For the record, we never said he wasn't smooth.

Rocket-hater or Realist?

Oh boy. Here we go again. Over the course of the last week or so, I’ve been assaulted by friends and readers who claim I’ve jumped off the Rockets’ bandwagon and/or given up on Tracy McGrady. At first, I thought I’d be able to let it slide. After all, I respect other people’s opinions (even if they’re wrong) and, let’s face it, I expected some sort of backlash when I laid out the reasons

why we should trade T-Mac


what we might be able to get in return

. But when I saw that I’d been

called out by a colleague

, I knew it was time to set the record straight once and for all.

First, let’s address the accusation that I have abandoned the hometown team. In my NBA playoff preview, I predicted the Rockets would slip past Utah in seven games (and I remain steadfast in that belief), only to fall to the hated Mavericks in the second round (also in seven games). So tell me, exactly how have I jumped off the bandwagon? Perhaps a true fan would believe this team is capable of going all the way. But barring a horrific plane crash involving every member of the Suns, Spurs, Mavericks and Warriors, that’s just not going to happen. Let’s be realistic here. The Rockets remain a piece or two away from true title contention. And, yes, I most absolutely do believe that Golden State would be the decided favorite in a potential second round match-up with Houston. The Rockets (especially Yao) simply can’t handle the pace or athleticism the Warriors bring to the court. Sorry, but it’s true.

Now let’s review some of my comments regarding T-Mac:

“I love T-Mac’s game.”

“Tracy is a HUGE part of this team and its success.”

“Make no mistake, round one is all about T-Mac. This is his series to own and these are his demons to exorcise.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like I’ve given up on the guy, does it? Remember, I was living in Canada when Tracy first entered the league with Toronto so I’ve been fortunate enough to watch his career closely from the very beginning. Let me reiterate: I LOVE Tracy McGrady’s game. He’s one of the ten best players in the league. BUT… I just don’t trust his back to hold out much longer.

By his own admission, Tracy is an old 28. He’s been in the league ten years so, physically, his body probably more closely resembles that of a pro athlete in his early thirties which means he likely has another two or three years left in his prime. After that, history shows he’s destined for a rather rapid descent into complimentary player status. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. If you could guarantee me another three years of T-Mac in his prime, I’d take that in a heartbeat, even if he were to never play another game in the NBA once those three years were up. He’s that good. Of course, the problem is that there are no guarantees in life, especially when you’re dealing with a trick back.

Riddle me this: How many of you thought the worst when Tracy limped off the court during the first half of Game 5? I’m guessing Rockets’ owner Les Alexander did, considering his warp-speed sprint to the locker room to check on T-Mac. And even our very own Ishanee Parikh admits to knocking on wood when it comes to McGrady’s health issues. Is that how you want to spend the next few years as a Rockets’ fan? Keeping your fingers crossed that a little luck, duct tape and the occasional visit to the Waco witch doctor will help keep T-Mac healthy? I’m not saying it’s impossible. Phoenix rolled the dice with Steve Nash and his aching back and that move continues to pay huge dividends for the Suns. But let’s just say I’m skeptical.

So here’s the thing: When I wrote those two columns, I did so with my GM hat on. A general manager’s job is to keep one eye on the present while the other looks after the future. He’s also charged with bringing home titles, not second round playoff appearances. Ending a postseason drought is nice and all, but it doesn’t mean jack if you don’t follow it up by making more progress the following season (just ask the Clippers). Obviously, a great deal of Houston’s progress hinges on Tracy’s health. If you think he’s going to be fine moving forward then, by all means, you keep the nucleus together. If you don’t, then it’s time to start thinking about a deal. And, by the way, a deep playoff run this year would only serve to enhance T-Mac’s trade value.

Of course, all of this trade talk is ultimately pointless because we know the Rockets have hitched their ride, for better or worse, to the Tracy & Yao mobile. I don’t blame them. Not too many teams boast such an impressive pairing. And, as I’ve mentioned in the past, perhaps all that’s missing is an Acie Law type point guard who can add depth, toughness and swagger in much the same way Sam Cassell did during the club’s glory years. I truly hope that’s the case. I just don’t see it working out that way.

Finally, I leave you with another thought that’s sure to rile Rocket nation: Houston bowing out of the playoffs (in either this round or the next) is not the worst thing that could happen. Take a look around the league and check out the teams that are truly thriving. Phoenix. Chicago. Golden State. What do they have in common? Speed and great athleticism. Face it: Today’s NBA places a premium on these qualities. It’s become increasingly difficult to excel if you’re merely a half-court team. Heck, even notoriously slow-paced San Antonio and Detroit are doing their best to fit in with this brave new world. Don’t be fooled by their reputations. Yes, both clubs still live and die with their defense. But to stamp them with the “sloth” label would be a mistake. Those guys can get up and go when the need arises.

Of the run-and-gun teams, only Denver seems destined for an early exit. But that’s not surprising. The Nuggets’ nucleus has played together for about 25 games, while San Antonio boasts the kind of rock-solid chemistry that comes with eight years of bonding. That’s tough to overcome.

So what’s my point? This up-tempo trend is GREAT for basketball and its fans. Who doesn’t want to see some of the world’s greatest athletes flying up the court, making the extra pass and finishing it off with a flourish? Now tell me: When’s the last time you saw the Rockets play like that? They don’t because they can’t. And unless the powers that be bring in some fresh horses soon, I’m afraid our lads may very well get left behind the pack. So I’m not-so-secretly hoping that the inevitable playoff exit (whenever it takes place) will shine a white-hot spotlight on this weakness, prompting management to seek a solution sooner, rather than later.

But don’t mind me. I’m just a cold-hearted bandwagon jumper hopelessly stuck in the real world. Next thing you know, I’ll probably be telling you the Texans should have taken Vince Young (or Reggie Bush) and that the Astros never should have let Nolan Ryan move north to Arlington. Man, reality sucks sometimes, doesn’t it? – Jason Friedman

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