What Rebuilding NBA Teams Can Learn from Houston Rockets 2012-13 Season
Yeah, they have no place to go but up. That doesn't mean the climb is gonna be easy.
The five teams on the following slides reside in the remotest netherworlds of the NBA universe. Gleaning wisdom from the champagne supernova that was the Houston Rockets' rebuild, though, might help hasten their ascent.
For 16 playoff-bound teams, the next weeks hold excitement, thrills, possibilities. For six more, the tired cries of "wait 'till next year" hold water, and the season ahead holds promise.
These Drab Five are what's left: A handful of franchises holding their breath for a ping-pong bounce, hoping in vain for a miracle, sick of losing and tired of waiting.
Fear not, though: The doctor is in. Herein I offer diagnoses to cure what ails these lowly squads, all garnered from the Rockets' hypersonic reboot, which has morphed them from a blown-up roster mere months ago into first-round upset darlings.
Phoenix Suns: A Larry Bird in the Hand
Current situation: 23-54, 17.5 games out of playoffs
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey put the finishing touch on his roster mere days before the regular season kicked off, giving up a starter and a ton of potential energy for some major kinetic energy.
The starter: Established shooting guard Kevin Martin.
The potential: Athletic Jeremy Lamb, two first-round draft picks and a second-rounder.
The kinetic: One James Edward Harden Jr., hirsute bundle of open-court dynamism and efficient basketball.
Had Morey not been willing to part with what might have been, he would not have what he now has: A legitimate NBA top-10 player—in other words, a superstar.
The moral of the story: A Larry Bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Ironically, the latter is just what the Suns possess. Should the Los Angeles Lakers fail to qualify for the postseason—a possibility that's looking more and more likely by the day—the Suns will have two first-round picks.
Phoenix Suns general manager Lance Blanks, take heed. Don't hesitate to package one of your best players—former Rocket Goran Dragic, Rocket castoff Luis Scola or Michael Beasley—with your draft picks to nab a diamond in the rough. Of the three, the latter still has that "it" factor associated with his name.
So what that they're arguably your three best players? You have all three of them this year, and you're going nowhere fast. Don't hope for something good in the draft. Grab a sure thing.
Trade potential energy for kinetic if you can. And, as we'll discuss more on the next side, make sure your target has potential in the form of underutilized stats.
Charlotte Bobcats: Look for Stats in the Rough
Current situation: 18-59, 19.5 games out of playoffs
OK, so the Bobcats got a draft pick when they traded the expiring contract of Corey Maggette for Ben Gordon in the offseason. And Gordon has had a solid season from extra-postage land.
But no one can tell me the Bobcats got what they were hoping for.
His attitude problems aside, Gordon is averaging a career-worst 21.3 minutes per game and shooting an anemic 41.2 percent from the field, only a percentage point better than his rookie campaign. Gordon has been a disappointment.
Or has he?
No one will knock Bobcats general manager Rich Cho for picking up the draft pick. But I believe when he traded for Gordon, Cho believed he was getting a better player.
You know why? Because he went off Gordon's Chicago stats.
Cho fell for the mental okey-doke of, "Well, Ben's been on a losing team for a while. That's why his stats are so bad. Those are outlier seasons. He'll rebound."
By contrast, Morey made his trades, picks and signings—James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik—by trusting statistics that said this guy has potential now. That he's undervalued and/or underutilized now.
Trading based on a player's past glory is simply foolhardy. Now, instead of the cap room the Bobcats would have had with Maggette's release, they've got to look to sucker a franchise into taking Gordon's too-fat contract off their hands.
To do it, they'll probably advertise his "career stats" and "career accomplishments."
As my late father used to say, better to ask, "What have you done for me lately?" Had Cho done that, the future in Charlotte would look brighter.
Rich, don't trade for names. Trade for results. Today's results.
Orlando Magic: What Are the Odds?
Current situation: 19-59, 19 games out of playoffs
Orlando is 24th in the league in team offense. Yet it traded by far its most deadly three-point shooter, impending free agent J.J. Redick.
Can someone hit undo?
Morey's brainchild—which, by the way, has led to the Rockets having the top-scoring offense in the NBA—is to focus only on high-percentage shots. In other words, the offense is oriented around both shots at the rim, where physics dictates that the chances of the shots going in are greatest, and shots from beyond the three-point line, where the risk-to-reward ratio is the highest.
Nikola Vucevic—you gotta love this kid—scores at a high percentage down low; so does the underrated Andrew Nicholson, who has an improving post game. But from downtown, Redick was the Magic's primary threat.
Beno Udrih—acquired in the trade for Redick—can shoot the three, and Doron Lamb has a high percentage, though he's shot so few and played so little it's hardly a representative sample size.
To follow the Rockets' blueprint, the Magic need to play the odds: In other words, fill the rest of the roster with players skilled at high-percentage shots.
Start by trading Maurice Harkless—whom many teams would covet—for a better outside-shooting small forward, and flim-flam somebody into taking Jameer Nelson off your hands.
Then opt for a better longball-shooting point guard, like the Brooklyn Nets' C.J. Watson, who could be had for a cup of water, a toothpick and a kind word. And crazy as it sounds, once he hits the market, make a hard play for Redick.
Voila! Orlando becomes Houston East.
New Orleans Hornets: Run, Forrest, Run
Current situation: 27-50, 13.5 games out of playoffs
When people try to break down the Hornets' problems, the conversation usually circles 'round to defense, or lack thereof.
Take a page from Houston's notebook: Screw the defense.
Here's a quick rundown of New Orleans' featured players: Anthony Davis is fast, Al-Farouq Aminu is fast, Eric Gordon—if he stays healthy—is fast, Ryan Anderson can score in transition and Greivis Vasquez's excellent facilitation becomes near-perfection when it comes to playmaking in transition.
And yet the Hornets rank 25th in team offense, and dead last in pace.
Time to let the horses out of the barn.
Houston is first in the league in both offense and pace. They're 28th in points given up.
Hornets/Pelicans Nation, wouldn't you trade the Rockets' results this season for yours?
Sure, as a purist, a porous defense bugs me. But the goal is to win games. Period. If you can do it consistently by outscoring the opposition, hey: A win's a win.
James Harden often transforms defensive rebounds or turnovers into fast-break opportunities. Gordon's arguably faster than Harden, and Vasquez has more sophisticated playmaking ability.
A brown pelican can reach speeds of up to 35 miles an hour. Coincidence? I think not.
Start next season by pushing the ball upcourt as often as possible. And after the slew of victories, don't forget to thank me...and Daryl Morey.
Sacramento Kings: Harmonize
Current situation: 27-50, 13.5 games out of playoffs.
The Kings ought to heed the wise words of another King. No, not MLK. No, I'm quoting the late Rodney King, the key player in the Los Angeles riots.
In 1991, Mr. King was savagely beaten by police, an event caught on video as ironclad proof. Yet the cops responsible for the brutality got off scot-free, inciting a terrifying melee in L.A..
When, during the coverage of the widespread violence, King leaned toward the collection of microphones, with millions watching, I wouldn't have blamed him for expressing his own outrage toward the legal system. Instead, trembling and humble, he chose to take the highest of grounds, saying in a plaintive voice, "Can we all get along?"
I'm not saying Mr. King was a role model in the way he led his troubled life. But in that moment, he said precisely, concisely and sincerely exactly what needed to be said.
Kings roster, look at your counterpart in Houston. Rarely if ever have I seen such a harmonious squad. Jeremy Lin can't be happy with having to surrender a significant amount of playmaking duty to James Harden, or with being benched in the fourth quarters for defensive replacements despite a stellar offensive stat line in the clutch.
But have you heard him complain? Even once?
All season long, Harden has needed a credible offensive threat down low to take the heat off him. Without it, he's endured much more pummeling than he ought to have.
Have you heard him blame anybody? Ever?
By comparison, the Kings are the Hole In The Wall Gang. The name DeMarcus Cousins brings up more images of unacceptable behavior than it does of on-court scoring. Tyreke Evans lacks the discipline to take his prodigious talent to the next level.
Want to make not only your team better, but your life better? Trade both guys. You'll get plenty in return, because there are plenty of other teams who aren't taking note of Houston's playbook.
You've got good guys in Isaiah Thomas, Jimmer Fredette, Jason Thompson and Patrick Patterson. Add to that core the bounty you'll get from dealing Cousins and Evans, and the good times will be back in no time in Sac-Town. (Or Seattle, but hopefully they stay put, out of the hands of the criminally inept and selfish Maloofs.)
Harmony breeds teamwork. Teamwork breeds winning. Simple as that.