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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2011-12 Season Previews: Houston Rockets

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.

Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.

This time? It's the Houston Rockets.

Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful

This will be tough.

Providing Christmas cheer to a team that was a whisker away from fielding both Nene and Pau Gasol in their frontcourt is hard to handle. The Rockets are a result of a terrifying mixture of hubris and terrible NBA personnel guidance in the form of David Stern and Stu Jackson, with the sickest irony coming in the fact that the Rockets have long been built by people who shared none of those qualities, be they former GM Carroll Dawson, or current chief Daryl Morey. And now we're supposed to cheer their fans up?

To quote a Dan Devine bit you're about to read: "Ummm …"

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Pretty disheartening for a team that currently stands a good $11 million under the salary cap and could conceivable swing a trade for a superstar without having to give up much more than Goran Dragic and one of their two first round draft picks. This is somewhat strange for a crew that might be about to field one of the game's more underrated coaches in Kevin McHale. Odd for a crew that will run one of the game's great young backcourts in Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry. Weird for a team that boasts a near All-Star up front in Luis Scola.

Maybe the deal wasn't that hot for Houston? Maybe trading Martin's hefty points and unending efficiency and Scola for a guaranteed step-up in Gasol and Nene shouldn't have been The Move. Sure, Courtney Lee and Lowry would seem solid to cut around Gasol and the myriad gifts of those two big men would appear to mesh expertly especially under McHale's expert tutelage.

But maybe there's something else out there? Maybe this isn't over?

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Perhaps the Rockets could find another bidder who knows what they're doing, like the Hornets as they took on Martin and Scola, and free up more room for the summer of 2012. Jordan Hill is looking somewhat solid so far in the exhibition (or, as Kevin Garnett called it on Sunday, "simulation") season, but there's no real fear from Rockets fans if Morey declines to offer qualifying offers to Hill, Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, and Terrence Williams next summer. And moves like this don't have to include a payoff that results in a boffo free agent signing -- Morey could simply cash in with a series of trades, especially with teams (either at the trade deadline, or next summer) attempting to act as a destination for Dwight Howard and Deron Williams.

On the court isn't another matter. Rockets fans shouldn't get over this sting, and they should remain angry, but doesn't mean the product for lo these 66 games won't be entertaining and perhaps playoff-bound. Rockets fans know what's up, and League Pass junkies are aware of just how needlessly unheralded Lowry, Scola, McHale, and to a lesser extent Martin are. The locked-out Chris Paul trade is dead and gone, but that doesn't mean Houston's options have eroded. The focus is just going to have to shift to an as-yet unidentified target.

Stay cheerful in that warmth, Houston. You're also allowed to be wracked with anger, as well.

Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Houston Rockets

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Larry Drew approves. (AP)

I'm so excited for you!

Ummm ...

/re-reads two weeks of stories about Houston facilitating a trade of Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers, which would reportedly have made Pau Gasol the Rockets' new starting center, except that the deal was vetoed by Commissioner David Stern, except the commissioner says the proposed three-way trade with the New Orleans Hornets was never considered to be completed, except sources call Stern's statement "an outright lie"

Ummm ...

/re-reads stories about the Rockets being among of the front-runners to sign Nene to play alongside Gasol, which would have given Houston perhaps the best one-two frontcourt punch in the Western Conference, except that when the CP3 deal died, so did Pau-to-Houston, which logically made the Rockets way less appetizing, especially when the Denver Nuggets want to give you $67 million to stay home, so Nene re-signed in Denver

Ummm ...

/re-reads the story about Daryl Morey dispatching Matt Bullard to tell traded-except-not-really Rockets Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic about his experience getting traded-except-not-really, in which Bullard said, "Kevin, I think, is still hurting. He's going to be a pro and play as hard as he can, but it will take some time to get over it," which makes it clear that Kevin Martin is pretty not over it right now

Ummm ...

/looks at Houston's roster, which no longer features Chuck Hayes, which is a really big deal because Chuck Hayes is better than most people think and was beloved in Houston, and then at Rick Adelman coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves, and then at Kevin McHale coaching the Houston Rockets, and then at last year's standings

Houston finished three games out of the eighth seed last year. New Orleans and the Portland Trail Blazers should be worse without Chris Paul and Brandon Roy, respectively. And while the Los Angeles Clippers will be better (duh), the Rockets might be better than the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns, which means that this very likable collection of interesting and hard-working pieces could again compete for a bottom-of-the-West playoff berth. That would be pretty exciting after two years of missing the postseason, right?

(Whew.)

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Jeff Van Gundy is not excited. (AP)

I'm so worried for you!

While signing free agent center Samuel Dalembert (an avenue Morey is reportedly pursuing) would certainly help, the hole that Hayes leaves in the middle of the Rockets defense is massive. In the absence of Dalembert, relying on Jordan Hill, Hasheem Thabeet and Patrick Patterson to combine into a playoff-caliber starting center seems like a dangerous game. Beyond that, though, lies a more pressing issue:

If fighting to stay just above water and grab a bottom-of-the conference playoff spot is the best that this roster can reasonably hope for -- and barring Morey being able to somehow pull in a legitimate star-level option after his first two attempts failed, I think it is -- then should the Rockets just stop swimming and allow themselves to sink? Rahat Huq of Rockets blog Red94 thinks so:

Maybe Daryl Morey has some Plan B that I don't know about. I wouldn't put it past him. If that's the case, we'll see what unfolds. But if there's nothing out there, no other move to go all in, this team absolutely must trade Kevin Martin and Luis Scola and race to the bottom.

The Houston Rockets must tank. Going forward, every single game that Kevin Martin and Luis Scola help win, hurts this franchise. It ruins their draft position, in the best draft in years, and with absolutely no cause. A few extra wins here and there, on the strength of guys who won't even be around when the team is again ready to compete, can be the difference between multiple draft slots.

The worry -- in addition to having to justify rooting for a team that's tanking, which is a cruddy night-in-night-out proposition that works intellectually but invariably leaves your heart feeling at least a little cold -- is that, in the aftermath of Morey's Plan A getting kiboshed, other general managers will know that Huq's right, that Morey knows Huq's right, and that the only way for Houston to reasonably move forward is to get out from what's owed to Martin (two years, $25 million) and Scola (four years, $39.3 million). And if Morey's opposite numbers know he's got to part with his depreciating assets, it's unlikely they'll be bowling him over with equal-value offers.

The NBA squashing the version of the Paul trade that involved Houston seems to have cemented the Rockets' status as a middle-of-the-pack team, which is just about the worst thing you can be in this league, and -- unless Chase Budinger can become Larry Bird or something -- put Morey in the unenviable spot of having to deal from a position of weakness. That's always worrisome.

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Lawrence Frank, supplicant. (Getty Images)

I have no idea what to make of you!

You can't really be a third-string NBA shooting guard, can you, Terrence Williams? You're too good for that. Like, way too good for that. Aren't you?

You're the do-everything sort who can line up at the one, the two or the three; who can control a game by scoring or distributing; who can capably defend a wide range of players when engaged; who was, honest to Shammgod, worth the 11th pick in the NBA Draft. Aren't you?

Or are you the guy who earns himself suspensions and D-League demotions, who goes from being a lottery pick and integral rebuilding piece to a reclamation project in a cap-clearing deal, who can't get off the bench for a not-quite-playoff team and has contributed negative Win Shares in his career to date?

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Williams might be, pound-for-pound, the most talented player on the Rockets' roster, but you get the sense that he'll never start playing like it unless he stops thinking like it. If he can do that, the still-just-24-year-old former Louisville standout could prove to be the building block that two organizations have believed him to be. If he can't, well, I guess he'll have answered my question.

Eric Freeman's Culture Club

The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.

HOUSTON ROCKETS: The Buzzcocks, "Why Can't I Touch It?"

Daryl Morey cultivates flexibility for the sake of making a big splash. His theory is that, as long as he can collect assets, a quality deal will eventually come along for a superstar who can bring the team back to legitimate championship contention. Unfortunately for Morey and everyone Rockets fan, that deal hasn't yet come along, leaving the franchise with just enough good players to get a late-lottery pick sure to yield another decent player who can help them finish ninth in the conference instead of 10th or 11th. Every time Morey thinks he has the potential to get a game-changer (like Pau Gasol in the three-team CP3/Lakers trade or Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010) something happens to foil his plans. The result is that, even as the team has a very clear plan, they sit in NBA no man's land with the sort of teams that hover between rebuilding and contention.

It's enough to inspire questions about Morey's plan — what good is a coherent philosophy if it doesn't produce results over the long term? To the pessimist, the Rockets' situation is similar to that expressed in the classic Buzzcocks track "Why Can't I Touch It?" Over close to seven minutes, singer Pete Shelley wails a few lines ad nauseam, all of which concern a prize (okay, it's pretty clearly a woman) always close but forever out of reach. Of course, Shelley sings the same lines so many times that his sympathetic longing eventually begins to annoy. At some point, he needs to stop whining and just take what he wants.

Eventually, Morey might find himself in the same position. He clearly has a good sense of what he wants for the Rockets in the long run. Sometimes, though, NBA general managers luck into their success. Maybe the Rockets would be better served if Morey deviated from his carefully laid plans and tried some more substantive rebuilding. Waiting around for a superstar doesn't seem to be working.

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