For quite some time, I have resisted the sentiment that to improve in the NBA, you must first have a substantial downturn. I don't like the idea of losing on purpose. Calling it "tanking" only makes it worse. The entire concept feels like the exact opposite of what players, coaches and fans are taught. To quote the late Al Davis, "Just win, baby!" That's always been the sentiment.
But, with complicated free agency rules and players more and more choosing their own destiny -- ask Dwight Howard, who has all but said he won't go anywhere but Brooklyn -- there is only one way to build and that's through the draft. But to get a pick high enough to deliver a blue chip star, you have to be really bad because, as Daryl Morey and company found out this year, teams don't just trade away their high draft picks.
It's time for the Rockets to see the writing on the wall and do what many of us have feared they might have to: suck.
The Boston Way
Morey has tried to tell fans that they want to follow the model set forth by the Boston Celtics. They rebuilt on the fly and developed into a championship contender with smart trades and free agency signings including Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. But, there are major holes in that theory.
First, Boston already had a cornerstone to their franchise in Paul Pierce. To acquire him, they had to suck...big time. Now, he wasn't the first pick in his draft class, but he was taken tenth in a draft that included Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki (oh, and Michael Olowokandi and Robert "Tractor" Trailer). And the Celtics didn't immediately improve. In fact, they got worse thanks to some ridiculous trades (they lost the eighth pick in the 1999 draft that could have gotten them Andre Miller, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, etc. for Vitaly Potapenko!) and mismanagement by Rick Pitino.
It took time to build around Pierce and, eventually, they made smart moves that netted them Garnett and Allen, leading to a title. But it wasn't like they were solidly mediocre all that time like the Rockets were. They were, in fact, really bad at times.
Free Agency Rarely Leads to Long-Term Success
Since the rules on free agents have tightened, the truth is that getting a marquee player in free agency to turn your team around is virtually impossible. Miami did it, but they had a star in Dwyane Wade to help orchestrate the other moves. Most every other significant move has happened via trade or, more importantly, through the draft.
In fact, it is difficult to find a team that won a title that did it without a significant piece of their roster coming through the draft. The only two are trades involving the Lakers and the Mavericks, but even those deals, for Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki, were done on draft day. All the championship teams of the last 20 years were built around talent from the draft.
Free agents can help fill in around the star, but the best players are almost always drafted by the team that succeeds with them and, on occasion, traded for them.
How to Suck
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The problem is how do you do it? You can't tell players to lose on purpose -- well, you CAN, but no one does -- and playing young players is no guarantee of losing. For as frustrating as mediocrity has been for the Rockets, it's proven that their coaches know how to get a lot out of a little, which would seem to bode well for the future, if they could ever figure out a way to improve the roster.
And even being god-awful is no guarantee the ping-pong balls of the draft lottery will bounce your way. If they do, there is no certainty a cornerstone franchise player is waiting to be drafted. But picking in the top 10 and certainly in the top five is better than in the middle of the first round, which is where the Rockets have been for the last three years.
Needless to say, the Rockets are in a tough spot, but, in this case, the only way up is to go down first. I don't want them to lose, but I also don't want to see them barely missing the playoffs or being blown out in the first round every year. A spunky team is great until the offseason comes in May and you're left hoping for next season.
Since they can't get Howard, and assuming they can't land a free agent with a name more significant than Omer Asik, it's time for the rookies to take them all the way to Tank Town, USA. It will hurt, but not as much as hearing, "With the 14th pick in the NBA draft, the Houston Rockets select..." for another year.