Houston Rockets Playoff Spot Gag Job Means Change Should and Must Come

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IApril 24, 2012

A ticket stub from a Houston Rockets game does not stretch the length of my neck; so gag me with pages from the team’s media guide.

Or, how about one of those towels used to wipe the Toyota Center court during timeouts?

Houston Chronicle writer Fran Blinebury opened an unforgettable column in April 1994 with a sentence that fit the jarring, abrasive headline.

Almost 17 years later, and for the first time since Tracy McGrady’s departure from Houston, it is time to retrieve that blasphemous but fitting and accurate phrase.

Welcome back to choke city. The hands of this metropolitan area’s pro hoops squad have not strayed far from the vicinity of its throat since those back-to-back championships. The die-hard basketball fans here know the Heimlich like the words to the Star Spangled Banner.

Ugh. I hate typing this as much as you detest reading it. Just uttering those two words makes me want to upchuck my breakfast.

So does watching this April 2012 Rockets collapse of embarrassing proportions.

One week and five days ago, the team arrived home on its charter flight with a tenuous grip on its conference’s sixth-best record but a clear path to a coveted postseason return. TV analyst Matt Bullard was picking the Rockets as the likeliest West playoff entrant to oust a higher seed. The marketing department solicited ideas for slogans involving the word “fuel” that would befit a run in the NBA’s second season.


The Rockets swept a four-game road trip that included dates versus the Bulls and Lakers. Since? Cough. Barf. Gag.

All they had to do to end a two-year postseason drought was win two of three home games against playoff hopefuls in the rearview mirror. A 2-4 mark after Thursday’s tilt in New Orleans would have made Saturday’s contest against the crippled, defenseless Golden State Warriors matter. Houston would be staring at bonus basketball instead of a third consecutive 14th pick.

Instead, the team followed its stirring sojourn with a sepulchral six-game slide and one more collapse Sunday afternoon. A defeat in South Beach rendered a postseason berth a mathematical impossibility.

Red Nation, do your favorite round ball outfit a favor and start a prayer circle. Those playoff dreams have skipped off the front rim like a Chandler Parsons free throw attempt, so pray for Anthony Davis.

Maybe the basketball gods will show mercy. The Bulls overcame near-two percent odds to secure the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft, Derrick Rose. Would anyone here mind a similar miracle?

Pray for change. Pray that next season you will no longer root for the league’s best lottery squad.

I don’t care if Davis lacks a polished post game. I don’t care if the defensive comparisons to Bill Russell will sound cockamamie and moronic in three years.

I am tired of the malaise, and I bet, if you are reading this, you are too.

The roster helmed by Kevin McHale features so many likable, earnest and hard working players.

I love the tenacity and aplomb Parsons brings as a rookie and hope he carves out an extended career in Houston.

That Goran Dragic, another second round pick on this roll call, played well enough for a week to share an award with LeBron James is remarkable. The young man has earned himself a generous payday when free agency opens July 1.

No one can doubt how much Kyle Lowry cares.

Luis Scola never stops trying.

Marcus Camby plays hurt and with the sort of gumption Chuck Hayes provided. He also adds the shot blocking and size the 6’6” Hayes never could.

Chase Budinger brings substantial, if wildly inconsistent, perimeter firepower.

Samuel Dalembert, when he eschews that damning flippancy, can be a bear for the opposing center.

Kevin Martin, when healthy, can lead the league in free throw attempts and swish it from any angle on either side of the net.

I saved a special place in this column for Patrick Patterson. He swings from brilliant supporting cast member and potential core piece to spells of incompetence on both ends. Sometimes even Patterson appears not to know what he is doing.

Courtney Lee does a lot more than provide female fans with eye candy, though I doubt the “I love you Courtney” cries just before the National Anthem at Toyota Center have anything to do with his three-point stroke. He defends earnestly, bags tough shots and tends to stay north even when his accuracy and his team go south. No wonder he started on a squad that reached the NBA Finals.

Yet, all these useful parts add up to a prosaic whole that cannot expect to perform better than it has the last three seasons.

The Rockets punted away more than a chance at giving a higher seed some night sweats. When the team was rolling on the road, it seemed fair to suggest Morey could dangle his cap space in July, then use it to re-sign Dragic and Lee, no matter the cost, if no one else worthy of that precious harvest offered his John Hancock on a free agent contract.

Gagging means several key cogs need to get going. It means Dragic or Lee, maybe both, will open the 2012-2013 campaign elsewhere. If Morey ponies up beyond reason to keep this incapable, inadequate lineup intact, he isn’t doing his job.

Where did all of that prodigious production and amelioration from Dragic get Houston?

How can management believe that a similar approach next season, with a stopgap center in Dalembert and a fatal over reliance on role players, will yield different, better results?


This squad has accomplished all it can with Martin, Lowry and Scola as its top players.

Of the all the teams that sniffed a spot in the Western Conference playoff dance, the Rockets can only expect one, the Suns, to regress. Phoenix, of course, can hum along near the .500 mark as long as two-time MVP Steve Nash runs the show. Houston needs him to bolt the desert and for GM Lon Babby to fail to find a sufficient replacement. Otherwise, the Nash-Marcin Gortat tandem alone keeps the Suns ahead of the Rockets.

While the Nuggets also lack a bonafide transcendent anchor, George Karl has several All-Star level contributors on his roll call. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari look better, from here, than their Rockets counterparts.

Even maintaining a 10th place foothold will require further underachievement from the Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors. Rick Adelman coaches Derrick Williams, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic. Adding another first-round pick to that potential three-star mix means a lot more than Morey unearthing the next Patterson.

Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry spend more time on the trainer’s table than at the scorer’s table, but if they can stay upright, the Warriors have the look of a plausible playoff team. Bogut is a top-five center, and Curry has delivered flashes of franchise face capacity.

The Dallas Mavericks and L.A. Lakers could become a lot worse this summer if the respective GMs cannot juggle the payroll enough to lure championship-level help for Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant. The new collective bargaining agreement injures the Lakers as much as any of the 30 franchises. Jerry Buss was going to let Lamar Odom walk anyway because the pending tariff scourges any owner with a budget that leaves the luxury threshold in the dust. An amnesty for Pau Gasol might come next.

The small-market owners accepted less stringent free agency rules and a soft cap in labor negotiations because they believed the more punitive luxury tax would force big spenders to slash payroll and execute painful salary dumps.

As much as Dallas writers might insist the buzz is true, no one can count on Deron Williams joining the Mavericks in July until he appears with Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson and Rick Carlisle at an introductory press conference.

Betting against Nelson and Mitch Kupchak, however, given that both executives constructed championship rosters in the last three years, is a sketchy proposition. Why not plop down every penny in your child’s college education fund on a game of roulette?

What all of the above means: Morey needs a number of his peers to suck at their jobs and player development throughout the conference to stall for the Rockets, as constructed, to retain a modicum of relevancy.

Houston went from dangerous and deep to dead and deep-sixed in a hurry.

The Heat demonstrated Sunday how much even one superstar can mean. LeBron James exuded dispassion and apathy for most of the evening and still cruised to 32 points. Miami shrugged off Parsons’ career-best, 23-point outing and some admirable scoring runs from a Rockets unit still trying to revive its faint playoff pulse.

Houston needed a victory more, played like it for most of the 48 minutes and still came up nine points short.

The Rockets’ stunning display of impotency and ineptitude in a stretch that required a clutch gear should convince Morey to slam the door shot on any possibility of this roster ever escaping the NBA’s middle class.

The squad can steer clear of rock bottom without upgrades at the top of the roll call. It cannot leave its vacuum of mediocrity, though, sans significant change.

McHale schlepped the right attitude to the gig but needs to spend this summer re-assessing his incessant decision to go small with two seven-footers available.

He espoused the sort of grit as a player that the Rockets youngsters need. Even with the flaws he demonstrated in his first full season on an NBA bench, he earned the opportunity to at least coach the remainder of his deal.

Owner Leslie Alexander should love a sideline tactician who calls friends at 3 a.m. after a humiliating loss. No one can teach the commitment McHale has. Give the guy another year or two to establish his program.

The onus for vicissitude falls on Morey.

Nothing any one player does this summer in a gym will push him any closer to being the Rockets’ version of James or even Manu Ginobili.

Houston needs a comparable star, maybe multiple go-to performers, to make the quantum leap that will restore dormant fan interest and return this franchise to that elusive elite level.

One series victory since Bill Clinton denied engaging in sexual relations with Monica Lewinski? Please don’t remind the hoops supporters here. We know.

The Rockets are solid and competitive enough to earn a spot in line at the club where title contenders hang. All this team did with a postseason berth at stake the last two weeks was prove the bouncer wise to not allow them beyond the velvet rope. This squad is the guy eavesdropping on the party to which he did not receive an invite.

He can see the streamers and hear the exultation but ends up standing outside the joint when the celebration peaks, wondering why the world is so cruel and unfair.

The team that promised us at least one round’s worth of playoff adventures after a perfect road trip instead dumped us at an abandoned Bingo hall where the last fiesta involved a book drive and a bake sale.

Yawn. It’s almost 7 p.m., and I need to start thinking about bed.

That snoring, mucus-filled sound you hear is Houston snoozing through the postseason.

The fat lady began singing when the Nuggets handed the Rockets a fourth straight loss April 16. She blew out her voice Sunday afternoon in Miami.

Even Maria Callas returned from the dead long enough to tell the belting woman to “please shut up, I get it.”

When the Rockets appeared to gag this way in the mid-1990s, Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon ensconced himself when it mattered. He gave even the fiercest detractors reason to believe that, yes, everything would turn out all right.

Who fills that role on the 2012 edition?

Likable and commendable do not equate, in this case, to legendary and championship caliber.

The Rockets played with heart then ripped out the fan base’s collective ticker, just when followers began to assume Toyota Center would host at least two additional games in May.

The promise of a compelling best-of-7 tilt against the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder faded like cheap jeans.

Houston basketball junkies can now get real cheap seats to Thursday’s season finale versus the New Orleans Hornets.

Maybe if the Rockets give away lap dances from players and Power Dancers to the first 200 entrants, they can entice some people to show.

Popular online ticket marketplace StubHub offers some seats as low as $9. Expect that asking price to shrink further as Thursday nears.

Who would want to pay $9 for a kick-in-the-scrotum reminder of what should have been?

A ticket stub is so 1994. You’ll have to gag me with something else. The sweaty towel over there will do.

These Rockets could not respond to the pressure and thus will watch the Suns or Jazz snatch the spot that belonged to them two Wednesdays ago.

Barf. Cough. Gag. You know, the usual around here.


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