HOUSTON – Tracy McGrady told the media, his teammates and anyone else who would listen before the first round that if the Houston Rockets lost "it would be on me." McGrady has taken a lot of heat over the years for never having won a playoff series, but this was the first time his team would actually be favored. T-Mac decided to put all the pressure on himself.
So after watching his Rockets lose Game 7 to the Utah Jazz on Saturday, a loss that extended McGrady's winless playoff series streak to six, I couldn't help but feel bad for him. He may or may not have done the right thing in welcoming the blame, but in the end, he didn't deserve it. The simple fact of the matter is that Houston just isn't a very good team, and McGrady needs more help.
Don't get me wrong: The Rockets are OK. They did win 52 games this season, but relatively speaking, they're not among the NBA's elite. They are a slow, plodding team in a league that is going more and more up-tempo.
Houston relied on solid defense, attention to detail and the scoring of Yao Ming and McGrady to win a lot of games in a watered-down league. But now that the playoffs are here, the best teams are on display and everyone's weaknesses are exposed. And for the Rockets, their biggest weakness – a lack of playmaking perimeter players – was all too apparent.
The Jazz ran circles around Houston with their two young studs – Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer – doing whatever they wanted to do. Yao stood no chance in slowing down Boozer, who was way too quick for him, and Williams had his way with Rafer Alston, who, despite his "Skip to My Lou"/And1 pedigree, is hardly a track star. In the end, as we have seen so often in the playoffs this year, speed won out, and the Rockets don't have much of it.
If McGrady and Houston are going to reach the next level, they'll need a major talent infusion. Jeff Van Gundy told me a couple of years ago that with two stars like Yao and T-Mac – both very docile men – "you need a team of pit bulls around them." Look at the roster and you won't find many.
Shane Battier might be the only guy you could describe as a pit bull. He plays great defense, takes charges and hits open shots. But nobody on the Rockets scares you. No one puts fear in the defense, as in, "Man, we've got to stop that guy." They don't have a single player who can break down the defense and create a shot. And as we're seeing with teams like Phoenix, Chicago and Golden State, it's critical to have multiple players who can attack defenses and score the ball.
The NBA has changed quite a bit in the past five years or so, and big, stodgy teams aren't effective anymore. The Spurs have been great with Tim Duncan in the post, but only because they added Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to the mix several years back. With today's rules – the zone defense and hand checking, in particular – it's critical to have slashing perimeter players.
Zones make it easy to bottle up big men, so you have to be able to rely on perimeter penetration to generate offense. And since you can't hand check anymore, great guards can get to the rim. Look at some of the players who are dominating the league these days – Baron Davis, Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade, Ben Gordon, etc. Houston needs one of those guys.
McGrady is an interesting player. He's a great athlete who doesn't really want to run. He's more of a half-court guy, capable of rising up and shooting jumpers, or driving around his defender for dunks. He can take over games with his skills and win them by himself. But Houston relies so heavily on him that he has to do everything – score, rebound and pass – every game. Against the good teams, it's not enough.
If the Rockets are going to take the next step, they have to find players who can help McGrady. An attacking point guard who can break a defense down. A forward who can run the floor for easy hoops. Anyone who can take pressure off the guy.
In the end, this season was a failure for the Rockets. The franchise needed to win one playoff series – something it hasn't done in the three seasons Yao and T-Mac have been together. The Rockets needed to justify their All-Star combo. They needed some upward mobility and some momentum to go forward.
But now the questions will begin. Will Jeff Van Gundy, who doesn't have a contract for next year, return as head coach? Will Daryl Morey, who will take over for retiring general manager Carroll Dawson, want to bring in someone new as his own guy? And how much personnel turnover will there be?
The only thing that's for sure is that if McGrady is a Rocket, his only hope of advancing past the first round is if he gets some help. Because he can't do it all by himself.