Thankfully, it’s over. What had started as a slow season for the Houston Rockets developed into a mystifying run of spectacular before stupendously crashing to a sudden halt, as the men in the red and silver finished 34-32 in 20011-12, ending a season above .500 and out of the playoffs for the third straight year following Wednesday’s 84-77 win over New Orleans at home.
The rich embarrassment of basketball that disguised itself as the regular season finale was only meaningful for two reasons: Marcus Morris, the team’s 14th pick in last year’s first round, and Greg Smith, the Rockets’ promising undrafted free agent center. The two have shown the potential to be key components of the team’s future, and with absolutely nothing on the line, they were given heavy minutes against the Hornets. Smith undoubtedly played the best, with 8 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes, including the putback slam that helped seal the comeback win for the Rockets, who lost seven of their final nine games to fall from 6th to 10th in the West. Smith hit 4 of his 6 shots, showed some nice strength and physicality in the post – traits desperately lacking on this team – and also contributed a nice assist late to Courtney Fortson out of the double team for a 3 that buoyed Houston’s cause. He looked as sure of himself as I’ve seen, and really thrived late, showing a distinct swagger that you want to see from a young player finishing up his first year in the pros.
Morris, on the other hand, was a mixed bag. He had 7 points and 5 rebounds in 21 minutes, but salvaged an ugly 0-for-5 start by finishing 3-for-5 in the final quarter, including the go-ahead 3 from the deep left corner that snapped a 77-77 tie and put the Rockets ahead to stay for good. It’s painfully obvious to me that Morris is not all too confident in his game. It has been an injury-riddled rookie season, complete with multiple stays in the Valley as part of the Rockets’ D-League, and I’m sure it has to be tough for him to see his brother, Markieff, thrive with Phoenix while he couldn’t see minutes for a hapless Rockets club. Morris’ offensive talents are clear; his footwork and mechanics are sound and enable him to at least play at a high NBA level when given consistent time. He rushed things early against the Hornets, even while working out of sets that favored him such as from the high elbow, and it was clear he was pressing. But eventually he got it going, scoring all 7 of his points in the pivotal fourth quarter when the Rockets made their run.
The game was a badly played one (neither team shot higher than 39%, and no, defense was not a factor), but it also was significant because it could potentially be Goran Dragic’s and Courtney Lee’s final games as Rockets. Dragic, an unrestricted free agent, is the most likely to go, with the Blazers a notable suitor. He finished with 8 points on 3-of-10 shooting with 13 assists on Wednesday. Lee will probably stay, as he is a restricted free agent, unless the Rockets want to let him go and get more space under the cap for a bigtime free agent, which is always a possibility, even more so this year with GM Daryl Morey now feeling the heat to do something – anything – to move forward. Lee scored 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting with six rebounds, two rebounds and two assists.
Luis Scola hopefully played his last game as a Rocket, as he went 0-for-7 and scoreless in 27 minutes, with just 3 rebounds to boot. I like Scola as a person, but there is only so much I can take of his poor defense, lack of rebounding and lack of an interior post game. The powerless power forward sure played like he wanted out of Houston, and I wouldn’t exactly be opposed to that. Even though Patrick Patterson took a step back in his sophomore year, he’s still a much better defender and owns a more potent post game than Scola.
This year was successful for the Rockets in that they aided their cap flexibility and did find a gem of a player in Chandler Parsons. But, overall, it was far from a success. Again, they are in the middle of the pack. And it didn’t have to be that way. This was a team that held the 6th spot in the West just weeks ago, and there was even talk of homecourt advantage through the first round of the playoffs being a reasonable goal. That’s how well they were playing, coming off dramatic road wins at Chicago and the Lakers. Then, they just flatlined. Gave up. Quit. They stopped making shots. They played defense even worse than they had been. They choked. At one point, they lost six in a row. And anytime you do that, you certainly do not deserve to be in the playoffs. However, it’s still my strong opinion that this team could have given San Antonio fits in the first round – or any team, for that matter. But they threw it all away.
Team officials will again say how the Rockets are “pretty close” to being a dangerous team, or even a contender. What stinks is they’ve been saying that the last three years now. They’re close to nothing. They are who they are. As the great Bill Parcells says, you are who your record says you are, and what it says is Houston is a team that is barely above par. It’s gotten to the point that it is unacceptable. This is a team that has been one of the league’s most active, in terms of roster transactions, since Morey came on board. And where has that gotten them? Nowhere. Needless to say, this is a crucial summer for the team. Come October, it is absolutely essential that Morey come away with a franchise cornerstone and maybe some nice, competent role players for support. Whatever it takes, this team needs a face to its franchise, as well as a new direction. Because no matter how badly owner Les Alexander wants to “rebuild without tanking,” there’s a reason that has never worked. And if the Rockets have proven anything, it’s that they won’t be the ones to break the mold.