Ball is Life: Time to shut it down?

As the most disappointing Houston Rockets since well, I don’t know, draws to a close, perhaps the worst part of this story is that the Rockets still have a good shot at making the playoffs.

After yesterday’s victory against Cleveland, ESPN gives the Rockets a 92.8 percent chance of making the playoffs and facing the Spurs juggernaut, while FiveThirtyEight gives them a 90 percent chance. The Dallas Mavericks appear to be the odd team out. While Houston and Dallas will play each other one more time, the Rockets currently have the tiebreaker and an easier schedule down the stretch.

But what will Houston even accomplish in the playoffs? They will be lucky to win one game against the Warriors or Spurs. You cannot claim that “playoff experience” is necessary for a team which just reached the Western Conference Finals last year, and so the question has to be asked:

Should the Rockets just shut it down, give up on this season, and complete this humiliation? Or should they keep trying, for whatever good it has done them this year?

I will start off by observing that I pay almost zero attention to draft prospects or college basketball (I have watched maybe three NCAA games in my entire life). But one thing which should be remembered is that the Rockets would not necessarily have the 14th pick, but the 12th pick depending on how the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls finish in the Eastern Conference.

Still, there are a couple advantages to note. If Houston ends up making the playoffs, they forfeit their first round pick to the Denver Nuggets as part of the Ty Lawson trade. If the Rockets do not make the playoffs, then they will give up Portland’s 2017 second round pick. So it is not a matter of “give up a first rounder now or do it later,” nor is it just the difference between the 14th and 17th pick. It is a matter of the Rockets giving up a first rounder at all.

Now, one could wonder what the value of a late lottery pick really is, but I do think that there is some value. No one expects the Rockets to draft a star with a pick like that, but drafting a superstar is just not the way to go. By the time any potential drafted superstar becomes a star, Harden may be reaching the end of his prime. And I have always been leery of Harden’s longevity given his minutes played and the beating he draws by charging to the rim as much as he does.

The true value of a late lottery pick is that such a pick could shore up Houston’s bench, and the Rockets bench badly needs an upgrade. Jason Terry and Clint Capela were good, and Beasley surprised for the second half of this season (though I continue to remain skeptical about how valuable he actually is). But Terrence Jones and Corey Brewer have been a disaster, to say nothing about the Grand Ty Lawson Experiment.

Even a player on the level of Patrick Patterson or Jeremy Lamb would go some ways towards improving this team. While I have no doubt that Morey intends to home-run for a superstar again this offseason, he does need to have an actual back-up plan if it does not happen.

All of this shows that the Houston Rockets management has an incentive to see the Rockets miss the playoffs down the stretch, however humiliating that might be. And really, what is the potential upside at this point?

If Houston was capable of vaulting to the 6th seed like many of us had hoped for earlier in the season, then perhaps you could make an argument that the Rockets could pull off the upset against the Thunder or maybe even the Clippers. But this team is not beating the Warriors or the Spurs. Not in a thousand years. And as noted above, this team will not get “playoff experience” out of it given that this is by and large a team filled with veterans.

Every sound businessman knows that it is pointless to throw good money after bad, and this season is already lost. The Rockets need to figure out how to retool for a future ring with James Harden at its core. And if that means resting him more, making sure that ankle is healthy, and getting the team into the lottery down the stretch?

Then perhaps that is what needs to be done.

About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.

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