BY: MICHAEL GUTIERREZ
With the trade deadline approaching, the biggest question regarding the Rockets, is in which direction are they moving in?
After losing superstars Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady due to trade or retirement within the last few years, the Rockets fell back into the sea of rebuilding teams, although trying not to completely bottom out in the process.
During that time, they literally lost a foot in height at the starting center position replacing 7-foot-6 Yao with 6-foot-6 Chuck Hayes. Comparing their best seasons as a pro, Hayes averaged 17.1 points and 1.93 blocks per game less than Yao. McGrady, a two-time scoring champion, would eventually be replaced by Trevor Ariza, who had only averaged 5.9 points before coming to the Rockets and was making considerably less money, earning only $7.7 million in his highest contract year.
When Yao was lost in the second round of the ‘09 playoffs due to a stress fracture in his foot (which forced him to retire two seasons later), and after already losing McGrady during the regular season to a knee surgery, the team continued to battle Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, pushing the Western Conference semifinal series to a seventh and decisive game. Unfortunately, due to lack of star power, the Rockets eventually fell to the soon-to-be-champions. However, the Lakers would never be pushed to play a full seven-game series again to finish their title run, while facing the likes of Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals (4-2) and Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals (4-1).
Not knowing it at the time, the Rockets-Lakers 2009 series paved way for perhaps some misplaced optimism regarding the team’s future.
Over the past two seasons, the Rockets have been stuck with the ninth seed in the West in an effort to make the playoffs. A lesson learned is that’s not a good place to be, as your options to get a star player greatly diminish. Especially in the Rockets’ case, considering the team doesn’t have a star talent already to lure another, as in the case of LeBron James joining Dwayne Wade in Miami, or even Carmelo Anthony joining A’mare Stoudamire in New York. Also, the 14th pick in the lottery is very far from projected star talent in even an average draft.
Currently looking at the “Superpower” contending teams, you don’t see any that have rebuilt using the Rockets’ current method of continuing to aim for the playoffs instead of bottoming out for a higher draft choice.
The Chicago Bulls (33-9 so far this season), Miami Heat (30-9), Oklahoma City Thunder (31-8) and San Antonio Spurs (26-12) have all drafted a star player (or players) that has led them to their current successful state. At one time or another, they had to completely start from scratch to get where they are now.
Teams like the Rockets (21-19), Memphis Grizzlies (23-15), Denver Nuggets (22-18), and Philadelphia 76ers (23-17) have all adopted a way of winning and staying relevant without having a superstar caliber player. The strategy in result leaves the teams out of the contention discussion. Their efforts are considered respectable, but also a non-factor in the bigger picture as far as making a push for the title.
Last season, an eight-seeded Memphis (46-36 in 2010-11) surprised everybody by beating the No. 1 seed Spurs (61-21) in the first round, 4-2. It proved that a team can get hot and make noise in the playoffs using more of team effort rather than dependence on superstar talent. However, they were quickly bounced, losing in the second round to the Thunder in seven games, meaning the ceiling isn’t very high for a team without a Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant. In the NBA, talent wins out. Simple as that.
To start this season, despite not having a star player, the message was sent to Rockets fans that the team intends to make the playoffs.
In head coach Kevin McHale’s introductory news conference last summer, he had this to say:
“Our goal is to make the playoffs next year. That’s just what it is, and that’s gonna fall on me to do it. If it doesn’t get done, it’ll be on me, but we should make the playoffs. That’s the way I feel.”
The Rockets struggled early this season with a 3-7 start and cries for “TANK!” were loud.
Although they bounced back in January and early February, the unwillingness to get worse to get better had created a situation of when the team loses in such a fashion, it’s twice as hard to digest as confusion sets in as well.
As the team performed nicely going into the All-Star break (20-14), the issue was put on the backburner.
Then a dose of reality came in the form of a five-game losing streak over the past six games, dropping the Rockets (now 21-19) out of playoff position to the dreaded ninth seed in the West with 26 games remaining.
Again, the Rockets did bounce back after the atrocious start, but now that they have the longest losing streak in the league this season only six games out of the All-Star break, the issue is again being raised with good reason.
To make matters worse, other Western Conference teams seem to be catching stride.
For example, the Minnesota Timberwolves (21-19), who have been tinkering around the .500 mark for most of the season, have nudged their way ahead of the Rockets for the eighth and final seed. The Grizzlies, who have been in Houston’s current situation, are now at the No. 3 spot even without their power force inside, Zach Randolph.
With no time to go on such losing streaks, it seems the Rockets might need to improve their roster dramatically to reach their playoff goals.
With the Rockets not being mentioned in the Dwight Howard and Deron Williams mix, there are not exactly a lot of options left. There is one, however, that might actually be able to hinder the need to get worse to get better altogether.
A rumored Pau Gasol trade should be extremely enticing to a team like Houston that lacks All-Star power at the power forward and center positions.
The Los Angeles Lakers have made it known they need to improve their team, and it’s Gasol that’s likely to be dealt before the deadline. He was considered the No. 2 option on the 2009 and 2010 Lakers championship teams, with an average of 17.9 points for his career in the postseason, but with glaring holes on their current roster, he seems to be the most logical tradable asset.
Before the season started, the Lakers traded Gasol to the Rockets in a three-team trade involving Chris Paul before it was vetoed by Commissioner David Stern.
In result, the Lakers, who are struggling just as bad as the Rockets with consecutive losses to the lowly Wizards and Pistons, desperately need a quality point guard to fill the gaping hole next to Kobe Bryant. Also lacking depth, the Rockets might be able to snag Gasol away, sitting with arguably two starters at that position in Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic, to go along with enough depth to give up players like the inconsistent Kevin Martin and one-dimensional Luis Scola.
It was also mentioned that if that initial trade had not been rescinded, perhaps center Nene of the Denver Nuggets would have joined Gasol in wearing a Rockets jersey this season.
According to an article written by Jonathan Feigen, Nene didn’t exactly dispute the notion.
Asked if he would have signed with the Rockets, Nene laughed and said: “I can’t answer that. People think it.”
Nene cited a variety of reasons for his fondness for Houston, not the least of which was a quality Houston has that few NBA cities can match; ample humidity.
“It’s like Brazil,” Nene said. “It’s humid, like tropical. Nice. I like the players that play here. I love Denver. All my career is right there. Friends. Family. I’m in a good spot. I could have been in a better spot, but I’m in a good spot right now.”
If Gasol could lure in a quality center in today’s center-starved league, it seems likely he would be able to attract more high valued pieces than any current player on Houston’s roster.
Looking at the landscape of the NBA, outside of Gasol, there doesn’t seem to be another player with elite capabilities in Houston’s reach.
With the trade deadline approaching next Thursday, if the Rockets can’t land Gasol, then perhaps it would be in their best interest to make a trade that can help their draft position as much as possible. While it’s too late to fall enough to get a top draft pick this season, at least moving in a real direction (either way) will give fans some comfort. Enough of staying in the middle of the pack.
Losing two star players as the Rockets have done over the last few years is tough enough, but if the Rockets end up at the ninth spot and miss the playoffs yet again, it’ll be a huge blow for an organization that is seemingly running in place.
If nothing else, after two consecutive seasons of no Rockets direction, it’s their fans that deserve better.