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)
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.
CHASE BUDINGER, small forward (acquired Draft Night 2009): Light on picks in the 2009 draft, Morey made a handful of deals to pick up the rights to some second-round players, including Budinger (the 44th overall pick), who had been drafted by the Pistons. (Ironically, through more trades in subsequent seasons, Morey would acquire four lottery players from the 2009 Draft. More on this later.)
KEVIN MARTIN, shooting guard (acquired February 18, 2010): On the same day that the Tracy McGrady Era in Houston came to its merciful conclusion, Morey acquired from Sacramento Martin, a perennial 20-point-a-game scorer but a sieve on defense, for Carl Landry and Joey Dorsey.
SAMUEL DALEMBERT, center (acquired December 24, 2011): In desperate need of players (a) over seven feet tall and (b) with a pulse, and having been shut out of the Tyson Chandler-Nenê-DeAndre Jordan buffet, the Rockets settled on a one-year deal for $7 million (with a team option for a second year) with Dalembert. This was the NBA free-agency equivalent of two drunks at a bar looking for some love and both realizing "DAMN...it's 2:30 in the morning...I better JUMP ON THIS..."
So if you're keeping score at home, in a league where even the bad teams have a lottery player or two (some have more) in their starting lineups, the Rockets start five players who were the 56th, 24th, 44th, 26th, and 26th players drafted in their respective draft classes. Plucky overachievers.
If you're curious how high the achievement level can be of a team whose starting lineup carries that pedigree, head to Toyota Center and watch the Rockets. They squeeze every possible ounce of success they can from the limited "star level" talent on the roster. The talent level is good enough to compete, but not to win, at least not prolifically enough to be relevant.
But Daryl Morey has tried for three years now to acquire that elite-level player, and until the day that superstar becomes available, this team is assembled to be disassembled. Quickly.
On December 8, Morey thought that day had arrived. We all thought finally, finally, the thermometer would move off of 40 degrees.
I frequently use the term "above the line" to describe people who make a difference in any walk of life, people who move the needle. Think of whatever line of work you're in, and think of the handful of indispensable, virtually impossible-to-replace people with your company. In my vernacular, these people are "above the line." And yes, everyone else is, theoretically, "below the line."
That's how it works in the NBA. There are a small handful of players "above the line," and the cover charge for a team to get past the velvet rope of "mere playoff team" and into the VIP room of "elite championship contender" is a minimum of one "above the line" player.
In the NBA, that list is not long. I would say the following players are "above the line" (in no particular order):
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Deron Williams, Blake Griffin, Zach Randolph, when-healthy Kevin Garnett, and Pau Gasol.
You acquire the services of one of these guys by either (a) sucking horribly and winning the draft lottery; (b) existing in one of the aforementioned desirable locales and having a player sign with your team as a free agent, or strong-arming his team into trading him to you; or (c) stockpiling assets and making a deal (the good ol'-fashioned way).
On December 8, Daryl Morey finally got his chance to get a guy who is "above the line."
As part of a three-team deal that would have sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers and Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, and Lamar Odom to the league-owned New Orleans Hornets, Pau Gasol was to have become a Houston Rocket. This would potentially be followed by another move, like signing Nenê (heavily rumored). In other words, all of a sudden, the team would have been a contender again.
But in a sweeping move as crooked as anything you'd see on WWE pay-per-view, commissioner David Stern, acting in what he said was the "best interests of the Hornets," nixed the deal, a deal that was made by the general manager that he and the other owners had empowered. The only thing missing was David Stern hitting Morey with a chair and then announcing that Morey would have to beat Metta World Peace in a cage match, or else Kyle Lowry would become a Los Angeles Laker.
As it turns out, the Hornets went on to cut an even better deal for Paul with the Clippers, who are now one of the five most fun teams in the league to watch. And though the Lakers had to move Lamar Odom (whose feelings were apparently hurt), they continue to thrive as a Western Conference contender.
Meanwhile, the Rockets had to awkwardly begin training camp with Scola and Martin back in the fold. Even worse, Morey was left back at square one. Imagine the most intricate, tedious science project you ever had to complete. Imagine that it took three years to finish, but after many sleepless nights, you were finally done and the end product was of solid A- quality. Well, the Gasol trade was Morey's three-year science project.
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.
2009 LOTTERY POSSE
The Rockets went into draft night back in June 2009 with literally no draft choices. By the end of the night, Daryl Morey had bargained his way into the rights to a few second-round picks, including current starting small forward Chase Budinger. Like any year, the 2009 draft lottery had its fair share of hits and even more misses. So a year or so later, Morey did what any self-respecting general manager trying to find a game-changing needle in the NBA haystack would do — he started collecting wayward former blue-chippers like they were penny stocks.
It started with the eighth overall pick from 2009, big man Jordan Hill, coming over from the Knicks halfway through his rookie season as part of the deal that sent Tracy McGrady's still barely warm corpse to New York. Then, in December 2010, the Rockets traded a lottery-protected first-round pick to the Nets for the 11th overall 2009 pick, swingman Terrence Williams, who at the time he was traded was fresh off a call-up from the D League. Then, around the trade deadline in 2011, the Rockets said goodbye to Shane Battier and hello to 2009 second overall pick, center Hasheem Thabeet, in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies. And finally, on draft night 2011, sixth overall pick point guard Jonny Flynn came over in a deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
In one sense, it clarifies how utterly silly the process is of grading a team's draft the night of the draft. If Daryl Morey had come away on draft night in 2009 with the second, sixth, eighth and 11th players overall, he would have been lauded as some sort of love child of Jerry West and R.C. Buford, and been given an A+++. Less than two years later, he had gathered all of those same (now underachieving) players on his roster, and he is the butt of a bunch of Hoarders jokes.
(Sidebar: I would DVR and assign "If You Delete This, I Will Kill You" status to the episode of Hoarders with Morey in his office in the fetal position surrounded by stacks of old newspapers, litters of stray kittens, piles of rat feces, and the four 2009 lottery picks all stacked in a big pile. Bonus points if there is a scene with a belligerent Morey yelling at his relatives as they try and intervene. Yes, I watch too much television.)
The early returns on the four players are about what you'd expect on penny stocks. Hill has the largest body of work, and at best he is a serviceable, active big man. Williams has gotten more playing time this season, but he has major consistency issues. Flynn is stuck behind Lowry and Dragic in the battle for minutes at point guard. Of the four players, the one with the physical makeup to have the biggest impact is Thabeet, but he's the only player I've ever seen who appears legitimately happier sitting at the end of the bench than he does, you know, actually playing in games.
(Funny Thabeet story if you're someone other than his employer: Chris Vernon is a radio host in Memphis, and on the day that Thabeet was traded to the Rockets, I had Vernon on my radio show on 1560 The Game last year to give my listeners a Thabeet scouting report. Vernon said, "All you need to know about Thabeet is when the Rookie All-Star Game was being played during Thabeet's rookie year, he tweeted during the game, 'WHAT'S UP, PEEPO? I'M AT THE MALL, PEEPO!' It would have been nice if the second overall pick had actually been PLAYING in the Rookie All-Star game." Perhaps if the Rockets want to get more production out of Thabeet, they should look at the possibility of playing their home games at the food court at Memorial City Mall.)
Anyway, with the 66-game schedule, depth is going to be key. The Rockets need at least two of these 2009 lottery refugees to be solid rotation players. Three would be a bonus. Four would, quite frankly, be a miracle.
LET'S MAKE A DEAL
Circle March 15. That's the date of the NBA trade deadline, which has to feel like the beginning of Lent for Daryl Morey, since at that point he can't make any trades until the end of June.
Rest assured, Morey will continue to burn up the phone lines trying to find that elusive superstar. As for established "above the line" guys, he's pretty much run out of options, unless he can rekindle the talks for Gasol in some other fashion, either directly with the Lakers or as the third team in a reconfigured three-way trade (maybe with Orlando sending Howard to the Lakers?). More likely, if he does want to deal, Morey would have to go after a younger player with "above the line" potential, preferably someone more established than the 2009 Lottery pupu platter.
My personal sleeper scenario? The Sacramento Kings continue to piss off center DeMarcus Cousins and, fearful that Cousins might dismember an assistant coach during a timeout on national television, the Maloof brothers decide to move Cousins to the Rockets for a package that includes former King Kevin Martin, allowing Martin to assume his rightful place as "best player on a really shitty Sacramento team." The universe just seems like a more orderly place when that's the case.
As of now, early in the season, the stars are aligning for the Rockets to at least have hope that they could sneak into the back end of the Western Conference playoff mix. The perennial conference powers (Mavericks, Spurs, Lakers) look far more beatable, and the Grizzlies were just dealt a crippling blow with Zach Randolph's MCL tear. The flip side is the Thunder look like they're ready to make the jump to the elite level, the Clippers now need to be dealt with and Denver looks better without Carmelo Anthony than they did with him.
In the end, I can't get past just how weak this group is defensively. Until Dalembert works off his beer belly, they have next to nothing inside, and on top of that Scola and Martin are among the worst defenders at their respective positions in the league. This team has no trump card to mask its deficiencies. They are what they are.
They are your Houston Rockets. They are the ninth-place team in the West. My prediction: They will finish 34-32.
And the thermometer will continue to read 40.
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