Burning Out Their Fuse

And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no, no, no, I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone

Elton John – Rocket Man

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It’s Gonna be a Long, Long Time

I didn’t include the Rockets in my article about the most likely contenders for the title

I didn’t include the Rockets in my article about dark horses contenders to win, either.

Their first round match-up was against an imploding Dallas squad; the Rockets dominated the sickly Mavericks without much resistance.  The Rockets looked like real championship contenders in the first round of these NBA Playoffs; however, that has more to do with Maverick problems than with Rocket solutions.

I made a bet with a friend, a Rocket fan, that the Rockets wouldn’t hit 50 wins this season.  Though under the influence at the time, sobriety did not change my mind – even though I stopped yelling, ‘You don’t know shit about basketball, bro!  You don’t know!’ the sentiment remained.  Now I owe this person 50 dollars, which I fully intend to pay… but not before I explain all of my excuses concerning my ill-fated prediction.  I’m going double or nothing: the Rockets won’t move past the second round.

Off Off-Season

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Rockets’ Head Gnome Daryl Morey

Very few analysts predicted that the Rockets would respond to their off-season changes, most of which were losses rather than additions, by pulling together a 56 win season.  The Rockets were radically reconfigured this off-season, and the remodeling didn’t appear to be in Houston’s favor.  First, they traded Jeremy Lin in a pre-emptive salary dump for trash.  The team lost half of the two man team that runs the Rockets point; in the wake of pg Patrick Beverly’s injury, one can’t help but imagine how much smoother the team would be if Jeremy Lin was starting for the Rockets this off-season rather than Jason Terry.

The Lin trade is only one part of a series of ‘salary dump’ moves by the Rockets to free up roster space for a third super-star.  The general manager of the Houston Rockets is a strange, half gnome, half human creature called Daryl Morey.  Like most gnomes, he is fanatically consumed by a greed that drives him to pathologically horde valuable possessions.  Instead of trying to trick unwitting travelers with limericks, Morey chose to pursue a career in basketball management; so, instead of collecting gold or magical trinkets, Morey collects NBA superstars in groups of 3.  Legends say that if Morey finds another superstar to join the Rockets, thus completing a ‘Big 3,’ the Rockets will be granted 3 wishes.  Morey wants to wish for a championship.

Assembling a roster that features a ‘Big 3’ guarantees title contention.  I plan on going into further depth on the ‘Big 3’ theory in a future blog, but, for now, you can check out this HoopSkills presentation titled Stopping the Big 3 in Basketball.  A Big 3 is essentially a trio of super-star players on a single NBA roster.  Some of the more prominent Big 3s that have been assembled are:

  • The 1980s Boston Celtics Big 3 consisting of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish
  • The 1998-2002 Milwaukee Bucks Big 3 consisting of Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen, and Sam Cassell
  • The Current San Antonio Spurs Big 3 consisting of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili, and Tony Parker
  • The 2007-2012 Boston Celtics Big 3 consisting of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen
  • The Current Cleveland Cavaliers Big 3 consisting of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love

Last offseason, by jettisoning players with higher contracts, the Houston Rockets freed up enough money to sign another super-star to complement Dwight Howard and James Harden.  This extra spending money could have been helpful if the Rockets had a realistic shot at any of the players they targeted: most notably Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol, Chris Bosh, and Kyle Lowry.  Management’s pursuits and consequent failures of each player highlighted unique aspects of the Rocket’s disfunction, starting with the interwoven stories of Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony.

Unlucky #7

ket to formulaDuring the pursuit of Carmelo, the Rockets created the graphic on the right to seduce Carmelo into playing in H-Town.   It was only one of the many different advertisements and displays constructed by the Rockets to persuade Carmelo Anthony to sign with the Rockets during his free-agency visit to the team. The promotion might be creepy, presumptuous, and reeking desperation, but at least the Rocket’s management had well-meaning intentions.

Except that they didn’t.  Remember that Jeremy Lin guy?  The one who would be super useful to the Rockets right now?  He was #7 on the Rockets before the Rockets advertised a Carmelo donned in a uniform of the same number.  SB Nation posted an article about the incident the day after the campaign launched:

The Rockets aren’t even trying to hide the fact that Jeremy Lin is as good as gone if they can sign Anthony. They put Anthony in his #7 jersey, the number taken up by Lin last season. It is a pretty simple reality that if the Rockets can sign Anthony they have to trade Lin, but such a public admission of this is unusual. Let’s hope that Lin isn’t offended if the team strikes out.

The following excerpt comes from a Culture Map Houston article titled Jeremy Lin Trade Failure Still Haunts Rockets: Dumb Disrespect Fuels Daryl Morey’s Trade Deadline Bungling.

In reality, Morey backed the Rockets into a corner when he childishly completely disrespected Lin by putting his No. 7 jersey on Carmelo Anthony in that ridiculously inept recruiting campaign. Once the Rockets general manager did that, there was no way he could bring Jeremy Lin back.

And every team in the league knew it. Morey forced himself into making a bad trade — and Houston’s still paying for it. Even if Leslie Alexander is not.

The Rockets did not just lose Lin either. The organization’s clearly lost credibility with big-time players.

Dragic shows no interest in a Rockets return after Chris Bosh shows no real interest in the Rockets (outside of using them as pre-blood clot leverage with Miami) after Kyle Lowry shows absolutely no interest in a Rockets reunion. Good players are running from an organization that shown’s little respect for anyone not named Harden or Howard on its own roster. Who’s surprised by that?

When you treat players like nothing but disposable numbers, they leap to find their numbers elsewhere.

lin tweetsIn response to the disrespect, Jeremy Lin chose to be professional in voicing his dissatisfaction, tweeting the responses you see to your right. Still, the Rockets had alienated Lin in an irreparable manner.  The Rockets were forced into trading Lin to the Lakers for nothing: in fact, they had to staple a first round draft pick to Lin just to get the understandably disgruntled guard off their hands.  To compensate for the loss, Morey’s mid-season roster solution was to trade for 37 year-old Knicks reject Palo Prigioni, who is just awful at the game of basketball.  He wasn’t that good even before he became fossilized and put in a museum.

Part 2: Omer Asik

During the off-season, Omer Asik was traded by the Rockets to the New Orleans Pelicans.  With the introduction of Dwight Howard, Omer’s time on the floor was dramatically cut and his ego was dramatically deflated.  Both Asik and Howard play at the center position, both a defense oriented 7-footers with minimal shooting range and offensive utility.  Both players couldn’t be on the floor simultaneously due to their redundant skill sets and scoring limitations.

Though Omer had been signed to start for the Rockets at center, Howard is, without question, the more talented player.  Don’t get me wrong, trading for a super-star upgrade is kosher.  Business is business.  This particular item of business just took an entire season to wrap up.  Luckily, the New Orleans Pelicans swooped in to take Omer off the Rocket’s hands at the price of said teams first round draft pick and $1.5 million in spending money.  The money was to provide extra spending money in Morey’s never-ending pursuit of a third Almighty Baller: more specifically, Chris Bosh.

Bosh Spice

nopeThe Harden/Bosh/Howard combination isn’t one of Daryl’s magical analytics brainchildren; anyone could predict that lineup would be spectacular.  If James Harden, Chris Bosh, and Dwight Howard had ended up on the same team together, the rest of league would have most likely just given up for the season.  That Big 3 would have been the Biggest Big 3.

Daryl starts working the phone lines, trying to work his gnome magic on Chris Bosh.  With Lebron back in Cleveland and Wade beginning his descent over-the-hill, the Miami Heat had no chance this season to make the type of splash in the Playoffs that they did the last few years.  Chris Bosh’s contract expired after the 2014-2015 season, and the Rockets were more than happy to save him a cozy seat next to Dwight and Harden.

At the same time that Bosh hit unrestricted free-agenthood and was free of any and all contractual obligations, the Rockets starting small forward, Chandler Parsons, hit restricted free-agency.  While Bosh was free to take his time  choosing between his many suitors, Parsons was tethered to the Rockets: any team could make an offer on Parsons, but the Rockets would be allowed to match the offer and retain him on their roster regardless of the salary cap implications.  For the Rockets to keep both players, Bosh had to be signed first: otherwise, Parson’s contract would take up too much cap space for the Rockets to sign a player with market value as high as Chris Bosh’s.  When Summer arrived in Houston, bringing with it the off-season, the air was warm and the Sun was shining;

but then the unthinkable happened.

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The Shark arrived.

Mark Cuban tasted blood in the water.

There was a feeding frenzy, and Chandler Parsons was the main course.

Mark Cuban offered Chandler Parsons a 3 year, $46,000,000 contract early in the off-season – long before the time Bosh planned to announce his decision.  If the Rockets chose to retain Parsons, they would not have enough money left to offer to Chris Bosh (or any other NBA star); If the Rockets chose to let him walk, they would lose their young 3rd best player for the chance to sign an established star without any guarantee that Bosh would join their team.

The Rockets had 3 days to match the hefty $15,361,500 contract that the Mavericks propositioned, or Parsons would be gone.

3 days later, Parsons was a Dallas Maverick.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Rockets were the beneficiary of another team’s cost-cutting practices: James Harden could have been resigned by the Thunder even with a hefty raise, but the front office decided to take the money.  If the Thunder had decided to splurge on Harden, they would have 3 of the world’s 5 most talented players (by most people’s estimation.)  When the Rockets were given a similar choice in regards to Chandler Parsons, they opted to let him go, despite being a young player with tremendous upside and the potential to develop into the third part of the Rockets’ much desired star trio.

Even if Chandler Parsons isn’t able develop into a player of Harden’s caliber, he was a vital part of the Rockets offense last season.  With the loss of Parsons, the Rockets lost the only other player on the roster capable of consistently creating offense off the dribble.  The Rockets have been able to reconfigure their team with Harden as the sole offensive creator, but when that offense fails, which it often does against championship caliber defenses, the Rockets have no second option available.  Howard can post up for offense, but he’s terrible at it:

dwightplays

This chart is lifted from a CBS Sports article titled Why the Rockets Should Stop Posting Up Dwight Howard.  The situation is rather self-explanatory, particularly given the title of the piece.

The Rockets replaced Parsons with Trevor Ariza, who has been a good starting small forward, but is simply not capable of creating offense in the way that Parsons does.  Ariza is a quintessential “3 and D” player, almost entirely dependent on catch-and-shoot situations to contribute offensively.  Corey Brewer fulfills the same role as Ariza does coming off the Rocket’s bench, but the offensive equivalent of Parsons is not to be found.

Get Lowry

Speaking of secondary options off the dribble, Kyle Lowry is fills that role quite nicely.  Due to recent Raptors’ struggles, it’s easy to forget how great Lowry is when Lowry can be Lowry; and Lowry is being his best Lowry when Lowry can embrace his many strengths and score as an afterthought.  Lowry.

Lowry was a member of the 2011-2012 Rockets before his current stint on the Raptors, and despite being underutilized in Kevin McHale’s first season as the Rockets’ Head Coach, could fill the vacant third option role in theory.  Outside of theory, the Rocket’s had their shot with Lowry.

lowry mchaleAs the 2011-2012 season wore on, it became increasingly clear that a starting 5 featuring Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic was a terrible idea.  Talent wise, both point guards were poised to have breakout seasons, and within a year of being separated, each did.  Both players saw the other as a redundancy, and were dead-set on seizing the solitary spotlight that their position afforded them; during an interview that season, Lowry was very clear about his opinion on the subject: “We’re both capable starters. We both want it. It’s going to have to be a situation where they make a decision on one of us.”

Meanwhile, Coach McHale was fumbling through his first season as Head Coach, and somehow managed to remain blissfully unaware of the growing tension.  After months of inaction, Lowry determined that McHale was not capable of crafting the Rockets team that Lowry wanted.  He concluded that interview with an ultimatum: “If things aren’t addressed coaching-wise, I guess I have to be moved.”

If this sounds suspiciously like the Asik/Howard conflict I described earlier, it’s because it’s suspiciously like the Asik/Howard conflict I described earlier.

Running Out of Gasol

NBA player Pau Gasol

The Rockets’ repeated failures in the pursuit of a third star are indicative of an underlying organizational dysfunction that hangs over the team.  The prevailing sentiment in Houston is that each change to the roster is part of a larger scheme that Morey has been orchestrating since his arrival.  In reality, many of the personnel shake-ups during the last few years were the result of irreconcilable differences that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.  Poor management was to blame for the disconnect between Lowry and McHale, for the season-long imprisonment of Omer Asik, and, most convincingly, for the flight of Jeremy Lin.  Ultimately, Pau Gasol choice to join the Bulls over the Rockets was due in large part to the Rockets’ poor management and internal dysfunction.

 

As fans, we have very little understanding of certain aspects of the game, chief among which is the social climate of the NBA in locker-rooms and behind closed doors.  When players, particularly veterans like Carmelo and Pau, are considering free agent options, they ask former teammates, friends, acquaintances, about the climate of any given organization.  For countless free-agents to pass on a team with absurd talents like Dwight and Harden, one starts to wonder what the situation is behind the scenes.

A number of questionable situations in the past have created questions about the interpersonal continuity of this Rockets team.  Many of these I have discussed, and many of these are the result of certain personnel that are generally disliked or maligned among other NBA players (see: Dwight Howard, Josh Smith.)  An ABC article about the Rockets chemistry had this to say on last summer’s Rockets:

Dwight Howard and James Harden haven’t exactly endeared themselves to anyone this summer.

When Chandler Parsons left the Rockets for the Mavericks, Howard and Harden took the high road. And by high road, I mean they went somewhere high enough to look down their noses at everyone else.

Howard said Parsons’ departure wouldn’t affect Houston, and Harden said every Rocket besides himself and Howard was a role player.

Even when attempting to clear things up, Harden said he wasn’t referring to Parsons, because is no longer a Houston teammate. He was just referring to all the current Rockets besides himself and Howard.

The article went on to say specify that “If Houston had matched Parsons’ offer sheet, he would have made about the same salary as Harden… that probably wouldn’t fly with Harden,” and that Rockets’ forward Donatas Montiejunas mentioned that James and Dwight don’t eat or interact with the rest of the Rockets team:

See, Howard and Harden seem to view themselves as distinct from the rest of the team.

Winning

The Rockets have been extraordinarily successful for a team that, until a slew of disastrous injuries, was built around the promising core of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.  They’ve managed to win this season, which tends to obscure many of the background fuss that may surround an NBA team with disgruntled personnel.  However, this Rockets team will likely fail to win a championship this season, and further off-season disappointments could bring this issue to the forefront once again.

James Harden has historically fallen flat in the playoffs, and Dwight is a dunk away from destroying whatever scraps of cartilage remain in his body.  I find it hard to believe they can manage against some of the powerhouses they will face up with in the later rounds of the playoffs.

I’m a hater.  Get @ me.

the prophet