JCF: There are a lot of ways to look at the Rockets roller coaster start to the season, how do you view it?
DM: Overall, I guess I’d say it’s not good enough. I just see a lot of areas [that need] improvement. We need to beat the top teams at home. We’re still adjusting to the offense. We’re not as far along there as we’d like to be.
JCF: Do you feel as if the team is stuck in a bit of a limbo stage, where they’re not playing the defense they did a year ago, while simultaneously failing to show the hoped for improvement on the offensive end?
DM: Well, I think except for transition, our defense has actually been pretty good. I think we’re 7th in the league, while facing the hardest schedule. So the defense has been pretty good, that’s been focused on too much. In transition, we’ve had issues, but those are things we’re working on. Offense is where we’ve struggled quite a bit more, both with our shooting and in terms of running the system.
JCF: When you’re going through a stretch like you guys just came out of…
DM: We’re not out of it yet [laughs].
JCF: Well, that’s true, but at least you can say you’re not in the midst of a losing streak anymore.
DM: Yeah, that’s helpful.
JCF: [laughs] All right, sarcasm aside, when the team is going through a stretch like that, most fans are out there howling for change. A lot of people treat it like their fantasy team. Now I know it’s your job to preach patience, especially considering this early stage of the season, but at what point do you have to start seriously thinking about making changes because the status quo just isn’t working, and may never work?
DM: Well, I think we’re a playoff team, so we’re focused on what’s going to help us win in April. I think what we’re constantly assessing is not—at least for me—the nightly wins and losses, it’s who’s the right players and the right approach to bet on to win in April. I think some of our play from the point guard spot has not been good enough to win. So overall, that’s the spot we need to have better answers at than we have right now.
JCF: I know this is a difficult question to answer, but do you feel like you’ve got the guys on your roster right now who can give you what you need at that position?
DM: Um, I think everything’s sort of taking a bet on what’s the right players, or combination of players, and there’s a chance that’s going to be the right option. There are certainly options on our roster that could be good enough. And if none of those options are—and we have to have better play there—then it’s gonna have to come one way or the other.
JCF: There’s been a ton of talk centered on the Rockets’s inability to win close games. I know that’s not a major focus of yours since you’re more concerned with blowing teams out since point differential is the best indicator of future success. Still, the Rockets’s recent trouble in tight games is a tad alarming. Do you think this team has a bit of a mental block or confidence issue when it finds itself in those situations?
DM: I’d say it’s a false focus. The good teams aren’t in close games. So we just need to get back to being up by ten or so going into the final stretch and continue to expand the lead. The good teams don’t win close games [because] they’re not in them. And right now, we’re in too many and we’re not playing good enough.
JCF: Before I let you go, I’ve got to ask you about your old team. How about the Celtics amazing start?
DM: Yeah, it’s awesome and great to see. It’s exactly how I planned it out all along [laughs]. But no, it’s awesome to see, I’m excited. Great coaching, great players. Things just came together at the right time for those guys who have been wanting to win for some time and all are hungry in terms of Ray, and Paul and Kevin. I think it’s going to carry them into the Eastern Conference Finals and I hope we’re there to face them [if they advance to the NBA Finals].
For fans driven insane by the Rockets’s unholy trinity of point guards (a.k.a. Rafer, Mike and Steve), rest assured the team is well aware of the problem at that position. Morey’s not-so-ringing endorsement should remove any lingering doubt on the subject.
The problem for this season, of course, lies in the dearth of realistic, adequate solutions. Who’s available and, more importantly, who can help? Peruse the league’s depth charts (most likely you already have many times over), and you’re likely to find either untouchables or mere flotsam and jetsam. It will take all of Morey’s reputed genius—and then some—to pull off a deal that sufficiently upgrades Houston’s chances of prolonged postseason success in 2008.
For the more immediate future, it’s incumbent upon the team to carve out some sort of identity. Right now, they are neither suffocating defensively, nor particularly explosive on the offensive end. Of course, knocking down some open jumpers for once would be a nice start.
Talking to players in the locker room after the last couple of home games, I quickly got the sense that this is very much a work in progress, and no one is entirely sure what the end result will look like. There is hope, but not certainty. Not yet, anyway.
“I think we are starting to understand when we struggle, why we struggle,” says Shane Battier. “That’s a lesson some teams never learn in the course of the season. So I think if we can identify those sort of things, we can limit those times when we struggle and maximize this team’s potential.
“This is going to be a very educational year. It’s gonna be almost like a Master's course in the NBA. It’s gonna take a long time for this team to really, really understand who we are. That doesn’t mean we can’t win along the way, but we’re gonna be learning well past the All-Star break. And as long as we continue to improve, that’s the most important thing.”
Now that the agonizing six-game losing streak is in their rear view mirror, the Rockets get rewarded by heading West for the next four games, including what figures to be a torturous back-to-back against Phoenix and Golden State in the middle of the week.
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“In this Western Conference, nothing’s going to come easy,” says Chuck Hayes. “We just hit a bad stretch early. Thank God it came early rather than late. We can always make up ground, but we’re gonna have to play our butts off the next two months until All-Star weekend.”
For what it’s worth, I’m still on the bandwagon preaching patience, too. Over the last few years, this team has proven to be a consistent regular season winner as long as Yao and T-Mac stay healthy. And I think it’s safe to assume everyone, fans included, cares much more about how you finish than you how you start.
Undoubtedly, the growing pains will continue, as will the questions surrounding the point guard position. Every team needs a hot-button topic, and this has been Houston’s cause célèbre for years. The fans are watching, ready to dissect every move and misstep.
So, too, is Daryl Morey. – Jason Friedman