad Kristic basically cannot happen when your best post player gives up about three inches to their small forward) and the Rockets’ complete and utter lack of playmaking. Ish Smith and Brad Miller, two consistent defensive liabilities (I’d also like to add that Smith having to consider shooting may be the team’s biggest liability with him on the court), have had to see serious playing time because no one else can deliver a pass, including point guard Lowry and backup combo guard Courtney Lee (whose head has appeared somewhere other than where the Rockets are playing about half of this season). No one on this team can seem to do anything of the things they are supposed to be able to consistently outside of Scola and Martin, who are the team’s worst defenders and consistently give up everything they earn on one end on the other. Without trying to oversell any point, this team lacks the inherent will and talent to be able to win games with any kind of consistency.
This game showed exactly where the Rockets are in the NBA landscape: as one team dealing with the weight of preseason expectations found itself grouping together and bonding as one cohesive unit, the Rockets watched OKC do so all around them, seemingly taken aback and petrified at once. The Thunder represent what just about every NBA team not named the Heat and Lakers envy: youth on the rise; Houston didn’t look as much in awe of the show around it as much as it did weary about it. And if the Rockets are already feeling tired and frustrated with all of the youth this league has to offer, be prepared for an extremely long season.
Houston Rockets 99, Oklahoma City Thunder 116
On to the links…
- As Kevin Durant gets to coast to 24-point-games in victories that were decided before the fourth quarter began, his tormentee and object of the world’s pity, Greg Oden, got the kind of miserable, morale-crushing news that has become old hat in Houston (and in Portland): the oft-injured big man will miss yet another season thanks to another necessary microfracture surgery, the second of his ridiculously young career. For a few days of the media cycle, good doses of both snark and told-you-so-based, affected pity will be sprayed from the frothing maws of the mouth-breathers on sports radio (I love you guys, though), but this one won’t be fair. Not in the slightest. I mean, talk all you want about Sam Bowie, but even he got a proper rookie season. Greg Oden really hasn’t been given a chance by his body, the same overgrown body of a man that got him where he was and is now rapidly breaking him. Portland fans, I feel your pain, but I can’t even imagine how this weighs on a kid like Oden. Misery abounds for all involved here.
- Going back to a more homegrown sadness, there has been so much hand-wringing about how bad this team is right now that it’s sometimes hard to remember that Yao Ming still hasn’t retuned from his ankle injury to help make this team mediocre instead of simply awful. The big fella did not travel with the team to OKC and won’t be in Toronto Friday, making Monday’s matchup with the Suns Yao’s first opportunity to return to the lineup. Bring him back against the Phoenix Suns; that makes total sense. Ugh. 3-8 records force me into 3rd-grade-type sarcasm. Excuse my petulance.
- Jonathan Feigen knows that the Houston Rockets are not as bad as their 3-8 record implies, but that doesn’t change the fact that the team has already created a five-game-hole to climb out of simply to enter the realm of the pedestrian. Feigen talks a bit about the team’s past lapses proving to be the kinds of failures that teams rarely overcome: “That’s what comes with the losses that could have been — and especially those that should have been — wins. Drop a few too many of those, and then the understandable, road-weary, short-handed loss like Wednesday’s seems to cause far too much damage. The Rockets are not ready to match up with the Thunder. Oklahoma City is young and long and tremendously athletic, blessed with an MVP-caliber talent in Kevin Durant and a running mate, Russell Westbrook, who is not far behind… Nights like that happen, and will happen for them in matchups like these. They are 3-8, however, because of the nights in which they could have or even should have won and didn’t. The latest loss, the first one like it this season, just made it seem even worse.”
- The Miami Heat features some of the best transition players in the NBA, so why does it play at one of the league’s slowest paces (94 possessions per game, good for 20th in the L)? Tom Haberstroh of the Heat Index breaks down why the Heat might not want to look at the SSOL-era Suns as a prototype: “Jones hits on a key point — the Heat aren’t stocked with 3-point shooters. But more importantly, the two ball-dominant scorers, LeBron and Wade, destroy opponents through attacking the basket, not distributing the ball to the perimeter. If LeBron and Wade were to suddenly stop driving to the rim, they’d see their efficiencies plummet from not toeing the free throw line every other trip down the court. Teams would rejoice.”
- Shane Battier said some things about instant replay I don’t think a man as brilliant as he actually thinks.
- Remember when we all mocked David Kahn for his obsession with building a Darko-Love-Supercool Beas frontcourt? Mock away at the next four years of Milicic, but those other two are oh so serious.
- In an ESPN Insider article released yesterday, John Hollinger wrote about a future without Yao that could feature a max free agent and a couple of lottery picks next year. Too bad the Rockets may never be able to truly sever themselves from their Chinese connection: “They can probably do it again. But the problem with life in the middle in the NBA is that it can be a tough place to escape, because it’s virtually impossible to get any better. Houston will never get a high lottery pick this way, and if it keeps this group together it will never have enough dough to make a big splash in free agency. In the grueling Western Conference, furthermore, a win total in the low 40s might still banish Houston to the lottery… It’s too early to say definitely that a change in course is needed. The Rockets will argue for patience with Yao, and for at least a few more months that’s the right way to play their hand. After they’ve seen Yao for half a season and trade-deadline urgency forces other teams to show their cards, the Rockets will have a much better idea of whether it’s best to max out the current roster or opt for dramatic restructuring.”