He zipped past Derek Fisher once. He blew through Steve Blake twice. He nailed a three-pointer with Earl Watson’s forehead inches away from his. He broke ankles and spirits until the hosts realized he might slow himself. All Aaron Brooks did for his own franchise was make GM Daryl Morey feel dizzier than an epileptic patient watching one of those seizure-inducing Japanese cartoons.
If the two-time defending champions and the Utah Jazz could not figure out Brooks, all they needed to do was locate the opposing coach to find someone even more confounded.
Rick Adelman threw up his arms in the first quarter when his diminutive, reserve point guard misread a cut and chucked the ball toward the celebrities. Tom Petty, sitting in for the legendary Lakers fan known by one name, has never played for the Rockets.
Brooks must have been heartbroken that reality ran down his dream. Houston’s hamstrung coach has wielded his arms and scrunched his face all too often this season in displeasure at Brooks’ struggles. Jack would have nodded in approval at the miscue and Adelman’s discontent.
Morey extended a team policy to Brooks in August that shuns contract extensions. His deal expires in a few months, and he has not made the team’s decision makers look like idiots often enough. Brooks did not hide his frustration about the decision, or his expected backup Kyle Lowry’s handsome payday, during training camp. Now, the coaches and management cannot disguise their chagrin.
The right ankle sprain he suffered in Houston’s fifth game at San Antonio sidelined him for 23 games and complicated the evaluation necessary to determine his NBA future. Few guards are faster running from end to end. Few players with his physical gifts have performed at such an uneven level in a contract year.
The Rockets salvaged a 1-3 road trip in Utah and now head home six games below .500. Adelman often hesitates to point the finger at one player when a team he coaches unravels. Houston was naked and left lying on the floor long ago. He did not pause when offering his chief reason for Houston’s losing mark just before Saturday’s defeat at San Antonio.
"The No. 1 factor was Aaron Brooks being out for 23 games,” Adelman told the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen. “That's why I try to give him more time at the end of the game. He's a guy that breaks people down. And he's a guy that we need to get better and better as the season goes on."
Brooks has made himself an easy target. Plenty of other players are not matching expectations, but he has disappointed more than anyone else. The reigning Most Improved Player regressed. The few teams high on his ability last season might tell Morey “no thanks” now if his name surfaces in trade discussions.
The Rockets expected some supposed roster upgrades to yield defensive ameliorations, but they never hoped to become the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons. They knew from the start they would need to outscore opponents on many nights, with Yao Ming shelved, to win enough to stay in the playoff spot chase.
They cannot defend and, thanks to Brooks’ wrecked season, cannot score enough when it counts against elite foes. A six-footer with his agility should rank as the team’s most explosive and creative scorer. Instead, he has racked up turnovers, missed field goals and botched possessions.
If the ankle sprain destroyed any progress he made last summer, his on-court recuperation since mid-December should have silenced any notion he can become a clutch killer. The battle with Lowry to retake the starting spot promised both intrigue and off-the-charts productivity.
Adelman had to think both players would deliver career-best performances to curry his favor. Brooks, like most talented youngsters, takes issue with the guy that backed him up last year cashing a larger paycheck and seizing his former gig. He has not done anything on the court—the place where he needed to yell his loudest statement—to make Lowry uncomfortable.
The Rockets needed Brooks to mount a challenge borne from the anguish of his predicament. Adelman needed both point guards to compete with one another in a way that allowed a roster strength to propel the team to victories in the 2010-2011 campaign’s toughest month.
Instead, Brooks shriveled and folded as the weight of the expectations placed on him crushed his composure and confidence. Morey almost signed a mediocre center in November who extended his underwhelming career because of one great contract year.
If only Brooks could mimic Erick Dampier. That sentence was as painful to type as it will be to read.
These numbers do not satiate the appetites of Morey or Adelman: 12 points, four assists, 1.7 turnovers, 30 percent shooting from beyond the arc, 36 percent shooting overall.
Brooks showed flashes in L.A. and Utah with 16- and 14-point performances. He dished eight dimes against the Lakers and drained several crucial fourth-quarter baskets in a 97-96 win versus the Jazz. Adelman turned to a Brooks-Lowry backcourt on both nights to keep the Rockets close in the final frames.
Minutes for that jet-setting combo, though, come at the expense of Kevin Martin, who needed more than one shot in the final six minutes of Tuesday’s overtime defeat. He rewarded Adelman’s decision to make him a late substitution by converting the game-winning, and-one drive.
Brooks’ line at San Antonio was more indicative of his faulty decision-making, passivity and shattered confidence. He missed 9-of-12 shots and scored just seven points. The Rockets need consistency. Instead, they get these wild swings.
His ratio of three-point attempts to rim assaults is disturbing. He heaved 10 triple tries against the Lakers and made just two of them. The Rockets have been outscored badly overall, by more than 30, when he plays.
Clutch? Brooks too often clutches his throat in the endgame when his team needs him to show poise.
A few years ago, when he torched the Lakers in the playoffs, pouring in 34 in a series-tying victory, it seemed Morey had unearthed a potential superstar with a 26th pick. Only players with that level of talent can give a championship outfit that many problems in the postseason.
Two seasons later, Brooks remains an atrocious defender with a shaky handle and a propensity to fire up unnecessary bricks. He will earn $2 million this year, the final of his rookie-scale deal. How much is he worth to Morey? With the stretch run approaching, and the Rockets still somehow in the playoff chase, can Brooks still justify the pay day he will seek this summer?
He split defenders and nullified tight coverage with acrobatic makes and long-distance connections that caused insufferable headaches for his defenders.
And all Brooks did, in the end, was give his own GM a migraine.