NBA Purgatory

Neither the best nor the worst, the Rockets remain stuck in professional basketball's great midsection.

Check out our slideshow of one of the first Rockets games following the NBA lockout, against Atlanta on New Years Eve 2011.

"That's like a 40-degree day. Ain't nobody got nothing to say about a 40-degree day. Fifty? Bring a smile to your face. Sixty, shit, [people] is damn near barbecuing on that motherfucker. Go down to 20, [people] get their bitch on. Get their blood complaining. But forty? Nobody give a fuck about 40. Nobody remember 40, and y'all is giving me way too many 40-degree days! What the fuck?" — Stringer Bell, The Wire (edited for racial sensitivity)

Forward Luis Scola is the only current Rocket who has been in Houston for the entire Daryl Morey era.
Forward Luis Scola is the only current Rocket who has been in Houston for the entire Daryl Morey era.
The good news is Kyle Lowry has grown into the Rockets' best player; the bad news is the Rockets' best player is Kyle Lowry.
The good news is Kyle Lowry has grown into the Rockets' best player; the bad news is the Rockets' best player is Kyle Lowry.

Ah, Stringer Bell's "40 degree day" lament, the drug kingpin's exasperated call to action for his dimwitted street soldiers.

It's one of my favorite rants from any television show or movie. Translated to everyday life, it basically means, "Stop being average! Be memorable! Dazzle me!"

The last time the Rockets could qualify as even potentially memorable was in the spring of 2009, when a Yao Ming- and Ron Artest-led (and Tracy McGrady-less) group of players were able to get the Rockets their first playoff series win since 1997.

However, when the Rockets' 2009 postseason crumbled in the second round of the playoffs alongside Yao's tarsal navicular bone, the thermometer on this city's franchise settled in at 40 degrees, and has been stuck on that number ever since.

In a league where to get ahead, you have to have at least one superstar player on your roster (and these days, two or even three are rapidly becoming the cost of staying in that elite club), the Rockets post-Yao are a group of average to good players and good to great citizens, with about as many losses as wins.

It's NBA purgatory. While the best teams are rewarded with titles and the lustful eyes of superstar free agents and the worst teams are blessed with the young future-superstars thanks to a lopsided, failure-rewarding draft lottery, the Rockets are running in quicksand, stuck in the unrewarded part of the NBA curve. Add it all up, and the now permanently Yao-less Rockets have gone a decidedly average 85-79 total over the last two seasons.

They are the best of the non-playoff teams, the tallest midget, the perennial fourteenth selector in the NBA Draft. Too good to be terrible and bottom out, not good enough to make the playoffs, with ownership willing to spend and a razor-sharp management team, they are just blessed enough to be cursed.

The forecast for 2012? A lot more 40-degree days.

In today's NBA, there are only a handful of cities that are considered destination spots for free agents regardless of what the roster looks like, cities where some combination of endorsement opportunities, nightlife, weather and tradition is enough of a lure to make winning titles secondary. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Boston are all on that list.

Houston is not.

Houston's desirability as a destination of choice for star players has historically been directly tied to the presence of Hakeem Olajuwon and, to a lesser extent, Yao Ming. Absent those two, getting marquee players to willingly come here has been a dead-end street.

Prior to the last two years, the only period of the modern Rockets era (post-1984) that didn't involve Hakeem or Yao was the horrific post-Dream phase, when it felt like Rudy Tomjanovich and Carroll Dawson were rewarding guys like Kelvin Cato with $40 million contracts in the huddle during timeouts.

As the old saying goes, those who don't learn from Moochie Norris are doomed to repeat him, and the last thing Daryl Morey will do is throw bad money after average players and get himself boxed in with a mediocre group. At the very least, he stays flexible and continues to work toward creating a better team. Patient from a big-picture perspective, less patient from a day-to-day perspective, he's tinkered with the roster incessantly, making trade after trade, moving actual human beings like they are basketball trading cards and stockpiling assets in the hope that one day the stars and the moon will align and a game changer will become available.

Morey has had the unenviable task of attempting to stay competitive enough to satisfy a hyper-competitive owner and flexible enough to dismantle everything at a moment's notice if the "next big thing" becomes available. And the players reflect that delicate balance:

LUIS SCOLA, power forward (acquired July 12, 2007): In one of Morey's first moves as a general manager, he was able to move perennial pain in the ass Vassilis Spanoulis, along with a 2009 second-round pick and future considerations, for the rights to Scola (and for throw-in center Jackie Butler). Shortly after the trade, the Rockets were able to get Scola to come over from the Euroleague, and, ironically, the Spurs released Spanoulis to go back over to Greece. Scola has been one of the better offensive forwards in the NBA from the time he set foot in the league.

KYLE LOWRY, point guard (acquired February 19, 2009): On the same day that he traded starting point guard Rafer Alston to Orlando, Morey brought in Lowry from Memphis in exchange for a first-round pick. Lowry has developed into one of the better all-around point guards in the league, and is locked up for three more seasons at a very reasonable $5.75 million per year.

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If you look at the all the NBA champions since 1980, all the teams had at least one superstar. There may be one exception with the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons that real good starting five. So, based on the last 30 years a superstar is pretty much needed to win a championship. The Rockets do not have that super star.


The Rockets are ONE exceptional basketball player away from being the best team in the West, and until they get that player, being your favorite basketball teams, favorite basketball team, will continue

Polly Jenkins
Polly Jenkins

Of course luck has a lot to do about it but skill is in there too.


When Morey got to town, he inherited a team that had most of its salary tied up in two players (Yao and T-Mac). Using the very little wiggle room he had to work with, he assembled a remarkable amount of talent on the cheap: Scola, Lowry, Budinger, Hayes et al.

But that could only get him so far. He was forced to gamble that Yao would return to full strength. And it was a gamble that he obviously lost. This was, and to a large extent remains, a team built to revolve around a superstar that we no longer have.

So here we are: a franchise with arguably the best supporting cast in the league, with no centerpiece.

I understand King's sentiments about Morey. Until recently, I somewhat shared them. That changed when Morey had the deal in place for Gasol. Remember: the only reason it didn't happen was because of Stern.

I remain a believer in Morey. It's not just because he's playing Moneyball, although that's a big part of it. He understands the intangibles in finding good players, thinks strategically, always works several moves ahead.

Yeah, this season is gonna be rough. But I'm sticking with my team. And In Morey I Trust.


Never thought I'd say this, but it may be time to start looking at Morey as a possible source of these problems. Houston isn't L.A. and New York, but it sure as hell is a lot better than Oklahoma City. You're right in saying the team in its current make-up is built to be broken down, but that doesn't mean you still can't put a quality product on the floor. The trade pieces are there, but what's left if Morey does finally obtain a superstar? Two of last year's team captains are gone. The team is young and directionless and without a core in place to entice any superstar to want to come here.

Yao and McGrady were bad breaks. That's excusable. But those problems became evident SEVERAL seasons ago. There's no excuse for the fourth largest city in the country with a good infrastructure and flexible owner in place to not have a contending team.

Yeah, the pieces on the floor are not the answer, that's obvious. But it's time to start questioning whether the man putting these pieces together is the one to do it.

As String would say, 'There's games beyond the fuckin' game.'


That's insane. This proves what people have been saying about the league for years. Luck is more important than anything in the NBA.

The Bulls get Rose but the Wizards get stuck with John Wall, Blazers get Oden and the Thunder get Durant. The Rockets got their luck with Yao from the 12th pick position up to #1. The Spurs get happens over and over. Blaming Morey for not being able to fool a GM into a Pau Gasol to the Lakers deal isn't reasonable.

It looks like we'll have to take a shot on a player like Cousins or the like and make it a boom/bust thing.

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