More than anyone, Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander believed Jeff Van Gundy was holding back his basketball team. Alexander berated his ex-coach for playing too deliberately on offense and costing him customers. Why, the owner lamented, can’t we play like the Phoenix Suns?
As it turns out, Van Gundy wasn’t holding the Rockets back.
He was holding them together.
After Alexander dropped Van Gundy for Rick Adelman, new general manager Daryl Morey had sold people on the Rockets as a serious challenger for the Western Conference championship. He traded for Argentine forward Luis Scola, signed Steve Francis and activated Bonzi Wells. There was a growing belief that he had constructed a roster to benefit Adelman’s accomplished offensive mind.
Yes, the Rockets insisted, the handcuffs were gone. Now, the Rockets could let loose.
And how’s that going?
They discovered the truth about this team’s limitations. From Tracy McGrady’s mental and physical fragility to an absence of athleticism, they were a flawed power. They’re devoid of an identity, stuck between what they were with Van Gundy and what they’ll never be with Adelman.
For this, the Rockets (15-17, 10th in Western Conference) deserve to be declared the season’s biggest disappointment. There are worse teams in Yahoo! Sports top five, but none had Houston’s expectations. They can use McGrady’s knee injury as a excuse, but they’ve played better without him this past week. Bad enough that they’re worse defensively, but they’ve also struggled on the offensive end. Yao Ming is down to 21.4 points a game, from 25 a season ago. He’s under 50 percent shooting for the first time in his career, too.
Without great defensive players, Van Gundy managed to make the Rockets one of the league’s best defensive teams. With Yao out for 34 games with a broken leg, with McGrady in and out of the lineup with his usual ailments, with the monumentally limited Chuck Hayes starting at power forward, with a suspect bench, the Rockets still won 52 games in the Western Conference.
After initially believing that he wanted to resign out of frustration with Alexander at the end of last season, Van Gundy made the mistake of waiting too long to change his mind. Morey was considered a supporter, but those in the owner’s ear, including out-going GM Carroll Dawson, sources said, worked to validate the owner’s belief that the roster’s talent was far better than it is. Finally, Alexander believed, the Rockets could advance out of the first round of the playoffs.
Now, they’ll fight to make them.
For Van Gundy, Houston’s struggles have only made his candidacy on the free-agent market that much more appealing. The best guess on his next job? Philadelphia. Yet, Van Gundy can be choosy.
As it turns out, he wasn’t holding the Rockets back. Van Gundy was holding them together.
2. CHICAGO (12-18, 11th in Eastern Conference)
For now, the Bulls are benefiting from the departure of Scott Skiles’ hard-driving disposition. Is it the natural short-term surge for a team that had stopped competing for its blustery coach, or does interim choice, Jim Boylan, have staying power beyond this season?
Yes, the Bulls struggled to compartmentalize the Kobe Bryant trade talks and some of their own failed bids for contract extensions. Nevertheless, this is still largely a winning, young core. Sure, general manager John Paxson wishes he could have do-overs on choosing Ben Wallace over Tyson Chandler, and Tyrus Thomas over LaMarcus Aldridge, but he’s still had far more makes than misses.
At season’s end, here’s a Chicago coaching scenario that could deliver drama: With Celtics coach Doc Rivers still un-signed for the long term in Boston, do the Bulls make a bid to bring home a loyal son of Chicago to transform their talent toward contention? If the Celtics win a championship, could Rivers be more inclined to make a move of the heart?
3. MILWAUKEE (12-19, 12th in Eastern Conference)
Among league executives, there’s a belief that the Bucks are close to declaring everyone available, except for Yi Jianlian and Andrew Bogut. Larry Harris is fighting for his job as general manager. Owner Herb Kohl mandated playoff contention in the offseason, and the Bucks are spiraling. In the horrific 45-point loss to the Pistons, one league executive monitoring the game said of the Bucks, “After five minutes, that team just quit.”
For now, Bucks officials have told others in the league that communication between Kohl and Harris has become scarce. They even suggest that Kohl believes his GM oversold him on the talents of Yi, although most fair-minded executives and coaches have been impressed with the Chinese rookie’s potential. Larry Krystkowiak was a Kohl favorite and could survive an initial management purge, but nothing about him suggests long-term solution.
If Harris goes, the belief is that Kohl would turn to ex-Sonics GM, Rick Sund, who started his player personnel career in Milwaukee. A source familiar with Kohl’s thinking believes that Doug Collins is on his radar for the top basketball executive’s job, but doubts the owner would pay what’s necessary to lure him out of television.
4. MIAMI (8-24, 15th in Eastern Conference)
Here’s the question that must keep Pat Riley awake at nights: With this decayed roster and his eventual departure as coach, just what does he use to sell Dwyane Wade on re-signing with the Heat for the long run?
As Wade has discovered on the worst team in the Eastern Conference, his greatness doesn’t even make this team competitive. In a desperate quick-fix attempt, Riley surrounded Wade with broken-down players and bad actors. The result finds the Heat with the worst record in the Eastern Conference, unfathomably even trailing the New York Knicks.
The Heat are bad now and Shaquille O’Neal’s cap-clogging contract doesn’t expire until 2010, when Wade can opt-out into free agency. He is the biggest sports star in South Florida, but he has to wonder how long and how hard Riley will go as the Heat’s emperor. After all, he has rebuilt Miami twice now, won his elusive post-Lakers title, and it’s difficult to believe he’ll summon that winner within to stay with the grind.
5. NEW YORK (8-22, 14th in Eastern Conference)
After Isiah Thomas declared the Knicks on the way to a championship before one more Madison Square Garden embarrassment on Wednesday night, a rival general manager wondered: “Are they joining the D-League?”
If only another minor-league basketball operation would have the Knicks president and coach after he destroyed the old Continental Basketball Association. No one should be surprised that the Knicks are terrible again, but perhaps just how little time it took a complete roster to give up this season. Thomas still holds onto his job, because the owner, Jim Dolan, is the last believer in New York.
Thomas promises that he isn’t leaving until he’s delivered that championship. Of course, the fear in New York is that Dolan will hold him to his word. Everyone keeps saying that it can’t go on like this, but it does and it probably will. As much as Thomas has feigned befuddlement over his players’ effort, those inside and outside the locker room at MSG have privately doubted his work habits as coach this season. To think that he’s even preparing for opponents, even putting in the hours, is debatable.