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From Yao to Pau and back to now: the 2011-2012 Houston Rockets season preview

I’m not completely sure where to start.  Whereas the front page should be littered with discussions ranging from “how many good years does Pau have left?” to “is our big man duo better than Randolph and Gasol?”, instead, cold silence.  I still don’t think we’ve completely overcome the collective shock that was last week.

Yes, this essay should have entailed a sincere look into the Rockets’ odds at winning the West in the next three years, during the duration of Pau Gasol’s contract.  Instead, we scramble to assess what we have and what our objectives should be during this challenging season.

What is tanking exactly?  I’ve argued vehemently for it, but have I ever defined it, or at least my personal connotation of the term?  Tanking–as I propose it–is not simply throwing games in hopes of losses.  Perhaps that’s the normative use of the word.  Tanking is ‘purposeful destruction.’  The objective is not to just lose games.  The objective is to avoid winning games through nontransferrable means.  If the Rockets make the playoffs on the strength of play from Terrence Williams, Marcus Morris, and Jordan Hill, more power to them; I’m all for that.  That success translates to the future.  Those guys will only get better and by extension, the team has upward trajectory.

What I’m against is a playoff run on the backs of Kevin Martin and Luis Scola with young players playing minimal roles.  That success is fleeting; it doesn’t translate because those guys aren’t getting any better.  We know what they can do and we know the ceiling of a team with them at the helm.

Based on their success last season, I thought that had the team retained Chuck Hayes, even if remaining stagnant elsewhere, the Rockets would have likely made the playoffs as one of the lower seeds.  Now I’m not completely sure.  Losing Chuck Hayes was a bigger blow than is being reported: not only was he the team’s anchor inside but he initiated a large percentage of the team’s offense from the high post.  With no real passing threats inside, that production will be difficult to replicate.  Still, they have enough talent that they won’t be completely awful.  That could be a bad thing.

**

After the game Saturday night, we asked Terrence Williams what triggered his eruption in the second half after such a poor start.  “He told me even Jordan had bad halves,” he recounted, speaking of a dialogue with head coach Kevin McHale.

You can see it in the way he talks to them, individually, at practice, instilling confidence through a constructive manner.  With the Gasol deal squashed by the league, the McHale-Adelman swap almost seems prescient.  If you’re a young player, struggling to find your niche in this league, who better to provide reassurance than a hall-of-famer and one of the 50 greatest players to ever play this game?

Up front, in their young trio of big-man lottery picks, the Houston Rockets feature a wealth of physical riches, with long-limbed men bestowed with all the gifts an athlete could want.  Now they must be built up and given the chance to sink or swim.  They must be taught and thrown directly into the fire.

Patterson will succeed.  The numbers indicate so much.  Hill exploded last weekend, walking all over the Spurs’ backup bigs, to the tune of an impressive double-double.  Can he sustain such production?  From reports, the knock on Jordan Hill has always been a lack of focus, but not of effort.  He’s eager to learn and eager for responsibility.  Who better to teach than Kevin McHale, just as he did with Kevin Garnett over a decade ago, taking the determined young man and showing him the ways of the paint.

Thabeet is the wild card.  To amnesty him would be a mistake.  How many men on this planet stand 7’3?  He has struggled, yes, and did not look too impressive Saturday night.  But recall that he’s never been coached.  At UConn he was instructed to stand in the paint while in Memphis, he was castaway as a failure.  The experience has clearly rattled him.

It was a relief to hear McHale, speaking of Craig Smith, say that he “wanted to see how long he had with Hasheem.”  It seems the team is willing to give Thabeet his chance.  Why wouldn’t they?  If he fails, nothing is lost.  If he even becomes serviceable, they’ve gained a valuable, rare piece to their roster.

**

When I spoke to him Saturday night, Marcus Morris explained that he had slimmed down in preparation for his role at the ‘3’.  Can he play the position?  It’s a calculated risk by Rockets management.  As a power forward, Morris’ ceiling is average at best, causing him to slip to the back end of the lottery.  But like Billy Beane’s juggling of catchers and first-basemen, the Rockets feel Morris hasn’t been properly valued.  As a ‘3’, he can create mismatches against smaller opponents, using size that didn’t gain him any advantage at power forward.  For a team with no star, it’s a smart gamble.

The other wing with promise is Terrence Williams who thus far has been the star of camp.  Williams possesses all the talents but many wonder if he’ll ever get his head straight.  On Saturday, the team featured him more at the head of the attack, allowing him to create with the ball in his hands.  Last year, he was relegated to a slasher within the Princeton offense; the former role clearly better suiting.

**

Between Hill, Thabeet, Patterson, Morris, and Williams, the Rockets have two former #14’s, an 11, an 8, and a #2.  It’s a good debate whether the big men or the wings have more potential or which group is more likely to realize it.  But at one spot, the team is rock-solid for the future.

Kyle Lowry emerged last season after claiming the keys upon Aaron Brooks’ departure.  He’s elite defensively and showed huge strides last season in his offensive prowess.  This is his team.  Where Lowry goes, the Rockets go, and the numbers reflect that during his stint with the team.  Whether he continues his improvement is anyone’s guess.  He seems to have capped out his ceiling, adding a shot to an already impressive ability to barrel his way to the hoop.

While Lowry has transcended, he’s not quite elite.  He still can’t really create off the dribble like some of his counterparts, using more of an opportunistic approach within the system or in fastbreaks.  This is where Williams, with his handle, could be a game-changer.

**

The Rockets must see where they are, must evaluate the track of the franchise.  They have youth, they must now assess where it is, and if it can help them.  An unwillingness to do such probably costed Rick Adelman his job.

They made the first right move, turning to McHale to move toward the future.  But where is that future headed?  One second it seemed towards the Western Conference Finals but David Stern had his way.  Now where do the Rockets go?  Chris Paul will stay in LA (for at least another year) and Dwight Howard seems to also be on his way somewhere else.  There is no hope of summer 2012. There seems to be no other trades on the horizon.  From where will they get a star?

The Rockets must trade Luis Scola and Kevin Martin at some point during this season.  They must bring back value for players who cannot help them when they are again ready to win.  This isn’t about losing.  It’s about avoiding pointless wins and wasting time in stagnation, mired in mediocrity.

The Rockets have tried every route.  They must now acquiesce to the inevitable and allow nature to take its course.  All great teams were bad.  The “culture of winning” is a myth and faux bravado has no place in honest discussion: “the point is to win” doesn’t sound as tough next to 40 victories.

This draft is the deepest in years.  If the Rockets spend time cultivating their current young talent and nab a blue-chipper in June, they could be back on their way.  If not, this could be a vicious cycle with no exit in sight.  Mediocrity perpetuates mediocrity and demoralizes a fanbase.  Few things are worse at the box office than apathy.

2011-2012 should be, not about wins, but about the future.  If Williams and Hill emerge, and lead the team on a run, applause is warranted.  But 30 point outings from Luis Scola or Kevin Martin to the tune of victories does nobody any good.

2011-2012 is not about now.  That’s a tough pill to swallow but it’s the right course.  If the Rockets don’t look ahead, they’ll stay stuck in place.






About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of www.Red94.net.

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