One year ago, if you asked most Houston sports fans which of the city's three major sports franchises would win a title, most would have guessed the Rockets. They were coming off a 50-plus-win season and on their way to an appearance in the Western Conference Finals, despite injuries that sidelined two of their starters for the better part of the season.
Even this offseason, as the Astros were surprising everyone and the Texans were getting Brian Hoyered, there was a sense the Rockets were the odds-on favorite to make another deep playoff run. Then, well, they started playing the games.
With virtually the same roster plus the addition of Ty Lawson, who it was thought would shore up their back court, the Rockets went the exact opposite direction. Eleven games in, they fired Coach Kevin McHale. They are 28-28 a year after losing only 26 games all last season. Instead of fighting with teams like the Clippers and the Thunder for home court advantage, they are wrestling the Jazz and the Trailblazers for the pleasure of being wiped off the playoff map by the Spurs or the Warriors.
To add further insult to injury (metaphorical in this case since the Rockets have had virtually no serious injuries to rotation players all year long), the trade that sent Donatas Montejunas and Marcus Thornton to the Detroit Pistons at the trade deadline in exchange for someone named Joel Anthony and a protected first-round draft pick was voided by Detroit because of Montejunas's lingering back issues.
This comes 22 years after the Rockets voided a deal that would have netted them Sean Elliot in exchange for Robert Horry and Matt Bullard. That trade turned out to be a blessing as the Rockets ended up winning the title that season, but this latest deal is not the magic bullet the Rockets need, unless it's in the chamber of a gun used to put them out of their misery, because there are far more things that can go wrong at this point than right. The voided trade is just a start.
Loss of a first-round pick.
Right off the bat, there is this. The pick from Detroit was protected if it ended up in the top 8, which appears unlikely. And this would be extremely valuable to the Rockets even if they don't have their own first-round pick, which they might not (see below).
Over the luxury tax threshold.
The NBA has a "soft" salary cap, meaning teams can eclipse the set amount to sign their own players. The Rockets have done that. However, when they reach a point well beyond the cap amount, they hit the luxury tax threshold. This not only means huge money out of Les Alexander's pocket for basically nothing, it severely limits their ability to add players and make trades until they are able to dump salary.
No deal for Dwight Howard.
It was widely reported the Rockets were shopping Howard, who is a free agent this offseason. But most teams didn't want a rental, particularly with the salary cap exploding this offseason thanks to a new TV deal. Why rent when you can own? This makes it more likely the Rockets reach the playoffs (you might think that is a good thing, but...) and equally likely they lose him for nothing in the offseason.
Potential loss of their own first-round pick.
Now, about the pick of their own. They traded it to Denver in the Lawson deal, but they would retain it IF they do not make the playoffs. Right now, it appears they have a decent shot, but is that their best move? The Texans thought so, and all they got to show for it was a crushing at the hands of the Chiefs and a lowered draft pick in a year they really need to be closer to the top. Having their own pick is critical to the Rockets and, as with the Texans, the playoffs don't sound like a great idea either...
First-round crushing at the hands of the Warriors, Spurs or Thunder.
Barring a miraculous winning streak and season-ending injuries to half the starting lineups for the Warriors and Spurs, it is unlikely the Rockets climb above the sixth seed, leaving them to face one of the aforementioned teams. In the NFL, where it is one-and-done, there is always a chance even if your concussed quarterback throws a bunch of interceptions. But the seven-game series format tends to weed out the pretenders, meaning the Rockets would be facing a brutally short postseason run.
A hot mess headed into a huge offseason of free agency.
If all that were to happen, the Rockets would be facing one of the more critical free agency periods in NBA history with no first-round picks and nothing but a terrible year of underachieving behind them as a means of attracting talent like Kevin Durant. Oh, and then there's this...
They will be searching for a new head coach.
There is little doubt the Rockets will face this offseason of uncertainty with a coaching vacancy. With all due respect to J.B. Bickerstaff, he is clearly not the future of this team, and the last thing this franchise needs is a complicated search when it is trying to recruit new talent and keep its own.
So, if you thought the season has been rough, you have, potentially, all of the above to look forward to heading into the summer. And just last year, the Rockets won 56 games and were in the Western Conference Finals. Unreal.
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