There's something unholy about a team playing out the string of games knowing it won't make the playoffs. It's even weirder when said team felt its season end with a thud after a horrid stretch of games that lasted right up until the second-to-last game of the year. Going one step farther, that game was Sunday and the Rockets have to wait around until today to mercifully finish out another lottery-bound season.
I've said numerous times here on Hair Balls that this was a mediocre team, and their record is perfectly reflective of that at 33 wins and 32 losses with one game to go. With a loss to New Orleans, they will go a perfectly mediocre .500 and hit the lottery for a third straight season, likely selecting around 14th in the first round, right where they were last year. They will also have the Knicks' pick, which should be around 16. Ho hum.
But, before you go off on your regular tangent about the mediocrity of a team that hasn't gone past the first round of the playoffs more than once since 1997, be sure to focus your aim in the right place. In this case, it's on Les Alexander.
I have never been one to question Alexander when it comes to his basketball decisions. The guy has been balls-out daring for many years, encouraging and even taking the reins in blockbuster deals involving Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen (ouch), Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady. If there is one thing you could never question about him, it was that the guy wanted to win, desperately.
But that strategy has backfired, much the way it did with his friend and now-former co-owner of the Astros Drayton McLane. Both have said they believe they can continue to win while rebuilding, that it isn't necessary to sink to the bottom to reach the top.
In certain cases, they are right. They frequently point to Boston, but they are a product of substantial trades and solid draft picks and they wouldn't have been able to facilitate those trades had they not had Paul Pierce already in place, who they drafted after a disastrous season under then-coach Rick Pitino.
Just a quick look around the Western Conference bears out the reality that you must draft well and high in order to succeed. San Antonio drafted Tim Duncan number one and then surrounded him with smart lower first round picks in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Dallas Mavericks picked up Dirk Nowitzki in a draft-day trade after he was selected 9th by Milwaukee. The Lakers traded for Kobe Bryant when he was drafted. Oklahoma City drafted Kevin Durant 2nd overall in 2007 and Russell Westbrook 4th in 2008.
Once you have a young, established star on your roster, then you can recruit other talent to you (see: James, LeBron), but without it, you better be New York or Chicago or Miami or LA if you want players flocking to you.
I admire the tenacity of Alexander's conviction, but his approach is just wrong. Even if you don't advocate losing for a higher draft pick -- I don't, by the way -- the desire to win is what causes the team to do things like sign Samuel Dalembert and trade for Marcus Camby. Injuries are the only thing that leads to minutes for young players because it's playoffs or bust no matter if the team has virtually no chance of doing anything even if they get into the first round.
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There is no question fans are restless. Most would be happy to stink for a year or two if it meant a real chance at something great down the road. But Alexander sees the beating the city's newest owner, Jim Crane, is taking at the ticket booth this season and, no doubt, he winces. The Astros have had some of the smallest crowds in 30 years this season because they are playing guys no one knows (yet) and, as a result, they stink.
Of course, the Astros aren't doing it to shoot for a high draft pick. That's not how baseball works. But, what they are doing is evaluating and developing young talent in the hopes that they might find some home-grown magic à la Craig Biggio and Roy Oswalt. The Rockets must do the same or risk continuing to limp along competing, but not ultimately winning.