Remember all the warm, fuzzy feelings last week when the Rockets came home from a 4-0 road trip, knocking on the door of a good seeding in the Western Conference playoffs? It appeared this scrappy, tough team was going to defy odds and make the playoffs with no stars and their entire starting backcourt out. A lot can happen in a week.
In what was the most critical stretch of games in the entire season, all against teams that were battling the Rockets to make the playoffs, the same team that went 4-0 on the road lost five straight and went from a remarkable story to, well, another wasted year.
But, as I've said numerous times throughout the season, this is a fun team to watch that plays the game the right way, but one that is dreadfully mediocre, the one thing you don't ever want to be. Since 1997, the Rockets have only been out of the first round of the playoffs once, but they also haven't had a draft pick in the top seven since drafting Yao Ming number one in 2002. In ten years, they have only had one pick that was higher than 14.
Unless a team makes substantial trades as the Rockets did with Tracy McGrady, it cannot improve in ways that help push it into contender status. In the last 25 years, only one team -- the Detroit Pistons -- without one of the best players in the NBA has won a title. In this league, stars rule and without one, you are invariably an also-ran.
This is an important offseason for the Rockets. It's weird to say that since it seems as if sports people say that EVERY season, but this is particularly important. They are going to be under the salary cap and there are going to be some good free agents available. They will likely have two first-round draft picks, though neither will be even top 12 unless a miracle occurs in the draft lottery. But, they do have some young talent that might work in a trade and general manager Daryl Morey, if nothing else, has kept them cap-flexible.
The two names that jump out are Dwight Howard and Deron Williams. Conceivably, with a trade, the Rockets could land both. The chances they land even one are very slim, but dare to dream.
As for Morey, this is a critical offseason for him. His Moneyball approach has been extremely successful at times -- Luis Scola, Goran Dragic, Kyle Lowry -- but his draft picks have been a mixed bag and he has zero track record for landing the big-name free agent or working a trade. In fairness, they did have a blockbuster done last offseason until the commish vetoed it, though I'm personally glad Pau Gasol is not a Rocket. If people think Lamar Odom pouted his way out of Dallas, imagine Gasol's antics in Houston.
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Still, without a marquee name in free agency or via trade, without a move to acquire a high draft pick, Morey could go from guru to whipping boy, which is just a couple steps shy of unemployment.
Whatever happens in these last few games -- yes, it's mathematically possible the Rockets could still squeak into the playoffs, though the odds are better at the slot machines in Breaux Bridge -- this team needs an overhaul. I know Les Alexander doesn't want to suck to make that happen, but even the Astros finally realized that, eventually, you have to start over. It might be time for Alexander to realize that as well...unless Morey can pull off a miracle.