By: mitchell felker
Stein Rankings - This week's rankings from the Committee of One are out, and the Rockets continue their ping-pong back and forth, dropping a spot to number nine after getting leaped by the Memphis Grizzlies.
Houston had the West's best record in January (8-2) until losing both of its weekend home-and-home games with the Grizz. They're not the same Grizz any more with Marc Gasol back -- as Dwight Howard will attest -- but Memphis was 0-10 against the Southwest Division before that sweep.
Maybe Memphis is just a bad match-up for the Rockets, or maybe the Grizzlies are streaking, or perhaps they're just finally rounding into form. They beat Portland handily last night, and although it seems a little premature to move them into the top-ten already with a record of only 22-20, they are 5-1 since Marc Gasol's return.
As Stein says, they're starting to look like the dreaded low-seed that no one wants to play in round one, a role they know all too well.
Trade talk - In Rahat's podcast yesterday, he discussed a hypothetical trade laid out by ESPN Insider's Amin Elahassan, in which the Rockets reacquire Kyle Lowry.
Houston sends to Toronto: Jeremy Lin, Ronnie Brewer, a 2014 second-round pick (via N.Y.), and the less favorable of 2015 second-round pick (via N.Y.) and the 2015 second-round pick owed to Houston from Minnesota (which in turn is the less favorable of Minnesota and Denver second-round picks), plus cash considerations
Toronto sends to Houston: Kyle Lowry, Austin Daye
I have mixed feelings about this deal. While I agree with Rahat completely that this move makes the Rockets better on paper, I have several concerns about Lowry's fit with this roster. An under-reported part of this Rockets team (unless you're a fan of the BS Report) is how bad their body language can be at times. James Harden and Dwight Howard have to be in the top-5 league-wide (with Carmelo Anthony and DeMarcus Cousins) in ending possessions with sagging shoulders, head hanging, begrudgingly jogging back up court after things didn't go their way. And Kyle Lowry's bullish attitude may not blend well with that. On the other hand, maybe that kind of fire and backbone could be what's needed to straighten the Rockets out. It just makes for a risky proposition.
Also, as was stated by both Amin and Rahat, Lowry didn't exactly leave Houston on the best of terms. He even hinted that coach Kevin McHale would have to be fired for him to be able to stay a Rocket. I see that as a bigger stumbling-block than my two cohorts. And beyond that, he wasn't happy with the Rockets' front office going all the way back to the summer of 2010. That summer the Rockets made the smart decision to let the market set Lowry's value as a restricted free agent, and then ultimately matched the contract he signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It seems to me like a lot of bad blood for the two sides to overcome were he to return to Houston.
One other thing Rahat brought up in his podcast is that trading Lin would free up cap space for this summer. Looking at the list of free agents for the next two summers, there isn't much to choose from in 2014 that would be a serious upgrade to the Rockets. The more enticing talent is 18 months away. And I understand Lin and Asik will make 30 million in combined-salary (but only 18 million cap-wise) if they both stay next year, but I'm not making those payments, Les Alexander is. In a perfect world, the Rockets would free up max-level space for the summer of 2015 and pursue Kevin Love or Rajon Rondo.
So yes, Kyle Lowry is an upgrade over both Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin on paper, but it's my opinion that he just has to much baggage, especially in Houston, to warrant this trade. I'd rather wait for health and ride it out with this roster.
Superman's Kryptonite - In the wake of back-to-back losses this weekend to the Memphis Grizzlies, Ethan Rothstein of The Dreamshake addressed the Rockets' shortcomings against larger lineups.
So far, against those five teams (Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Pacers, Blazers), the Rockets are 4-7, but three of those wins have come against the Grizzlies without Gasol and the Spurs without Tiago Splitter. It's becoming increasingly clear that this is a problem, especially because of the Rockets' success against the Blazers and Warriors, teams that frequently use small lineups, particularly with their bench groups, removing the Rockets' woefully undersized bench frontcourt as a disadvantage.
The record is troublesome, but I feel Ethan left off a few teams from the large-list: Brooklyn, Detroit, Chicago and OKC all play traditional bigs for a majority of their minutes as well. When you take into account those nine teams, with a combined record of 252-151 (.599%), the Rockets record rises to 10-10 and the story isn't quite as dire. And yes, at times those teams haven't been whole, but name a time when Houston was complete? Especially the (maddening) continued absence of Omer Asik, who happens to be the missing-link between making the Rockets one of the league's larger teams and one that gives serious minutes to Omri Casspi at power forward and Terrence Jones at center.
To me, this is a case of "what have you done for me lately", and in the Rockets' case the answer is get beaten down by Zach Randolph and the Memphis Grizzlies. But as has been the situation for most of the season, you can't make any assertions about what this team is or can be until we've seen what they truly are. So until February 20th (trade deadline-day) or until Omer Asik rediscovers his professionalism, this Rockets team truly is an enigma.
Notes From Last Night - Following the Houston Rockets from my home in Austin, TX has always been a challenging, often frustrating endeavor. Being a DirectTV subscriber, even before the days of the Comcast quagmire, it was a rare occurrence that the Rockets were actually on TV. Locally we get Spurs games, and when the Spurs aren't on, we get Mavericks games. My point is, I've had to watch plenty of the "home" team with the enemy's announcing crew. Last night was once such occasion and it's always especially painful when it's the Spurs.
While Bill Worrell is a Houston icon and should be cherished like your favorite uncle, I realize Clyde Drexler (and to a lesser extent Matt Bullard) isn't exactly impartial. But Bill Land and Sean Elliot might as well change their name to everyone's favorite Simpson's character. They can be tough to listen to at times. Last night, though, they did offer some knowledge worth noting.
First off, if you caught last night's broadcast (or read Forrest Walker's recap) you may have heard that the Rockets avoided their first three game losing streak of the season, while handing the Spurs their first back-to-back losses 44 games into the season. The three game losing streak stuck out to me because my second favorite stat of all-time (and proof that Michael Jordan really is the GOAT) is that from the 1990-91 season (his first title) through his second retirement from the Bulls in 1998 (and excluding the missed time due to his first retirement), MJ's Chicago Bulls never lost three straight games. This is relevant because the Rockets only need to finish this season and the next five without losing three straight, while winning the title each year, to match the greatest run of dominance by a team ever. Gotta start somewhere.
Also, you may have heard that the Rockets won the season-series with San Antonio for the first time since Tim Duncan was a senior at Wake Forrest in 1996-97. (That those victories ultimately helped the Spurs land Duncan with the top pick somewhat diminishes that accomplishment.) What you may not have heard last night was that after 36 games - over 400 minutes played - Matt Bonner was awarded his first free throws of the season after a failed swipe by Aaron Brooks. It was like seeing a red-haired unicorn. He went 1-2.
Lastly, Terrence Jones had another solid night last night. And while 21 points and 9 rebounds doesn't exactly leap off the stat sheet after some of his recent performances, what does standout is the way he carried the offense in the first half, but especially the first quarter. The Rockets scored only 39 points in the first half, with Jones accounting for 15 of them. There were times when he was the entire offense, beating his man in the post a little like Zach Randolph would. I can't find a way to generate his shot chart from last night, but in the first half he was 6-8 from the field with all six buckets coming in the paint and four of them from right around the basket. Someone send this tape to Detroit; this is how you're supposed to play, J-Smoove.
I've read a lot people making the case that DeMarcus Cousins is the Most Improved Player this year, but to me a top-5 pick finally living up to expectations doesn't come close to matching a non-lottery sophomore making real contributions to a contender.
(By the way, my number one favorite stat is that Hakeem Olajuwon, a center, still resides on the top-ten all-time steals list with some of the greatest perimeter defenders to ever play the game.)
Lin-Magic - There is something about the San Antonio Spurs that brings out the showboat in Jeremy Lin. After this gem against the Spurs on Christmas day, Lin hooked up with Terrence Jones again for another beauty last night.
But it wasn't all style with Lin. When the Rocket's needed a bucket late to seal the win, it was Lin that provided the dagger. Funny that it came against the Spurs, because it was the type of fadeaway-in-the-lane that Tony Parker has hit a hundred times in big situations.