Aaron Brooks' Award-Winning Improvement a Good Start For Fairish Rockets

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IApril 22, 2010

CHICAGO - MARCH 22: Aaron Brooks #0 of the Houston Rockets drives around Kirk Hinrich #12 of the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on March 22, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Rockets 98-88. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets' season seems like a distant memory, a legend passed between a few souls via second-hand storytelling.

This city has a pro basketball team?

A man whispers: Shhhh. The secret might get out.

You wouldn’t know it these days, not with talk of the last-place Houston Astros and the NFL Draft dominating the airwaves and the Houston Chronicle’s front page real estate.

To see whom the playoff-less Texans might pick in each round, see page C1.

To read about the NBA, move to a state where American football isn’t king.

Coverage of the lottery-bound Rockets had been relegated to the middle and back pages in the last few weeks of the 82-game sojourn.

The campaign-ending 123-115 home loss to the New Orleans Hornets was teased at the top of the front page with this: “Rockets end season with loss.”

As if the opponent did not matter, and the defeat meant Houstonians could focus on the mediocre football and baseball clubs.

What I wrote above is, of course, an exaggeration. The Chronicle still prints an NBA page with postseason scores, game wrap-ups, and news briefs.

It is also understandable that a draft in which the Texans hope to fill a number of critical needs—cornerback and safety among others—would receive optimal play.

The Astros have a chance to sweep their first series of the season tonight at Minute Maid Park. The team’s mini-turnaround from a miserable 0-8 start merits more than a few sentences in the city’s daily.

Anyone who looked at the sports page today, though, noticed that the Rockets made a brief return after their speedy vanishing act.

Oh yeah, Aaron Brooks won the NBA’s most improved player award. The Rockets will host a press conference later today to announce the accolade.

Good for him, many readers will say. Now back to the NFL draft.

When Brooks takes the podium this afternoon to accept a well-deserved honor, he will not encounter crowds of fans or scores of media types waiting to congratulate him.

The few writers required to show up will do so. They will author one story, and that will be that.

For Brooks, the lack of fanfare should offer the greatest lesson. Then again, he won the award by showing he understood its insignificance in the grand scheme.

The Rockets failed to make the playoffs, and that matters more than a handshake with a league representative or a presser.

Brooks made incredible strides in his inaugural season as the go-to option in the clutch. He must make more.

The team finished with a commendable 42-40 record and won more than most thought possible.

They responded to the absence of roster anchor Yao Ming by often playing harder than their opponent. They displayed a no-quit attitude that earned the respect of the league’s other 29 outfits.

It still wasn’t a great season, or even an acceptable one. Chronicle columnist Jerome Solomon seems to think people have labeled the 42-40 campaign as such.

Daryl Morey and Rick Adelman must then figure out how to get the Rockets back to the postseason.

It starts with Brooks.

The previous two winners of the award could not sustain their unexpected success.

Hedo Turkoglu became a consistent clutch performer on last year’s Eastern Conference Champion.

Mere weeks after he had played in his first (and likely only) NBA Finals, he left Orlando for Toronto.

The diaper soft Raptors missed the playoffs and might lose franchise star Chris Bosh for good barring a roster overhaul.

Danny Granger transformed from late-round project pick to All-Star. His post-award numbers remained steady, but his Indiana Pacers again missed the playoffs.

His newfound star power was not enough to fill the seats at one of the NBA’s most celebrated arenas.

The Pacers went from playing hard to just falling hard.

Brooks’ job: make sure the Rockets buck the trend.

His name will surface in sign-and-trade rumors until the start of training camp, and Chris Bosh’s silence in Toronto could make for a tense summer.

The diminutive point guard, though, knows all about anxiousness and disrespect. Morey selected Brooks with the 26th pick in the 2007 draft after a double-figure number of other GMs passed.

He was, at least, a fixture on most draft boards, unlike other most improved front-runner George Hill.

No one in the Rockets front office knew what to expect. All Morey could do was guess.

He was fast. He could shoot—sometimes. His passes were too off target for comfort. A glance at his slender, short figure had to make more than a few in the organization hum “It’s a Small World” in their heads.

He spent a chunk of his rookie year in the D-League. Going from stints with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers to a starting star made him a classic choice for an award that celebrates player and roster enrichment.

An award winner should, after all, help his team win.

Brooks is a worthy recipient. His success and that of the Rockets were usually tied together. When he played poorly, so did the team.

When he caught fire from long-range, or when he blazed through defenses with brilliance, the Rockets stole games in which they should have been creamed.

At Boston. At San Antonio. At Utah. At L.A. (the champion Lakers, not the Clippers). At home against Cleveland. At home against Utah. At home against San Antonio.

He dialed long distance a league-leading 209 times, shattering the franchise record for made three-pointers in a season. Bye bye, Rafer Alston.

His scoring and assist numbers jumped more than any other “most improved” aspirant.

The squad would never have posted a plus-.500 record without Brooks’ continued progression.

If all Adelman had done was hand Brooks more minutes and a proverbial green light, Charles Barkley would look smarter. The Chuckster figured the Rockets could win 14 games…if they were lucky.

I touted Hill as my would-be pick, and the semi-slight does not take away from the 23-year-old’s massive improvements in every area of his game.

It still bothers me that some writers voted for Kevin Durant and Andrew Bogut. How can you allow lottery picks—guys who are supposed to be All-Stars, even Hall of Fame-caliber—to be eligible?

To each his/her own.

Corey Brewer was not a viable choice, since his improvements helped the Minnesota Timberwolves lose nine more games than they did last season.

Other deserving candidates—Ersan Illyasova, Marc Gasol—were not visible or featured enough to receive the requisite support.

Brooks and Hill were both slam-dunk choices, if only because no one knew they would become difference-makers.

This award, however, does not mean Brooks can stop his development or take a breath.

Solid-as-a-rock Luis Scola was the team’s MVP for much of the botched stretch run.

Kyle Lowry’s contributions cannot be oversold.

Kevin Martin became an offensive focal point less than a week after his arrival via trade.

Brooks now must do what another puny point guard who plays three hours up the road did: figure out how to make it work when and if Yao returns.

He will never morph into the traditional, John Stockton type of floor general. There are those who believe all point guards should play that way.

Classical is not his strength. Yet, he can still make better decisions in the clutch. He can still involve teammates more.

He possesses the quickness to be a better defender at his position.

Picking up the hardware will be the easy part. Brooks can take that next career step by building on his triumphs as a makeshift leader.

An individual honor means less without an accompanying playoff berth.

A prediction: Brooks will mention at least twice in his remarks that the Rockets missed the playoffs.

That failure has weighed on the minds of players who set that as a goal when most outsiders thought they would crash and burn with no pilot in the middle.

It almost seems as if the award isn’t recognition of Brooks’ 2009-2010 season at all. He must do much more in 2010-2011.

The best is yet to come? After a gritty 82-game effort that wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs, the Rockets and Brooks better hope so.

Can Brooks become the award’s first ever back-to-back winner? His campaign starts after the press conference.

NBA's First Awards Week is One for the History Brooks’

It is fitting that two Rockets’ point guards with identical last names garnered separate awards in a two-day span.

Former Rocket Scott Brooks was named Coach of the Year Wednesday afternoon. He guided the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 27-game turnaround and got a roster rife with college-age kids to play some of the league’s stingiest defense.

If current Rockets’ starter Aaron Brooks won the NBA’s most improved designation, several of Scott Brooks’ players are still young enough to worry about the other kind of MIP.

The Thunder coach never approached All-Star form as a player, but he was as steady and hardworking as any.

It does not surprise me that he succeeded in his first full season on the bench. He commanded the respect of his teammates by refusing to allow his deficiencies—and there were many—to mark or define him.


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