Alexander at heart of Rockets’ current state


Rockets fans can blame team owner Leslie Alexander for the team's current state of mediocrity.

Leslie Alexander needs to wake up. Now. The Rockets’ owner needs a strong cup of reality.

The Rockets (22-20) are on the verge of missing the playoffs for the third year in a row. They currently sit in eighth place in the West, but with do-everything point guard Kyle Lowry out the next 2-4 weeks with a bacterial infection, there is no reason to think the team won’t take at least a few steps back while the lurking Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz try and make up some ground. Houston is not constructed to where it can stay afloat without its top player for a lengthy amount of time.

As constituted, the Rockets are, well, the Rockets. They’re a strong offensive team (9th in offensive efficiency) and a subpar defensive team (17th in defensive efficiency). They are in the midst of a miserable slide (from six games over .500 two weeks ago to two games as of today, having lost 6 of their last 10 games).  They are a middle-of-the-pack, mediocre club, and Alexander’s penchant for throwing money and gunning for the veteran pieces to keep contending for the playoffs is ill-fated. His interest, obviously, is keeping fannies in the seats. That’s not necessarily in the team’s best interest as opposed to the franchise’s.

At some point, the Rockets are going to have to actually rebuild. Start from scratch. The last 2 ½ years have been a waste, as they’ve been stuck ninth in the West and therefore drafting a pick outside of the lottery. Alexander, during this whole time, has been determined to stay competitive, but Houston has been in the middle. Not a contender or a bottom-feeder. It’s the worst possible place a team can find itself in professional sports.

The interesting thing, however, is that his precocious general manager, Daryl Morey, would much rather start from scratch and create a clean slate. As Morey, and most fans figure, rebuilding is inevitable, a necessary evil in the landscape of pro sports. But a media report a few months ago illustrated this, that the team’s current direction of rebuilding while staying competitive – a status Morey himself declared was “unprecedented” a week ago – was all Alexander’s doing. Morey talked about the team’s current challenge of competing while not completely bottoming out, and I’ll add he didn’t sound the least bit enthused about it.

Alexander’s mission is clearly not working. The Rockets are a miserable outfit right now, full of low-energy, offensive-minded individuals who sometimes choose to play as a team, but often do not. It’s not a dysfunctional group. It’s just inattentive. Aside from Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry and Courtney Lee, there are no winners in the lot; no players with significant playoff experience. It could even be assumed that with new head coach Kevin McHale being brought on board last summer, this season would have been the perfect time to start over, implement the new regime and move forward instead of standing still.

The sooner Alexander gets a realistic understanding for where things stand, the sooner the team can move on. That would mean, essentially, clearing out all but the few players who abide by McHale’s principles of toughness, defense and smart play; players like Lowry, Lee, Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson. There is too much dead weight on the roster. Throwing in three players and a precious pick for a two-time champion and multiple-time All-Star like Pau Gasol may be a start in terms of finally acquiring a legit player they can build a team around. Then the Rockets could deal Jordan Hill/Jonny Flynn/Terrence Williams/Hasheem Thabeet and maybe Chase Budinger for a slew of young talent but, more importantly, quality draft picks.

With the exception of Samuel Dalembert, the Rockets do not have a player on the current roster that was acquired through free agency, and they’ve actually whiffed on a few, including Chris Bosh and Nene. Historically, Houston’s acquisitions have either been through trade or the draft; the fact is Houston, as a city, is not considered an attractive destination for the elite free agents. The Rockets don’t have a past of attracting the big name in free agency; their big-time players of the last 17 years or so (Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Steve Francis, Tracy McGrady, Ron Artest) were acquired through trade, which is why the Gasol move would be wise. Get your franchise player now instead of waiting for the summer when a star piece like Dwight Howard or Deron Williams isn’t likely to come anyway. Add Gasol to a core of Lowry or Dragic, Lee, Patterson, Parsons, Marcus Morris and Greg Smith, and the Rockets would have the start of something, or at least a direction. Then Morey could acquire as many picks possible for what will be a deliciously loaded draft this year, and voila! Considering Morey’s already got some nice pieces stocked overseas in 7-foot forward Donatas Motiejunas and 6-foot-3 guard Sergio Llull, the Rockets’ dynamic overhaul already has really started. The next step is just admitting it.

It can be done, and I’m confident Morey can get it done. But he’s being asked to do something not even he is on board with. Morey, he of the prized advanced stats, gaudy technology and evaluation techniques, wants to start over, and rightfully so. The Rockets are stuck in nowheresville. He sees that. The fans see that. But the head honcho who makes his home in Florida doesn’t see that.

Les Alexander would probably point out that the Rockets, from 2006-07 to 2008-09, won more games than during any three-year period of the franchise. He’d point to the team’s .588 winning percentage over the last four years. He’d likely tell you that that’s reason No. 1 why he thinks a few tweaks are needed before the team makes that gigantic leap.

He’d be wrong. He’d be pointing at style points, but nothing of substance. What I’d instead counter with is that this is a big-market franchise that has only won one playoff series since the 1996-1997 season.  That’s the bottom line. Alexander’s desire for reloading, and not rebuilding – while admirable – is misguided.

The players aren’t what are holding Houston back (they are who they are, and some are even overachieving). McHale isn’t at fault, either, and neither is Morey. Alexander is. Until he pulls the handcuffs off Morey and lets him do what he does best – acquire assets while not being bound to a specific directive – this team will be stuck in the mud.

For the sake of the Rockets and their fans, Les, let Morey loose. Too many (including myself) were fed up with him because he has produced nothing substantial in five years on the job now, facing three straight seasons without a playoff berth. But the light bulb came on, and I apologize to Morey. It’s not his doing. It’s not his fault. He’s too bright to let this charade go on, which means someone else is pulling the strings.

And that someone else, unfortunately, is an owner that refuses to acknowledge the current situation.  And the longer Alexander waits and sits on reality, the longer it’s going to take to get this franchise back on its feet in a healthy direction.