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Rockets vs. Thunder
About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.
HOUSTON — On the surface, there was an easy villain in Houston’s 95-92 loss to Chicago on Tuesday night: instant replay. Two miraculous Kyle Lowry heaves at the end of the shot clock were overturned upon review, costing Houston five fourth-quarter points that one imagines would have come in awfully handy in a three-point defeat to the Bulls.
Yet that obscures the larger reality of Tuesday night’s game and, by extension, Houston’s season. The two shot clock violations via replay were part of an unacceptable four for the game, a shocking total for a team that plays at the league’s third-fastest pace. For much of the game, it was simply too hard for the Yao Ming-less Rockets to generate shots.
And that, by extension, takes us to the conundrum regarding the Rockets. Although Houston is 3-7 this season after another close-but-no-cigar effort against a good team, the Rockets are 13th in Wednesday’s Power Rankings and are likely to look better on paper once a bearish early-season schedule gives way to a stretch of patsies in December.
In other words, the Rockets aren’t that bad. The problem is, they aren’t that good, either. A team once built around a two-superstar core of Yao and Tracy McGrady has to contend with the fact that it no longer has an all-NBA-caliber centerpiece. This difference became glaringly obvious in the fourth quarter Wednesday, when Derrick Rose was constructing his own personal highlight film at one end while the Rockets labored to generate a shot — any shot — at the other.
AP Photo/Nick WassA lingering leg injury has limited Yao Ming to just five games.
There will be nights when it comes a bit easier. Houston played without Yao, Aaron Brooks and Chase Budinger, so when the Bulls fronted Luis Scola and blitzed Kevin Martin in the fourth quarter, there were no capable scorers in reserve to take advantage.
But even with those three playing, Houston’s big-picture situation is largely the same. Calling them a team of role players is perhaps too harsh, but calling this a team at a crossroads is not. Barring a spectacular resurgence from Yao, the Rockets are entering a new, superstar-free era, and coming to grips with everything that entails.
Thus, it’s time to ponder the Yao-sized elephant in the Houston locker room: Is it time to change gears?
This isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. For starters, Yao is the face of the franchise both locally and internationally, not to mention the source of considerable revenues that go way beyond ticket sales. Other veterans with expiring deals — most notably Shane Battier — have both a value to the organization and a connection to the community that goes well beyond their box score contributions.
Additionally, one can argue we’re dismissing Yao’s chances of a return to All-Star form far too early. Despite the 24-minute limit, his inability to play in back-to-backs and his wooden movement around the court early this season, he didn’t get any shorter while he was away. Even now, after watching him for years, it’s still shocking to see him walk into a locker room and see just how huge he is, even compared to other freakishly tall NBA players.
And he wasn’t that bad, at least statistically. Yao’s per-minute numbers aren’t much different from his career norms. If he can play like an All-Star — even if it’s for 28 minutes — Houston’s course would change considerably.
But if not?
Well, at first glance such wrenching change seems drastic for a team that may very well reach the Western Conference playoffs. Houston lacks a superstar, but it does have two minor stars who could end up in the first All-Star games of their respective careers. Scola has been one of the league’s most improved players at the ripe old age of 30, showcasing an improved counter move to his left to become one of the league’s most potent back-to-the-basket players. Martin, meanwhile, remains one of the league’s most efficient offensive weapons, averaging 28.0 points per 40 minutes with a glitzy 62.3 true shooting percentage.
But neither will be a factor in the All-Defense voting. That’s where the limitations of the rest of the roster become an issue. Houston ranks 22nd in defensive efficiency, and its normal starting lineup of Brooks, Martin, Battier, Scola and Yao features only one player (Battier) with any defensive chops. Similar results come when mining the bench; the best defenders are limited offensive weapons like Lowry, Chuck Hayes and Jordan Hill. Basically, everybody who can score is a liability on D, and vice versa.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesWould the Rockets give up reigning MIP Aaron Brooks in a trade?
This is a problem now, but Houston worked spectacularly well as a unit when Yao and McGrady provided an all-NBA foundation. The Rockets excelled at finding role players to work with that system and were among the league’s most dramatic overachievers as a result, most notably in a spectacular 22-game winning streak in 2007-08. Even last season, minus both players, the remaining Rockets scratched and clawed their way to a winning record.
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.
As for trades, the Rockets have some large expiring contracts and a couple of intriguing young players … but really, who doesn’t? That reality largely explains why the Rockets’ mission to add another elite-level talent has fallen short. Every GM is trying to land Pau Gasol for a bag of peanuts, but there’s a reason such trades are rare.
The best answer, but the most elusive, is to upgrade on the fly. That’s what the Rockets have been trying for much of the past two years — most notably in their pursuit of Chris Bosh — and with some help from New York, it’s perhaps a trick they could still pull off. Houston has the right to swap 2011 first-round draft choices with the 3-8 Knicks, and has a couple of other juicy morsels to put into a deal, most notably Brooks, who won the 2010 Most Improved Player award but is disgruntled by his lack of an extension.
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.
At the very least, however, we can say this: The latter option is a reasonable choice. If it wishes, Houston can get far enough under the cap to afford a max free agent and have two likely lottery picks. The more nights we see like Tuesday’s, the more alluring that prospect becomes.
I was just trying to count wins on the schedule, and I came across January. I see a potential 10 game losing streak. @POR, @DEN, POR, @ORL, UTA, @BOS, OKC, NOH, @ATL, @MIL That is a serious 16 day gauntlet.
How bad will it have to get for everyone to completely lose interest? I ask that seriously. We haven’t had a truly “bad” year since early in the Francis era. Even last year was interesting. How long until total apathy sets in? And why must it be the year I get credentials?
The worst part of a disastrous season either by Rockets or Knicks?
If there is a strong possibility of a lockout come June,the better college and Foreign players won’t opt for the Draft. It’ll be full of projects,role players and midling players who leave early because they will never get drafted as high no matter what they do if they had stayed in school/Europe.
It will make the 2012 Draft much stronger,but that’s two yrs away.
Sad part of today’s OKC game is I never felt like the starters could make a run and take the game.
At least Ish played much more under control tonight and Taylor didn’t go shot hunting til end of game.
I think we’re all numb from all the losing cause I’m usually pretty angry right now but it honestly doesn’t phase me.. the rockets are looking eerily similar to the Texans right now(and the Astros for that matter).. anyone know if the dynamo or Aero’s are any good? … also sidebar who are Houston current best athletic exports? V.Y.? Boobie Gibson? man we’re lookin’ bad..
the rockets always pick the wrong year to go lottery. yao sandwiched by lebron and DH12. if they continue this path this year, missed out on the wall draft for a lockout draft…
It seems like this team can’t get out of this hole. I don’t think Brad Miller scoring 20 points multiple times is a good thing. In fact I think it is a very very bad and telling thing. This team is such a Frankestein of raw talent. We have no identity, and we have the wrong coach. Do you think Adelman is fired if we miss the playoffs? Van Gundy went on an Arian Foster rant during the Spurs game. I think he’d come back no questions asked. I’ll stay interested no matter how bad things get. The Rockets are a huge part of my life, and it’s the bad stuff that makes the good stuff great stuff.
I believe Adelman is only signed thru this yr. Which is an interesting dynamic of its’ own. If it gets to point Rockets should play the kids to see what they have,and Adelman knows he’s not coming back,then what?
All I could find out on Rick’s contract status was Rockets last season exercised their option for this yr and Les said he was going to make an extension offer. Then nada.
I even asked Feigen in his blog comments section about Adelman’s status and his reply was that as far as he knew the team had only picked up Adelman’s option for this yr.
At this point it sure looks like Adelman is a lame duck coach.
Last season there were unconfirmed rumors a couple of College and Pro teams were sniffing around,and there’s been several rumors that Adelman and Morey don’t exactly see eye to eye.
I’d say w/out a deep Playoff run there’s a very good chance the Rockets and Adelman part ways.
A couple of yrs ago there was that “Oh s***,McGrady’s done” moment for Houston fans.
Was the OKC game Adelman’s “Oh s***,I can’t win with this team” moment?
4Q,6-7 minutes to go,10-12 point game,Adelman would re-insert his starters. Yeah,it was a back-to-back,but in this game he’d given his starters plenty of rest,Lowry w/only 22 minutes for example.
But w/half a Quarter to go,a 10-12 pt lead,a lead every coach thinks is catchable w/that time remaining,Adelman left in his bench. Hopefully he was sending a message to starters that if they don’t compete,keep committing bad turnovers,they will sit.
Otherwise Adelman gave up on a game that 99.9999% of the time he and every other coach would try to win.
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