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Rockets overwhelmed by OKC’s talent. How can Houston get the same?

December 16th, 2010
by John

On Wednesday night the Rockets lost to Oklahoma City in a game you probably could have placed a sure bet on. As much as the Rockets kept the score close through most of the first half, they failed to finish out the 2nd and 3rd quarters and were overwhelmed by the Thunder in the second game of a back-to-back on the road.

It’s not travel fatigue that you can point to being the root cause for the Rockets not to play up to the Thunder’s standard. Houston reverted back to its early season problems of not being able to finish strong the ends of quarters. I won’t get into all the numbers and details since it’s “deja vu all over again,” although OKC’s shooting an astounding 57% from the field is the highest FG% the Rockets have given up this season, and the highest OKC has racked up against an opponent this season.

The Jeff Van Gundy era seems like eons ago. JVG is starting to look like George W. Bush to Rocket fans — the more time passes, the more his favorability rating rises.

Not that I’m a Rick Adelman basher. I did plenty of that in his first year as Houston’s coach when I nicknamed him Rick “Idleman” for failing to make quicker personnel adjustments and inserting young talent into the lineup. He may still have that problem to a degree, but you’ve got to give him credit for giving Chase Budinger a lot of minutes last year, and doing the same with Jordan Hill this season, which has paid big dividends. I would have liked to have seen it with Jermaine Taylor, but he’s gone now. I’d still like to see it with Jared Jeffries, who has length and is a good defender. Isn’t that what they need more of now?

However, I do reserve the right to bring out the “Idleman” moniker if Jeffries continues to ride the pine. More importantly, the problem with the Rockets lies with personnel in a few key positions, to no fault of anyone who plays on the team who runs it. Not that Houston has bad players. I actually think every one of them has something to contribute. But as we have seen with Oklahoma City, it takes a few special players in key positions to make the difference from being an elite team and a mediocre one.

Not that this is any secret. Daryl Morey has been saying this for years. The only player the Rockets have that could be considered elite (at least two years ago) is Yao, and who knows how good he’ll be when he gets back to full speed. Aaron Brooks may be close, but his size brings up defensive liabilities. Luis Scola is great, but his defense is also suspect. Kevin Martin can score with the best of them, but his defense won’t scare anyone. Shane Battier is a good defender, but he doesn’t produce enough offense or wear out his man who is defending him. You get the point.

What really makes me mad is that in order to become an elite team in the NBA, you either have to be in a “special” market (LA, New York, Miami, Chicago) that attracts free agents or players wanting to be traded there, or you have to be terrible for a few years so you can get really high draft picks. Why Houston — the fourth largest city in the country — can’t attract free agents like the aforementioned frustrates me. But at least Philadelphia as the #5 city faces the same dilemma, although it didn’t bother Elton Brand a few years ago.

Oklahoma City (formerly Seattle) took the latter route of just being a bad team for a few years, and now they are on the verge of building a dynasty for a decade or more. Let’s go over who they have been able to draft over the years after putting up terrible W-L records:

2006-07 season: 31-51 record
2007 draft:
Kevin Durant – 2007 – #2 pick
Jeff Green – 2007 – #5 pick acquired in a package deal with Boston for Glen Davis (#35 pick in the same draft) and Ray Allen

2007-08 season: 20-62 record
2008 draft:
Russell Westbrook – 2008 – #4 pick
Serge Ibaka – 2008 – #24 pick

2008-09 season: 23-59
2009 draft:
James Harden – 2009 – #3 pick

You have to give them credit for the trade to get Green, although they did give up a lot in hindsight. Also getting Ibaka at the #24 spot is pretty good drafting. But Durant, Westbrook and Harden were can’t-miss picks at #2, #4, and #3 respectively. All they had to do was suck and get a good draft pick each of those years.

It’s tough that a team like Houston — who has been stuck with late 1st round or 2nd round picks for several years — has to build more through trades and free agency. It’s very difficult to do that and win championships. It makes you wonder if they should take the easy route for a year or two and just be really bad in order to get a game-changer of a draft pick. That’s what they were before they drafted Ralph Sampson, Hakeem, and Yao (notice how I didn’t put Steve Francis on that exclusive list). I know intentionally being bad by tanking the season isn’t going to happen in Houston. The owner and GM want to win too much to do that, and I commend them for that. There is always a chance the Rockets can knock off a top seed in the first round of the playoffs, kind of like the Laker series a couple of years ago, or Golden State with the Mavericks a few years ago.

In the meantime, it would be nice if the NBA expanded the lottery a few more teams, like to 6 to 8 more, since the teams who are on the lower end of the playoff brackets (#5-#8) really don’t have any chance of winning a championship without some draft pick help.

What’s interesting is that the Rockets now have a record (after acquiring Terrence Williams) of acquiring physically gifted players who were worthy of being lottery picks, but who hadn’t worked out with the original team that drafted them. First it was Jordan Hill from the Knicks (a #8 pick in the 2009 draft), now it’s Williams from New Jersey (#11 pick in 2009). Not a bad strategy to take if you’ve got the culture and coaching to course correct with players who have gone awry early in their careers. But it’s not like Houston’s a bastion for making guys shake off bad karma they gathered at previous teams (e.g., McGrady).

I’m all for trying to get players who have relatively ‘clean’ reparations who are overachievers given their physical limitations like Brooks, Battier, Scola and Kyle Lowry, just to name a few. But it has become clear that the Rockets believe that in order to get to the next level, they have to take a few risks trading for guys who have all the physical gifts but may be a problem with the coaching staff or in the locker room. We saw how they pulled the plug on Von Wafer pretty quick after he showed disrespect to Adelman.

Given these deals, I wonder now if Houston is giving up on the idea of acquiring “basketball IQ” types like Battier (and giving up Rudy Gay)? Perhaps in order to keep up with the Thunder and all the other tough teams in the West, you need to have athletic thoroughbreds. If they are, it won’t hurt if the Rockets do suck this year, get a very high pick, and hope that player turns into an elite player like so many teams seem to have these days (Minnesota, Clippers).

Is it worth it to go ahead and build for the future by playing younger guys now, finishing with a poor record, and load up on more lottery picks for a couple of years in order to build a dynasty for the next 10 years? If it is, I wouldn’t mind it so much. I like to see young players develop and improve, as long as it pays off in the long run and the team becomes better equipped to head off the Oklahoma City locomotive that’s barreling downy the tracks for many years to come.

The other question that comes to mind is how much does coaching really matter when so much of your success is predicated on getting really good players? I wonder just how good of a coach OKC’s Scott Brooks really is? Did he hit the lottery himself by being promoted to head coach right when their high draft picks were destined to gel anyway?

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