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Want an NBA Title? Head East, Young Man

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There’s no need to spend much time breaking down the Rockets’ latest loss to Utah. Yes, the déjà vu storyline is tempting to be sure, but it’s ultimately misguided. Let’s face it: From the moment word spread that Yao Ming would be unavailable for duty due to an upper respiratory infection, it was clear Houston’s hopes for victory rested somewhere between slim and none.

So let’s focus instead on the difference between the club we saw last night and the one that walked off the Toyota Center floor with its head hanging low last May. Sure, a few faces and names have changed, but is this group any closer to achieving its ultimate goal of securing the franchise’s third NBA title? More to the point: Since it’s a safe assumption that ’08 won’t be bringing O’Brien Trophy No. 3 to Houston, is there any reason to be hopeful about the future?

I bring this up because I just re-read the column I wrote immediately following the Rockets’ Game 7 loss last year. At the time, I pleaded with the franchise to surround Yao and T-Mac with more athletes; reasoning that Houston had a roster better-suited for a bygone era, as opposed to the more fast-paced, guard-friendly game of today. Well, guess what? The Rockets brain trust obliged me by adding Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry via the draft. In one fell swoop, Houston significantly increased its overall quickness and athleticism at point guard and power forward. And while attempting to forecast their long-term productivity and usefulness is foolish at such an early juncture, it certainly looks like both players were tremendous additions—especially considering when they were drafted (Brooks was taken 26th, Landry 31st). Combine that with the inspired acquisition of the Argentinean energizer, Luis Scola, and it’s easy to remember why the Rockets were such a trendy favorite of pundits back in the pre-season.

So what on earth happened? Why has this team—a 52 game winner a year ago—failed to come close to meeting expectations? Sure, the schedule did them no favors the first three months, but that doesn’t explain horrific losses to some of the league’s cellar dwellers. And, yes, the club still has flaws, but the same can be said for even those teams counted among the NBA’s best. You can’t blame the Rockets’ woes on injuries, either. Last year’s club battled far worse. So I’ll ask again: What exactly is the problem here?

Of course, any answer I provide would be nothing more than a guess. The temptation is to attack the team’s heart, character, or chemistry (or coach, but that’s a story for another time). After all, when humans can’t explain or quantify something, they tend to opt for the less understandable and more nebulous explanation. It’s just easier that way. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily accurate.

Whatever the issue may be, it’s manifested itself in the form of a woefully off-target shooting touch. Offensively, the Rockets stink. They’re not good inside or outside the three-point line, and they’re just plan awful from the charity stripe. Here again, the standard early season excuse—adjusting to a new system—rings hollow. There’s just no reason a team possessing the prodigious inside-outside skills of T-Mac and Yao should still be struggling to score 44 games into the season.

If only the Rockets could apply for residence within the Eastern Conference; uniting them with their doppelgangers from the Midwest—the Cleveland Cavaliers. Not only do the two teams share strikingly similar records, but both also possess an aversion to offense, a commitment to defense (for the purpose of this exercise, let’s forget about the 37-point fourth quarters Houston has allowed to Philly and Utah within the span of the last two weeks), and a lust for better point guard play (although one would assume the Cavs would kill for Rafer Alston right now). Both pair big men, who thrive in the low-post, with spectacularly gifted wing players. Of course, Tracy McGrady is no LeBron James (who is?), but Zydrunas Ilgauskas—while rock solid—ain’t turning into Yao Ming anytime soon, either. Heck, even the supporting casts are not dissimilar (Scola-Varajao being the most obvious example).

But while the Cavs are coming off an NBA Finals appearance in ’07, and not to be counted out in ’08, Houston merely trudges along, still searching for an identity and winning combination within the unforgiving landscape of the Western Conference. Funny how a seemingly trivial thing like geography can dictate your perspective. But that’s life in the post-MJ world of the NBA for you.

So assuming the NBA eschews the Rockets’ conference relocation request, Houston needs to brace itself for the possibility of a continued dry spell. The Rockets’ young talent offers hope, but the road through the wild west won’t be getting any easier. The old guard—San Antonio, Dallas, and Phoenix—is still steady, despite showing a few cracks. Meanwhile, the kids in New Orleans, Portland, and L.A. are growing up in a hurry.

Is it possible that the window for the Yao-McGrady combo has already slammed shut? Unfortunately, that’s simply one more question Rockets fans are asking themselves today while suffering through a season unburdened by the minimal number of answers it seems intent on providing. - Jason Friedman

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