"Scrappy, man. Just scrappy." I was talking with a buddy of mine the other day and that was the phrase that seemed to be uttered by one of us more than once about this current rabble of players assembled by the Houston Rockets. They just keep winning despite the fact they have no identifiable star and at least a couple of their starters might not even be rotation players for contending teams.
In a fascinating display of the emotion, frustration and competitiveness common to most NBA head coaches but not always shown, Kevin McHale spoke candidly in a recent press conference about the difficulties he has faced early this year and how far the team has come.
As David Hardisty at ClutchFans.net pointed out in a summary of McHale's comments, "McHale can be guarded in his comments -- he's tough and hard-nosed. That wasn't the case here... he was very open about how proud he is of the team and how far they've come since training camp."
"Thirty-four games this season in totality, the guys have come from where we came from that first five-minute scrimmage on December 9th where it was actually frightening. I literally went home and almost cried myself to sleep. That was like the worst basketball I've ever seen in my life. I had 10 guys holding their shorts after a minute and a half and I thought, 'Oh my word, we may not win a game this year. I wonder what 0-66 would look like.'...
Those guys have worked really hard and they've battled. I'm proud of them. (They're) buying in to the fact that they're just going to have to sometimes win ugly....
We've got a long way to go yet but I'm proud of the guys. I'll be honest with you, they went from a group that was really, really, really hard for me to coach, to a group that I'm actually starting to enjoy a little bit, but I don't want to enjoy them too much. We'll lose our edge."
He went on to talk about staying up all night after a particularly tough loss and the roller coaster of emotions coaches go through during a season.
It was frank and fascinating and not terribly surprising when you consider the team taking the floor every night at Toyota Center. You can't love basketball and not be a fan of Kyle Lowry, who last night, in particular, carried the team through an ugly win over Philadelphia. Luis Scola makes molasses in the winter look speedy and yet, he is one of the more effective offensive power forwards in the league. Despite his shortcomings defensively and an up-and-down season, Kevin Martin is one of the NBA's most efficient scorers from the wing.
Then there are guys like rookie Chandler Parsons, whose defense against Memphis's Rudy Gay earlier this week was the difference in a tight game; Samuel Dalembert, who has given the team a much-needed physical presence in the middle; slam-dunk contestant Chase Budinger, who has made his way off the bench to become a fairly reliable long-range shooter; Goran Dragic and his slashing, passing craziness; and Patrick Patterson, probably about two inches short of a bona fide all-star at his position, but tough and a good scorer.
And they are winning. They'll probably be a western conference playoff team, as hard as that might be to believe. If the season ended today, they'd be the sixth seed and open the playoffs on the road against the Clippers. Yes, I said the Clippers.
It's a feel-good story, like Moneyball for the NBA. But, like that film and Billy Beane's overall tenure in Oakland demonstrate, tough, efficient players, as exhilarating as they can be to watch, don't win championships without the leadership of superstars. Fortunately, General Manager Daryl Morey, though a devotee of Beane's CyberMetrics philosophy, recognizes this team needs a star to win and he's doing everything he can to position the team for landing one in the offseason.
Until then, if you haven't been watching this team, you should. They are easy to root for and fun to watch (last night notwithstanding). And they win without the benefit of the kind of talent other teams take for granted. Like my friend and I kept repeating to one another, "Scrappy, man. Just scrappy."