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Fran Blinebury

Rick Adelman
The future, and the present, of the Rockets may be out of Rick Adelman's hands.
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Big wheel just keeps spinning and spinning in Houston

Posted Mar 2 2011 10:32AM

HOUSTON -- Imagine my surprise when I recently tuned into a prime-time show on the ABC schedule called "The Middle" and discovered it was a sitcom starring Patricia Heaton.

I thought it was going to be the story of NBA basketball in Houston.

The best thing you can say about the Rockets is that they aren't horrible. The worst thing you can say about the Rockets is they aren't horrible.

Then again, that is the worst thing an NBA team can be -- stuck smack in the middle. Not good enough to contend in the playoffs. Not bad enough to rebound through the Draft lottery.

There are hamsters running around on those little wheels that have made more progress than the Rockets since the start of the 21st century. There are fat men on treadmills that are going more places.

If there was an official wardrobe accessory of the Rockets, it would be the belt: It holds up the middle. If the Rockets had an official water temperature, it would be lukewarm. If their fans had an official cheer, it would be: "Eh!" For their team colors, they really should switch to beige. Or olive drab.

After winning on Tuesday night in Portland, they are a perfectly mediocre 31-31.

In the week that the NBA experienced seismic upheaval from Denver to New York to Utah to New Jersey to Boston to Oklahoma City, the Rockets barely made a pebble's ripple in the pond.

"(Rockets) fans see two all-star level players (Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams) change teams, and I think if I was a fan I would want to see that, too," said general manager Daryl Morey.

What they see instead are: Hasheem Thabeet, Goran Dragic and DeMarre Carroll.

The trouble is that ever since the early part of last summer, Morey has been a medicine man riding into town with a wagon full of tradeable assets in the form of Draft picks and expiring contracts that were supposed to be a cure for rheumatism, arthritis and dull basketball. Morey vowed that when the trees started to shake and the biggest, ripest fruit was ready to fall, nobody would be able to resist what he had to offer.

Carmelo? Chris Paul? As soon as any of the big stars became disgruntled and wanted out, the Rockets would be standing there waiting to simply catch them in a bucket.

Except that Denver repeatedly turned down Aaron Brooks, Kevin Martin, Yao Ming's expiring $17-million contract or any combination of Draft picks and players. Seems Anthony never wanted to play in Houston anyway.

When the Nets shocked everyone by swooping in to pluck Williams out of Utah, the Rockets were no more surprised, but no less helpless to pull off that kind of deal.

"We didn't have a No. 3 pick in the Draft (Derrick Favors) type to trade," Morey said.

That was always the problem. Only the Rockets seemed to view their assets as truly valuable. They might as well have been trying to sit down at a high stakes poker table with a stack of Confederate chips.

Time and time again, from the opening of training camp, Morey sang the praises of the talent on the Rockets' roster. But that pool was always wide and never deep.

The Rockets, of course, can plead being perennially unlucky with Yao's chronic broken feet. But coming into the season, Yao was limited to 24 minutes per game and was not expected to carry the team.

The Rockets, of course, will plead that they never envisioned the knee injury and the microfracture surgery and the ugly, finger-pointing end to Tracy McGrady's 5 -year run in Houston and they couldn't trade him once he was broken. But they are the ones that chose to overlook T-Mac's pouting, shirking, shrinking efforts at key playoff moments, which is why he has never won a postseason series in his 14-year NBA career.

While winning 50-plus games in four out of five seasons, from 2005 to 2009, the Rockets overlooked fundamental flaws in relying on the McGrady-Yao tandem. And now, they don't even have them.

"The reality is right now this team, as constructed, isn't a championship-caliber team," Morey said. "I'm not telling you any secrets."

Nor is it a secret that the glory days of the Rockets' back-to-back championships of 1994 and 1995 are a distant memory. They are a franchise that has won just a single playoff series since 1997.

Houston fans watch the Celtics reload, the Heat redefine rebuilding, the Knicks rekindle the spark and the Nets restart. Then there is the resurrection through the Draft by the Thunder.

Since hitting the lottery jackpot with Yao in 2002, the Rockets have drafted higher than 14th in the first round only once. And that year they traded the No. 8 pick (Rudy Gay) for Shane Battier.

Last week they traded Battier back to Memphis, meaning in five years they did a Gay-for-Thabeet swap.

So they are here, holding onto Draft picks, contracts and a batch of young players hoping somebody will buy what they're selling.

"Opportunities come and you don't know what it'll take," Morey said. "At one point in this league, it took Kwame Brown (to get Pau Gasol for the Lakers).

"At one point in this league, it's taken a little bit and sometimes it's taken a lot. We're positioning ourselves to be ready for the opportunity. That's the plan."

Meanwhile, the hamsters in Houston keep spinning that wheel.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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