Houston Rockets: Five Priorities in Wake of Elimination from Playoff Contention

Robert KleemanSenior Analyst IApril 9, 2011

Houston Rockets: Five Priorities in Wake of Elimination from Playoff Contention

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    Kyle Lowry watched his layup careen off the rim and collapsed as if the moment signaled the finality the Houston Rockets never wanted to come.

    His would-be game-tying floater danced around the cylinder until gravity stopped the music and exterminated the team’s postseason hopes.

    The New Orleans Hornets, unlike the Sacramento Kings the night before, were not in the mood to give away the game late. Led by Chris Paul’s near triple-double, the Big Easy bees rallied from 17 down to clinch a playoff spot after a 101-93 victory.

    All the Rockets could do was watch the celebration and lament the many botched opportunities that necessitated they sweep April.

    Even doing that guaranteed nothing. Houston needed help its competitors were not inclined to provide. The same fans who still covet Paul, a superstar floor general, wanted him to tank and not play hard, so the woebegone Rockets could taste mid-April action again.

    The final week of postseason contention, much like the season, became a mess of mistakes and stirring runs too tardy to make the difference. The Rockets could still get in if they won out and the Memphis Grizzlies dropped their final four contests. The players were resigned after Wednesday’s heart-wrenching defeat to consider that scenario impossible.

    Houston, despite a furious March push, will watch the playoffs from home for a second consecutive April. Saturday’s home joust versus the L.A. Clippers presents a chance to lock up a winning record and nothing more. All the Grizzlies needed to do to murder the Rockets’ mathematical window for the eighth seed was handle the Sacramento Kings at home. Who the hell likes math, anyway?

    Memphis levied that last lethal blow in the final minutes Friday night, preventing another improbable sports miracle. Many H-Town fans damned Zach Randolph and his teammates for competing, too.

    Instead of gearing up for a first-round date with the San Antonio Spurs, the Rockets will spend another offseason trying to make the roster a bit more like the one up I-10 that ran away with the Western Conference’s best record.

    GM Daryl Morey gets another crack at an under-whelming lottery crop. Can he unearth another Patrick Patterson?

    Rick Adelman must decide whether he wants to stay, retire or auction off his services to the bidder with the best offer. Leslie Alexander must decide whether he has the guts to dispose of a Hall of Fame coach with the highest winning percentage in franchise history.

Finish with a Winning Record

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    You say more ping-pong balls. I say winning beats losing any day. The misguided fans calling for Adelman’s bunch to tank will point to Wednesday’s outcome as proof their stance was correct.

    Why push for 40-plus victories and 30-plus losses when all that does is handicap the team’s lottery position? Why not throw the season and do everything possible to win the top pick?

    Listen up, losers.

    1. Professional athletes never want to be told to lose on purpose. Ever. Any player who would accept such a disgraceful command should seek employment elsewhere. Any coach who demands defeat for the sake of a loftier draft selection can never be credible again.

    The 1996-97 Spurs won just 26 times because three-fifths of the starting lineup, including anchor David Robinson, missed numerous games with various ailments. It made no sense to risk further injury to Robinson when the playoffs and a .500 record were firmly out of reach come early April. No one in that locker room said, “Gee, if we throw a bunch of games, we’ll get Tim Duncan.”

    The mathematical odds of landing the former Wake Forest star made that proposition stupid. Those Spurs played to win. They just sucked when crippled and then got very lucky that June.

    The 1982-1983 Rockets lost 68 times, but they never abandoned the quest for victory. Read this column if you think Calvin Murphy and Elvin Hayes stunk on purpose to get a better shot at teaming with Ralph Sampson.

    Tanking is a myth, and it has been proven ineffective. The NBA calls it a draft lottery for a reason. In the previous five years, the outfit with the league’s worst record picked fourth twice, fifth twice and third.

    The Boston Celtics, not the Spurs, had the best statistical chance to select Duncan. Instead, they drafted Chauncey Billups.

    2. There is no Duncan in this draft. Two of the nation’s best interior bruisers, Jared Sullinger and Tristan Thompson, opted to stay in school one more year. The squad that picks fifth, maybe even the one that picks ninth, might employ the draft’s best player in five years.

    Kyrie Irving possesses game-changing athleticism and speed, but he’s not superior, right now, to Lowry. The numerous international prospects need to marinate a few more years before assuming significant roles at the NBA level.

    Fans must instead buy stock in Morey’s track record of finding contributors no matter the team’s draft position—Carl Landry (31), Aaron Brooks (26), Chase Budinger (44, acquired via trade) and Patrick Patterson (14). Only four players selected before Patterson in June 2010 are better than him now.

    3. Winning organizations play to win. Simple. The Rockets will get more out of this failed attempt to pass Memphis and New Orleans than they would have mailing in the season’s final two months. Someday soon, the squad’s decision to press on, despite the odds, will resonate with a coveted free agent.

    A 3-0 finish would yield a laudable 44-38 mark. Is ninth place in the Western Conference the decision makers’ desired final destination? No, this franchise must traverse a long road to arrive again. A two-game improvement in a second-straight year sans Yao Ming merits applause. Plus, wouldn’t you like to see the Rockets beat the Dallas Mavericks once this year?

Offer Rick Adelman an Extension

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    Some fans want a young coach who will trot out Hasheem Thabeet for 40 minutes, even if he has not earned that massive daylight in practice. They berate and admonish Adelman for handcuffing Terrence Williams to the pine. That formula is not conducive to a rediscovery of championship form.

    Cases in point: Paul Westphal in Sacramento and Flip Saunders in Washington. You want the Rockets to imitate the Kings and Wizards, owners of 50-plus defeats for a second consecutive season?

    An owner who yearns for another title run should model his operation after a franchise in contention. Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers do not afford minutes to youngsters who have not earned them in practice. Those sessions, not real games, are the place to make mistakes and gain trust.

    Adelman’s adaptable system yields more triumphs than shortcomings. One more victory puts him in a tie for eighth on the all-time wins list. Does Alexander have a plan, or will what seems like an inevitable divorce amount to a boss changing stuff for the sake of changing stuff?

    That approach has never won anything at any level of sports.

    The should-be Hall of Fame coach waited too long to unleash Patterson. He should regret limiting Courtney Lee’s role through December. Yet, even the best hoops harbingers make mistakes. Phil Jackson sure isn’t perfect.

    A young coach who lets the young guys play (and you know what I mean by that) will lose 50-plus contests and go down in flames like the Hindenburg. Toss my argument out the front bedroom window, of course, if Adelman decides he wants to discontinue the partnership. With a playing career and nearly 20 years on the bench, he might call it quits.

    Alexander must do everything possible to convince his coach to stay. That starts with a contract extension offer.

Find the Urgency Earlier

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    Morey will tweak—maybe overhaul—the roster as he sees fit. The current cast can flout its stretch of 15 wins in 20 tries as proof it ameliorated under Adelman’s watch, but the players know they cannot wait for March to mount a furious rally.

    The push came too late this season when the Hornets, Blazers and Grizzlies were playing well enough to believe they could fend off the Rockets’ charge.

    Embarrassing losses to the Charlotte Bobcats, Milwaukee Bucks, Washington Wizards and Minnesota Timberwolves, coupled with a poo poo platter of double-digit giveaways handicapped Houston. If Morey returns the same roll call and wins a few more in November and January, the Rockets are back in the postseason mix. They might even finish as high as sixth in that scenario.

    Morey will not keep this roster intact because he has seen too much to risk overseeing a movie with the same ending.

Size Matters. Go Get Some

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    How’s this for a mandate? Dear Daryl, we need a 7-footer who can block shots, seal the lane, stymie penetration, and it would be nice if he could provide some low-post scoring, too.

    Hasheem Thabeet is not ready to fill that role. The odds are against him ever getting there.

    Another season with Yao Ming in street clothes exposed the vulnerability of a defense anchored by a 6’6” center. Chuck Hayes posted his first triple-double and delivered a slew of knockout performances. However, the Rockets cannot, under any circumstance, enter training camp with this guy starting at the five. It doesn’t work.

    Hayes remains one of the league’s finest, toughest post defenders, but he cannot protect the basket or discourage opponents from assaulting it. The NBA forward-center landscape is littered with face-up, high-flyers who attack from the elbow instead of the right and left boxes.

    A lineup that teams Luis Scola with Hayes should not expect to stop foes with any consistency. Hayes would work best in his natural slot, as a reserve four.

    Marc Gasol is a restricted free agent. Tyson Chandler will hit the market as an unrestricted bachelor. Morey might need to lobotomize fellow GMs Chris Wallace and Donnie Nelson to convince them to let go of those should-be, long-term pieces. I say to Daryl: purchase a scalpel and get to work.

    The Rockets’ defense will not improve until a 7-footer with two-way ability patrols the paint. Somehow, some way, Houston must acquire size.

    The need for length was obvious after a stirring overtime win against the Spurs. San Antonio waltzed to the rim for 62 interior points, winning that battle by 20. The lowly Kings pounded the ball inside, too.

    Samuel Dalembert should not beat your best defensive big off the dribble. Come on with that.

Reach for the Stars

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    The most important quest will prove the toughest to complete. With Yao's career all but over, Morey is left to pick up the scraps of a wannabe dynasty. The Yao-Tracy McGrady experiment failed like Vanilla Ice's foray into rap-metal.

    The crafty, money and stat savvy GM employs some useful assets. Kevin Martin threatened the franchise record for free throw attempts in a season. He will finish as the NBA's 2010-2011 leader in that department.

    Kyle Lowry puts his guts on display more than a dead, rotting fish. Hayes does the same. Scola, for all his defensive deficiencies, remains the gold standard when it comes to effort.

    Lee is a defensive menace with the firepower to lead a reserve brigade. A team can certainly compete for a title with him starting at the two.

    The Rockets, though, still lack a bonafide foundation. No one this roster can win with talent the way Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and Derrick Rose do. Houston amassed this furious run, in part, by devising an end-game offense that worked and withstood some sturdy defensive tactics. If Morey wants this squad to go anywhere beyond, say, April 29th, he must acquire that elusive head honcho.

    I detailed the difficulties and luck involved in that common mission in this column.