Expectations exist in the same ethereal world as stocks and terror-threat levels: constantly fluctuating and forcing those viewed as experts in the particular field to pretend that they knew what was happening all along. In the long drudge of an 82-game NBA season, the fickleness of those expectations becomes most readily apparent; the difference between what defines a successful season to someone in October and what pleases a beleaguered fan in March is startling, a perfect example of experience lowering expectations and generally making those with such lofty hopes more satisfied along the way. Who was right, though? That idealistic chap (or chapette) whose sole focus on a ring will either leave him or her very happy or very frustrated? Or the contented fan who can be proud of his or her team and be excited for another year? This discussion sort of dominates this website quite often, but this year the Houston Rockets have almost comically defined themselves by this argument, one of which I’m not quite ready to let go.
Had I posted anything in the preseason that intimated this team would be no better than 3-10 after 13 games or that Yao Ming would not suit up more than five times in a year, I likely would have been decried for my pessimism and general jerk-ery (I also likely would have been among that angry mob had I see that posted here). Had I said that I would be very relieved and innervated by the idea of Houston holding a .500 record entering its sideshow freakout with Miami, few would have allowed me my mini-wishes. Fer Chrissakes, this team could contend for a title… if lots of teams with which Houston badly matches up are eliminated and perfect health ensues. In October, caveats are but mere whispers, the kinds of qualifiers that should be left to the worrywarts and goths. But on the precipice of a new year and the team’s head-on collision with the most title-hungry juggernaut this league has ever seen, I want to look at this, this pile of role players and semi-stars, and evaluate whether the current condition of the team would have made the lot of Rockets fans happy in October (it wouldn’t have. Bam! End of article), as it seems many Rockets fans feel quite satisfied with the team’s recent rise back to respectability.
What is respectability for a sports team? There is likely a handful of answers, with a couple of dichotomous choices sticking out most prominently. One holds that only a team on its way toward a championship, no matter which rung on the ladder that team may be on, can be considered worthy of respect. The other, softer, if more reasonable, stance posits that a team that consistently tries to win, night in and night out, can be considered nothing other than respectable. I may be painting with the widest of brushes here, but I would venture to guess that more fans find themselves on the former, hawkish side more often than not before a season starts; what I do not understand is the innate need within those who care most to come around to the non-contention, to patronize (in both meanings of the word) teams that have no discernable future or plans for making championship dreams a reality. The Rockets find themselves in this unenviable position currently, stuck with a team too good to set aflame and deal with the fans’ white-hot fury over rebuilding but too bad to contend for anything other than an early exit from the playoffs.
This is the part where you take your side, choose your agenda and prepare for months of arguing. Aaron Brooks has returned, and hopes for a first-round upset of the Lakers will come back with him. Anthony Randolph could be obtained for pennies on the dollar because he’s once again in some eccentric, offensive-minded weirdo’s doghouse and converted into the 18-tool player/inhuman his skillset implies. Houston could even find a home for Yao’s bloated, deliciously insurance-coated contract and being back a valuable player with instant impact immediately. Will any of those moves or changes make this team an elite, make it in any way viable against the three-headed mythic beast it encounters tonight? The NBA does not exist in a vacuum. Teams can be no better than their foes beaten, and no fanbase should have to continue to give itself half-hearted pats on the back about how hard its team works. No one should settle for that most sinister of comforts, mediocrity.