The Rockets need more athletes like this.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The Utah Jazz are a much more athletic team than your Houston Rockets.

Read that sentence again. Now, let the words marinate inside your brain for awhile. The Utah Jazz… more athletic? Really? Sadly, it’s true. Tracy McGrady acknowledged as much during a post-game interview following Houston’s devastating Game 7 defeat. Keep in mind, this is Utah we’re talking about. Not Phoenix, Golden State, Denver or Chicago; teams known and feared for their stable of players capable of racing up and down the court. No, this is Utah, a club whose overall athleticism probably ranks somewhere in the middle of the NBA pack. So knowing that, where do you think the Rockets rate?

This isn’t exactly a news flash, I know. Last week, I argued that Houston’s playoff exit would actually be a good thing, based on the premise that it would provide proof the Rockets need a roster overhaul if they’re to keep pace in today’s faster, quicker, more up-tempo NBA. To be sure, change is coming. Longtime GM Carroll Dawson is stepping down from his post, paving the way for statistical analyst Daryl Morey to take over. Jeff Van Gundy seems poised to follow Dawson out the door. And you already know I’ve spent a great deal of time discussing whether or not the Rockets should part ways with T-Mac. But after watching Saturday night’s game, I’m starting to think it may be time to go ahead and blow the whole thing up and start over again. Is that a rash, emotional decision that’s the direct result of one of the franchise’s more painful playoff defeats? Absolutely. Could it be just what the doctor ordered after ten years of mediocre basketball? Maybe.

Look, I’m not here to rip Tracy McGrady or saddle him with all the blame. Truth is, Tracy played about as well as anyone could have hoped. Sure, he doesn’t have the killer instinct of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Guess what? Few do. But, outside of LeBron James, no one shoulders the offensive burden of his team more than T-Mac and, more often than not, he handles that responsibility with grace and aplomb. Would it have been nice to see him take over the last few minutes and carry his team to victory? Of course. And his season-long aversion to driving to the hoop was probably responsible for dozens of broken remotes and/or windows (ummm, not that I’d know anything about that). But let’s face it, T-Mac looked a heck of a lot more like an MVP in defeat than that guy up the road in Dallas. Not that that’s saying much. But I digress. My point is, I still possess a great deal of affinity for Tracy’s game. I just don’t trust his back long-term. So I hope Mr. Morey at least picks up the phone to see what McGrady might fetch in a deal this summer.

But now another tough question looms on the horizon: What about Yao? He is a dynamic post presence, a shot blocking threat and a stand-up guy. He’s also merely an average rebounder (given his size), and a turnover factory. Yet you can overcome those things. It’s his plodding nature that may prove to be his downfall. Sometimes, I feel as if Yao simply had the misfortune of arriving on the NBA scene about fifteen years too late. In days gone by, he would have thrived in a half-court game that did not allow zone defenses. Now, there are times when he seems to be a brontosaurus living in a land of velociraptors.

In today’s NBA, if you’re not able to run you will be devoured. It’s an evolutionary step that’s very fan-friendly, unless you’re sitting in the uncomfortable seat of a Rockets’ fan. So the question must be asked: Can you win titles with a team built around a guy like Yao? I suspect the answer is yes, but only if you surround him with enough athletes to overcome his own athletic inadequacies.

Which brings us back to the overall makeup of this Houston club. Currently, the Rockets possess one superior athlete. His name is Tracy McGrady and he has a wonky back. That’s it. That’s your list. It doesn’t paint a very pretty picture, does it?

To be fair, Houston did win 52 games this season despite its dynamic duo missing a combined 45 games due to injury. So it’s not as if this team can’t compete. But I’m greedy. Playoff appearances don’t do much for me. It’s all about trophies and rings. Do you see this franchise headed in that direction? If you do, I’d like to throw another question your way. What do you think of the Cleveland Cavaliers? I suspect you’re not impressed, even though they appear headed to the J.V. Conference Finals. I don’t blame you. The Cavs aren’t a great team. They’re good, but not great. Well you know what? They’re also very similar to your Houston Rockets. Take a peek at their roster and think about it. It’s not a mirror image, but the similarities are striking. So, with that in mind, do you still feel jazzed (sorry, probably not the best word to use right now) about Houston’s title chances in the next few years?

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have all the answers. But I do know this team seems better-suited to win a championship in 1998, not 2008. It should be noted that, before coming to Houston, Jeff Van Gundy’s Knicks’ teams were known (and despised) for playing a similar style of basketball to the kind we’re seeing here now. No, these Rockets aren’t as rough and tumble, but their play ranks about the same on the aesthetically pleasing chart (which is to say it’s a solid -40). Was this roster what JVG wanted? Was he forced to simply do the best he could with the players management gave him? Or were all parties involved caught off-guard by the league’s shift toward embracing a faster style of play? Whatever the case may be, I suspect the imminent change at the GM and coaching positions will shed some light on philosophies past, present and future. And, hopefully, the change doesn’t stop there.

A few more thoughts from a great sports weekend:

Predictably, it appears Astros’ fans are up in arms over Roger Clemens’ decision to return to New York. I won’t take up much time on this since I’m sure my colleague John Royal has already destroyed an entire rain forest writing about the topic. But here’s what I don’t get: How can anyone be surprised by his decision? To me, he was gone the second his buddy Andy Pettitte signed with the Yanks. But putting that aside, Clemens is a guy who had already jilted Boston, Toronto and the aforementioned Bronx Bombers. Why on earth would you believe he’d break that pattern of behavior now? He’s a hired gun and has been for nearly a decade. I know this is futile, but I’ll ask anyway: Please, let him go and let’s move on with our lives. Of course, this is coming from the same guy who still falls asleep while muttering Reggie Bush and Vince Young beneath my breath, so take that request with a grain of salt.

Back to the NBA for a moment: to absolutely no one’s surprise, the Suns-Spurs series is off to a fantastic start. Great performances, bloody noses, Game 1 had it all. My only complaint: ABC’s season-long attempt to force me to commit hara-kiri due to their non-stop use of the Pussycat Dolls’ insufferable music. What, did the dream-team tandem of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton back out at the last minute? Who green-lighted this decision? Better yet, how long until I convince one of the NASA crazies to take out the person responsible?

And finally, since I’m cranky now, I thought I’d pass along this article on how David Carr has found happiness with a new team. Just keep twisting the knife, David. I’m sure, in time, the pain will subside and I won’t feel be able to anything anymore. – Jason Friedman

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