How Cancelled Games Affect Houston

Whether it be financially, physically, emotionally, or all three rolled into one seismic disaster, every player, on every team, is bruised by the lockout. Guys really want to play ball, and a shortened season not only hurts them individually, but it’s a backward step for their teams as a whole—which doubles as a backward step, once again, for them as individuals, by way of their contribution towards a lower product.

A few aging groups, built on creaky knees but veteran skill and experience—the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and Dallas Mavericks to name a few—are hurt less than others for two reasons: 1) A shortened season means less opportunity for old man injuries to occur. Guys like Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant aren’t sighing relief that games are being missed, but when they look at the glass as being half full, all three recognize their possible one last hurrah is easier to grab now that energy from October and November can be translated to May and June, when they do things people remember them for, and 2) The continuity/chemistry factor isn’t a concern. For the most part these groups are well versed with one another, and the key instruments that make their orchestra hum on cue are all in place and ready to go. They should hit the ground running as soon as the season starts, with even greater motivation to see the regular season as somewhat of a mini-marathon or full on sprint to the finish, instead of the tedious 82 game regular season.

Unfortunately for Houston, the Rockets aren’t one of those teams. They’re very young, with a whole bunch of moving parts who’re unfamiliar with one another’s playing styles and subconscious tendencies. They aren’t in for an overwhelmingly painful season, like Sacramento or Charlotte, but the Rockets were an improving bunch looking to bump themselves up to the playoffs. Is that still the case, or should expectations be lowered?

Missing training camp, the preseason, and, now, the first two weeks of meaningful games, the team is thrown in a vat of mud, blindingly clawing its way forward instead of collectively running as a well-oiled unit. With a new coach and new players trying to find where they fit in, the lockout stagnates them tremendously, to the point of a borderline unfair disadvantage.

After the All-Star break last season, Houston posted a scintillating 17-8 record down the stretch. If it were a horse race, the Rockets would’ve looked like a sad, disinterested stallion before rounding the final bend and magically transforming into one of the fastest horses out there (before ultimately falling short). If that very horse were scheduled to run the following week—with a new fiery jockey—wouldn’t he be a gambler’s favorite?

In those final 25 games, Houston had two five game winning streaks and never lost more than two games in a row. They spanked the Trailblazers in Portland, ran Boston out of the Toyota Center in a 16 point victory, and held off a healthy Spurs team coming off five straight losses and starving for a win. With no Aaron Brooks looking over Kyle Lowry’s shoulder and no aging Shane Battier clogging up the team’s willingness to run, run, run, Houston looked like a new, fresh team. They beat the teams they were supposed to and played everyone else with the fearless ferocity all up and coming teams must have. They began to play a more disciplined brand of defense, allowing five fewer free-throw attempts, one less three-pointer, and four fewer points per game. Four points doesn’t seem like a lot, but they are, especially in possession for possession playoff battles.

According to’s Team Clubhouse feature, which tracks the last 10 games for each player like a stock ticker, almost everyone on the team was making progressive strides. Team Clubhouse goes like this: if an arrow is pointing up beside a player’s name, then said player has improved in over half of the statistical categories presented from the previous 10 games. If it points down then, obviously, there’s decline. Only two players on the team had arrows pointing down: Kevin Martin (who’s points, minutes, assists, and rebounds were an improvement—curse be that declining 87% from the free-throw line!) and Jordan Hill, who just might be the team’s worst player. Every player but Hill and Luis Scola saw improvements in minutes and points; everyone but Hill saw improvements in assists. The season’s canvas was beginning to look like a respected work of art, and with a summer league/training camp to get guys like Terrence Williams, Marcus Morris, and Jonny Flynn acclimated to the team’s framework, the Rockets looked on their way to continuing their ascension.

As Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell, and Marcus Camby’s indifferent Chinese character tattoo showed us in 1999, there’s always a chance in a shortened season for someone to advantageously slip themselves into the mid-June party and mix 100 proof Belvedere with the punch. But in the end, justice does it self well; these groups usually fall flat on their face and are exposed as intruders.

For Houston to get by a vaunted Western Conference is next to impossible: Memphis should be improved, or at least as good as they were, depending on Rudy Gay’s assimilation and Marc Gasol’s contract; the Spurs and Lakers are hungry/desperate; and the Thunder are downright starving. Oh, and then there’s the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, who, depending on how they handle Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, and Caron Butler (who’s value can’t be understated), will be overlooking everyone.

Nobody figured the Rockets to compete next year for a title—they’re still a few players/Dwight Howard away. But if for all fans of the NBA this lockout is a knockdown punch to the jaw, then for those who favor Houston, it’s also a swift kick to the gut.

Twitter: @ShakyAnkles

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