The Rockets suited up Saturday for the first time since the owners imposed a five-month lockout with a new coach and a dauntingly brief preseason to use as a dress rehearsal for a campaign that opens in Orlando Dec. 26.
All that awaits Houston then is some guy named Dwight Howard.
The players had all of several weeks to become acquainted with Kevin McHale, and his schemes and philosophies. GM Daryl Morey announced his surprise hire to replace Rick Adelman during the NBA Finals, just before the 2011 Draft and the commencement of a devastating impasse that threatened the sport’s livelihood and the entire 2011-2012 slate.
A proposed Dec. 9 start of training camp and free agent signings promised mayhem unlike any other in recent hoops history. The precious few weeks between Billy Hunter and David Stern’s handshake and the Christmas Day grand reopening forced executives and coaches to condense to separate activities into a space the size of an attic window.
Free agents could not sign deals until camps began.
Morey entered the shopping frenzy and shook up his core again by dealing Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic to New Orleans in a three-team deal designed to land Houston both Pau Gasol and Nene.
The three Rockets endured days of uncertainty, never sure if they would soon board a plane for the Big Easy or stay put.
A compressed 66-game season changes so many variables for the Rockets and the 29 other squads.
Yet, Saturday night, Scola jogged to his usual spot behind the free-throw line, caught a slick pass from Kyle Lowry and buried his routine jumpshot before DeJuan Blair could contest. The Rockets fended off the Spurs in a 101-87 barn bummer.
Most of San Antonio’s roster shot as if cartoon monsters had heisted their talents. Sophomore scorer James Anderson laid brick after brick. Blair missed layup after layup. Manu Ginobili displayed the accuracy of Dick Cheney on a hunting trip.
It looked, as expected, like a game between two teams experiencing NBA-level competition again after an unwanted five-month respite. Some players might have called it vacation. Others might have seen it as a harsh sentence. Many shrugged and slacked to their own detriment.
All Scola had to do to distinguish himself in Houston’s preseason opener was approximate himself. He nailed shot after shot en route to 20 efficient points. He hit from every angle and even finished a pair of nifty drives to the basket.
He blistered and bludgeoned the Spurs the way he did overmatched opponents in Mar del Plata a few months ago. There, at the FIBA Americas tournament, he won MVP honors and led Argentina to an automatic berth in the 2012 Olympics.
While low-light reels on NBA TV last weekend depicted lots of huffing and puffing on the part of athletes trying to rediscover game shape, Scola resembled the undersized but sagacious assassin no one in a Brazil uniform could stop in the London qualifying event’s gold medal match.
August Burns Red is the name of a metalcore outfit from Manheim, Pennsylvania. The phrase could also describe how the Rockets’ forward stays the same, no matter the circumstances or the date on the calendar.
He racked up four fouls Saturday, but he does that even on his best nights. It was hard to tell the Scola that showed up at Toyota Center from the one that made the Polideportivo Islas Malvinas Stadium his personal play pen.
While his AAU, All-Star peers search GPS devices for the quickest routes to New York and Los Angeles, he just wants simple directions to the nearest gym.
He demonstrated Saturday that he had no trouble finding one this summer when he was not starting for Argentina. That dedication might not seem like an $8 million quality in an 82-game itinerary that ends with a bottom-10 defense, no playoffs and the last lottery pick. Welcome to the season where Scola’s preparedness matters.
Fans tend to focus on his deficiencies. He does not protect the rim or jump out of the gym. Playing alongside departed 6’6” center Chuck Hayes, Scola’s defensive struggles often took center stage.
The spotlight should turn to his consistency and durability.
If ever there were a time to appreciate and trumpet what he brings, this is it.
He has missed a single-digit number of games since arriving on the Rockets’ doorstep in 2007 courtesy of a colossal Spurs blunder.
As Morey worked behind the scenes to land Gasol, the talented 7-foot specimen he has sought since Yao Ming’s feet failed him two seasons in a row, Scola worked to make sure he could step in to action at a moment’s notice, given the herky-jerk nature of labor negotiations.
When management notified Scola twice in the same three days he was headed for New Orleans then sent him back to Rockets’ practice, he responded with grace and humor.
“I’m on my way to the Toyota Center,” Scola said via his Twitter account. “This is going to be fun. The good thing is that the TC is on the way to the airport, just in case.”
When it became clear he would next enter an airport with his Houston teammates, he did not sulk about betrayal or demand that the front office ship him elsewhere. Instead, he readied himself for the remainder of McHale’s training camp and the game against the Spurs.
The forward had every right to feel as abandoned as Lamar Odom did when Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak first ousted him from the roster.
Scola is a winner in every sense, and his performance at the FIBA Americas tournament serves as undeniable proof, if his decorated career in Europe and in previous international competitions did not.
Yet, he embraced the challenge and did not grumble as the Rockets fought to win 39-43 games and sneak into the postseason as an eighth seed. He has not publicly asked for a trade to a contender, where his contributions would become more appreciable. Imagine him in Miami or, gulp, San Antonio. One team that secured a banner in the last four years would not have it if he had been dealt to a consistent title threat.
Those days ended for the woebegone Rockets when Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady's bodies crumbled. Yet, all Scola thinks about is the next opponent and the tip time.
Just tell the guy where the nearest gym is, and do not leave him open at the top of the key, even in the first few minutes of organized NBA action after a lockout.
Scola will collect $8 million, $10 million and $11 million in the next three seasons. Can anyone affix a price tag to his value now?
If the Rockets back door their way to the playoffs, with Jordan Hill and Hasheem Thabeet as the two centers, Scola will rank as a chief reason.
Andrew Bynum will miss the Lakers’ first five games because of a deserved suspension for body slamming J.J. Barea in a postseason contest. Boston Celtics’ forward Jeff Green will miss the entire season after suffering an aortic aneurysm.
Even Popovich expressed displeasure about the conditioning some Spurs showed in camp.
Most players are "a significant ways from game shape," the coach told the San Antonio Express-News last week.
What is the true value of a relentless competitor who will prove both raring and fit to go the second the referee tips the ball Dec. 26? Can he ever be fairly compensated this campaign, given that he’ll start the way he finished the last one?
Scola’s going rate in this tentative open market might rival Marc Gasol’s. GMs love employees who can step in right away and pick up as if a trade never happened. Scola said it all Saturday. What trade? Who cares?
Stern may have secured better long-term assets for the stuck-in-ownership-limbo Hornets. Draft picks and youth make a team with a bare-bones payroll easier to sell. Eric Gordon’s development and the return on the lottery selection Stern acquired will determine whether the trade benefited New Orleans.
Powerless Hornets GM Dell Demps had decided he wanted to field a competitive team more than gut the roll call for a sale. Stern and the other owners’ interests won in that battle. Anyone who caught a glimpse of Scola versus San Antonio would understand why Demps saw him as a worthy trade centerpiece.
A roster with Scola on it may not charge past the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, but it will not quit or fail to entertain.
Those qualities are priceless. They once again describe to a Houston team desperate for size and a brighter outlook.
Extended work stoppage. Abbreviated training camp and preseason. Same Scola.
For a Rockets team in search of a new soul and a more imposing front line, that constancy goes a long way.