Kyle Lowry and the Rockets have laid down during a critical point of the season while their opponents have hovered tall.
They didn’t defend. They didn’t shoot well. They were outplayed (again). They were outcoached (again). And now, with three games left in the regular season, the Houston Rockets have finally gotten what they deserve: a ticket out of the postseason for the third year in a row, in spite of sitting nicely at 6th in the West just mere weeks ago.
Houston’s sixth consecutive loss, this time via a 105-99 overtime decision in New Orleans to the hapless Hornets, finally put the nail in the coffin on what will be remembered as one of the worst collapses in franchise history. On April 9, Houston was 32-25, eyeing the fourth spot in the West and homecourt advantage through the first round of the playoffs. The Rockets were coming off an inspired 4-0 standing on a remarkable road trip that included stirring rallies against the Bulls and Lakers. Goran Dragic was the talk of the town, and Kevin McHale was being hailed as a precious Coach of the Year candidate.
Fast forward 10 days …
Now the Rockets are 32-31, having dropped six straight, including clunkers to the likes of Utah, Phoenix and, yes, the Hornets. Houston is now 10th in the West, a game behind Utah (which holds the tiebreaker over Houston) for 8th. The main suspects? A shockingly inability for shots to find the basket (and the consequential disaster of still firing away from distance) and horrific rotations by McHale that primarily consists of playing neither of his stud defensive bigs (Samuel Dalembert or Marcus Camby) down the stretch of games and instead going with the undersized frontcourt of Patrick Patterson and Luis Scola that features one defensive stalwart (Patterson) and one offensive talent (Scola) but neither that can compete at a high level on both ends.
Yet, it’s tough to not be surprised. It was widely known that not having a consistent inside go-to threat would ultimately cost the Rockets, especially when their top scorer Kevin Martin decided to go MIA this season. And while it would be reasonably fair to hail the Camby pickup at the trade deadline, the bottom line is this: When Camby was acquired, the Rockets were 17th in the NBA in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). Guess where they stand now? That’s right. Seventeenth.
Through all of this, it’s easy to point fingers. But it’s important to keep in the mind the following: It would be unwise to point blame at GM Daryl Morey. Morey is essentially under orders from owner Les Alexander to “rebuild without bottoming out,” meaning Alexander is content challenging for the eight seed in the West and getting the 13th or 14th pick in the draft and chalking that up as a “success.” He continues to delay the inevitable, because Morey has even admitted that the Rockets are doing something not done before in rebuilding without completely tearing it all apart and building it up again. This nonsense is Alexander’s doing, and until he wakes up and realizes that he is significantly holding his franchise back, things won’t get better. And I assume it’s only a matter of time before Morey may even consider fleeing, seeing as his boss has unreasonable vision.
McHale is also to blame. His rotations have cost the Rockets wins, specifically against the Nuggets and Hornets. For someone who apparently believes in protecting the paint, his unwillingness to play Camby and Dalembert together when Camby was healthy, or even play at least one at all times, is mind-boggling. There is no way he can convince me that a frontcourt of Scola/Patterson is a sound recipe for winning basketball games. Dalembert has been the most misused Rocket all season, boasting an underrated offensive game while having several standout rebounding and shot-blocking games, yet always watching from the bench when it matters most. Inexcusable. Even when Camby was out due to injury, as was the case against the Hornets, Dalembert should have taken more minutes – a lot more, especially in crunchtime. McHale has failed in the one aspect that determines even a competent coach: putting his players in the best position to succeed.
So where do the Rockets go from here? Well, with only three games left, I’d like to see Kevin Martin get back in there and try and boost his trade value. It’s clear he has no future in a Rockets uniform, and the Rockets better think of playing him often in these last few games as some sort of audition. I’d also like to see major minutes for Marcus Morris and Greg Smith. Both of those young men have bright futures and could be central figures, particularly Morris, who has a unique one-on-one offensive game not unlike Carmelo Anthony. Camby should take the rest of the season off to rest his sore back. Lowry should follow that thinking as well. Scola should also be held to a game plan where he cannot shoot the ball unless he stops his man from scoring. (Just kidding on that last one … kinda). I’d also like McHale to get a clue somewhere along the way as well. That’d be nice. Your reputation as a championship player can only carry you so far.
Either way, it’s not pretty. This has been a dramatic, rollercoaster of a season … and it’s all for naught, just for another ticket in the middle of the first round. Even the draft can’t salvage this team. The Rockets’ ownership of the Knicks’ pick will give them a slot in the 15-18 range of the first round. Their own pick will be either 13 or 14. And they won’t get Dallas’ pick this year, which is unfortunate in what will be an absolutely loaded draft.
Another disappointing year for the Rockets. Even more disappointing? It’s now a horrible trend of mediocrity for a franchise that has quickly fallen toward the bottom depths of the NBA.