Solving Problems: Do Or Die For Houston?
The Houston Rockets have spent the bulk of the last three seasons waiting for Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady to get healthy, collecting assets in the mean time. Now that McGrady (trade) and Yao (retired) are no longer in the cards, the Rockets are left with little more than a collection of assets. Unfortunately, those assets have yet to pan out as hoped, and the Rockets are left holding the pieces they hoped to move in favor of putting a contender around their previous dynamic duo.
As the NBA lockout nears and end (hopefully), the Rockets will have to find a way to parley some of their assets into a star player . . .namely, a starting center.
The Rockets have plenty of depth at every position besides the five, with three point guards (Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, Jonny Flynn), three shooting guards (Kevin Martin, Courtney Lee, Terrence Williams), three small forwards (Chase Budinger, Chandler Parsons, Marqus Blakely) and a whole cast of power forwards (Luis Scola, Patrick Patterson, Marcus Cousin, Chuck Hayes, Jordan Hill, Marcus Morris, Donatas Motiejunas).
The only center on the roster, however, is Hasheem Thabeet, and while Thabeet has been putting in a lot of work this offseason he is hardly ready to be the starting center on a playoff team. It would be nice if he could even earn garbage time minutes, something he was unable to do last season.
So this is decision time for the Houston Rockets. Normally, when a team loses a major superstar to retirement it’s time to completely rebuild. Unfortunately, since the Rockets haven’t really had the services of Yao Ming for quite some time, the rebuilding process has already sort of started. Now the team has to decide whether to go ahead and make it official, or try to find the starting center they need and make a playoff push. Their roster is now so overloaded with young, unproved talent that it makes the complete rebuild an easier vision to see.
The Playoff Scenario
For the sake of argument, let’s start with the steps that would get Houston back into the playoffs and possibly into contention. That would absolutely have to start with acquiring a starting center. Marc Gasol isn’t sold on returning to Memphis, and he is the top name on Houston’s wish list for free agency. Of course, Gasol is a restricted free agent, so the Rockets would have to make him an offer the Grizzlies were unwilling to match, or else work a sign-and-trade with Memphis.
Of course, if Memphis is going to lose Gasol they’ll be looking for another big man in any trade, and the Rockets are already short in that area. The Rockets would be better off just bidding high, as they have roughly $20 million in cap space if the new salary cap is set anywhere close to last year’s number, and the Grizzlies are unlikely to spend the money to keep Gasol in town if the price is too high.
The second name on Houston’s list is Tyson Chandler, who just won a championship with the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks have already had some discussion with Chandler about bringing him back, and it’s extremely likely he stays in Dallas to help them defend their title.
There are some other names out there, like the LA Clippers’ Chris Kaman, who could be had in trade, and Sacramento Kings free agent Samuel Dalembert, but the Rockets’ clearest path back to the playoffs depends upon them getting one of their top two options.
Additionally, if the Rockets are able to land Gasol or Chandler they will need one more piece to contend. The Shane Battier trade robbed Houston of their best defender and starting small forward, and while Chase Budinger quickly grew into the starting role the Rockets will need another experienced small forward to contend. The top choice might be to bring back Battier, who is now a free agent, but a secondary option might be Tayshaun Prince. One way or the other, if the Rockets get their big man they will need to add a wing player, as well.
The Rebuild Option
If the Rockets fail to land the center they need, as they have failed so often in chasing key free agents, it will be time to give in to the rebuilding notion. The Yao Ming/Tracy McGrady era never came to fruition, and with Rick Adelman gone and GM Daryl Morey likely to be on the hot seat, the Rockets appear to be on the brink of disaster . . .or at least sustained mediocrity.
A quick look around the Western Conference reveals that Houston’s path back to the playoffs is not an easy one without a dominant force in the paint. The Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers are locks to return to the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets were surprisingly good after the Carmelo Anthony trade and have the cap space to add a couple of significant pieces, and it would seem that only a major injury can keep the LA Clippers from getting into the playoff picture this season. The Memphis Grizzlies are also very likely to return to the playoffs, though Marc Gasol’s future will likely have a strong part to play in that situation. There’s nine teams that are better than the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference.
No one likes to hear the word “rebuilding,” least of all fans of a team that has been more or less rebuilding since Hakeem Olajuwon retired. But if the Rockets are forced to embrace the rebuilding concept this season it would make sense to trade Luis Scola to a team that’s ready to contend immediately and reap the benefits of the draft picks and young players they could get in return. Kevin McHale would have the chance to make the team over in his image, and he would have the opportunity to give plenty of playing time to guys like Thabeet, Patterson, Motiejunas, Hill, and Morris, who need lots of minutes to determine what kind of players they might be for the Rockets long-term.
Daryl Morey On The Clock
There’s no doubt that Daryl Morey is one of the NBA’s best and brightest minds, nor is there a question that his use of stats has transformed the way teams evaluate talent. That said, his approach to free agency and the way he treats his team’s own restricted free agents has made him an enemy of some of the league’s power players on the agents’ side of the equation. On the plus side, it means he has saved Rockets owner Les Alexander some money when dealing with restricted free agents. On the minus side, it means a number of agents don’t want their players to land in Houston because of the way their other clients have been treated in the past.
One way or the other, Morey’s on the clock. He has been charged with rebuilding the Rockets ever since Carroll Dawson retired as GM, and so far, aside from the no-brainer of drafting Yao Ming, not much has gone right for Morey. He can’t be blamed for injuries, obviously, and that’s the only reason he still has a job now. After all, if Yao Ming was still healthy we’d be telling a very different story today, perhaps a championship story.
But Yao Ming is gone, and with him any hope of contending without a major change. Morey has done a nice job of collecting what he calls “assets,” but assets are only valuable if someone will give up something of value to acquire them. To date, that hasn’t been the case.
It may very well be that it’s Marc Gasol or bust for the Rockets, with Morey’s job in the balance.