NBA Purgatory

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

Now imagine walking into class to turn in your project and having your teacher yank it out of your hands and spike it to the floor, shattering it into a million pieces.

That's what Stern did to Morey.

So when the season started December 26, the Rockets were still without a franchise player.

The temperature was 40 degrees.

So we've embarked on the 2011-2012 season, which almost never happened because of a lockout that wound up costing the players a couple months worth of paychecks, and the league a chunk of the momentum it had built during 2010-2011, momentum that was a direct result of LeBron James's decision to take his talents to South Beach.

The owners locked out the players ostensibly so they could implement an economic system that would discourage bad contracts, keep franchise stars in smaller markets and allow for more competitive balance throughout the league. In the end, the deal that the owners and players signed did exactly none of those things, so, as usual, the ultimate winners in these negotiations were the attorneys involved, who got paid their four-figure hourly rate regardless of what the final deal looked like.

So with labor strife in our rearview mirror, we can now focus on basketball. If the Rockets are going to, at the very least, make the jump from non-playoff team to the postseason, here are some of the critical factors:

THE 66-GAME SCHEDULE

Truncated by 16 games because of a work stoppage throughout the summer and fall months, the 66-game schedule that started on Christmas Day is already one of the most ridiculous concoctions I've seen in my existence as a sports fan. It has every team playing more than 20 back-to-backs during the regular season (the Rockets have a league high of 23), and each team has to endure one stretch of games where they play three games in three nights. Honestly, if you're a fan of NBA basketball, the amount of basketball available to watch will be amazing. There are what feels like at least eight games every night on League Pass. (Side note: I'm anxious to hear the various divorce stories caused by the gobs and gobs of hoops on television every night from January through April. Sorry, ladies, it's going to be ugly.)

The flip side to the delightful sensory overload that we will enjoy as fans is that many teams, especially veteran contenders, will overmanage the work-heavy chunks of schedule, sacrificing a few games and potential seeding slots (and the extra home game that comes with them) for fresh legs and fewer injuries come April. And in instances when star players don't want to bow out of games for rest purposes, the cumulative effect of 66 games in four months on older players could have a material impact on the postseason.

(On the bright side, it should be fun watching Kobe Bryant take the floor in the first round of the playoffs with one arm in a sling, a crutch under the other arm, braces on both knees and a patch on one eye.)

As far as what the shoehorning of 66 games into 120 days means for the Rockets, there are three teams in front of them in the Western Conference pecking order (Lakers, Spurs and Mavericks) that are older and will either end up sacrificing games or sacrificing body parts to win games. That's a good thing.

As for the Rockets' schedule itself, the "make or break" stretch takes place in the month of February. After a home game against a very beatable Phoenix Suns team on February 3, the Rockets hit the road for the following six-game stretch: Minnesota (2/4), Denver (2/6), Portland (2/8), Phoenix (2/9), Golden State (2/12) and Memphis (2/14). The Rockets, as currently constructed (and with the Grizzlies' Zach Randolph out for two months with an MCL injury), are better than four of those six teams.

That six-game road trip is followed up with a six-game homestand against Oklahoma City (2/15), Minnesota (2/17), Utah (2/19), Memphis (2/20), Philadelphia (2/22) and a post-All-Star Game tilt with Toronto (2/28). The Rockets (again, as currently constructed) are better than four of those teams. In order to make the playoffs (the realistic "ceiling" goal for this group), the Rockets need to go 8-4 (3-3 on the road, 5-1 at home seems reasonable) in this stretch.

A NEW SKIPPER

Kevin McHale already may have pulled off his biggest upset as Rockets head coach by actually getting the job, as he was considered a long shot throughout the process, even when it was narrowed down to the final three candidates. It's McHale's third stint as a head coach in the league, the first two both being in Minnesota, where he had to try and cook the god-awful groceries he had shopped for as general manager of the Timberwolves. Fortunately, the Rockets already have a general manager. The consensus on McHale the head coach, by all accounts from guys who have played for him, is that he is a players' coach and a really good teacher.

The keys for McHale will be developing the young bigs like Jordan Hill and Hasheem Thabeet (if Thabeet is even developable at this point; more on that in a moment), trying to find someone to fill the void left behind by the departure of Chuck Hayes and last year's Shane Battier trade, and making sure that he doesn't commit hari-kari after enduring the first month of opposing teams' centers keeping the ball away from the undersize Rockets by holding the ball over their heads the whole time like Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

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6 comments
HTown
HTown

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.

thetruthsports
thetruthsports

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.

nobody
nobody

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.

KING
KING

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.'

Guest
Guest

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 Duncan...it 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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