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Fran Blinebury

GM Daryl Morey has kept the Rockets competitive despite repeated failures to lure a superstar to Houston.
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images

Rockets stuck in neutral, but refuse to lose

Posted Jul 5 2012 11:24AM

Give the Rockets credit. You always know where they stand.

One spot out of mattering.

For three straight years they have had the best record of any team that didn't qualify for the playoffs. Three consecutive trips to the draft lottery have won them the exact same No. 14 spot consolation prize.

They should just hold spin classes at the Toyota Center.

Team owner Leslie Alexander says his team is not running in place. Yet there are hamsters running around inside those little wheels who think they're going nowhere.

Still the Rockets' is an a honorable route, one that travels down the road less taken. No diving. In Houston it is more than a sign nailed up at the shallow end of a swimming pool.

Because it goes against the competitive instinct that lives inside of Alexander, the Rockets have never given in to the craven, popular urge to simply tank a season in order to set themselves up with a high pick in the lottery.

You look around and see what a miserable 21-45 season could do for the Hornets and it would seem irresistibly tempting when Anthony Davis winds up in their laps.

You see how shutting down the key players in your lineup can produce an intentionally collapsible 1-10 finish to the schedule and deliver Harrison Barnes into the laps of the Warriors with the No. 7 pick and you might wonder how it doesn't just make good business sense.

Of course, it does. And therein lies the problem. There are too many franchises, too many owners, too many general managers looking to hold onto their jobs that are willing to take the quick fix way out. So in a league, in a culture, where searching for shortcuts is not only expected, but often praised, the Rockets are stuck in the middle for choosing to compete.

"I admire it so much," said Jeff Van Gundy, the former Rockets and Knicks coach and current ESPN analyst. "They're trying to continue to put out a good product while searching for that star, which is much more difficult than the teams that up and quit, tank and hope for Anthony Davis (with) the first pick."

Over the past three seasons under two different coaches -- Rick Adelman and Kevin McHale -- the Rockets have often used small lineups, up-tempo play and a readiness to scrap for loose balls to put a team on the floor that is greater than the sum of its parts and has produced records -- 42-40, 43-39 and 34-32 -- that deposits them right back in the same wheel-spinning place.

"I happen to think it's the right thing to do," Van Gundy said.

It is also the difficult thing. The NBA is and always has been a star-driven league that relies on impact players to win championships.

While it is a frustrating situation for their fans to see teams like the Hornets, Cavs and Timberwolves reload, it is those very ticket buyers that Alexander refuses to betray by intentionally putting an inferior product on the floor for a season or two.

Ironically, it was the Rockets themselves that led to the farce of the lottery after their blatant shenanigans in 1983 and 1984 rewarded them with Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon via coin flips and eventually produced the franchise golden age.

Nevertheless, it is a bad system, begging for exploitation and abuse, that needs to be rehabilitated . Among American pro sports leagues, only the NBA seems to be annually rife with tanking stories and conspiracy theories.

The Rockets' current predicament is the result of Yao Ming's chronic foot injuries bringing a premature end to his career and the perennially unfulfilling Tracy McGrady having his body and will break down.

With a pair of flawed All-Stars in their midst, the Rockets could always try to convince themselves that they had a fighting chance as contenders. Without them they can be entertaining, often competitive, but mired in the middle of the standings.

Alexander, who inherited the Hall of Famer Olajuwon when he bought the team in 1993, has always shown a willingness to spend money to add big names. He traded for Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Steve Francis and McGrady.

But these days general manager Daryl Morey has found the the task more difficult to accomplish with a roster full of "good-not-great" talent.

Two summers ago, Morey had positioned the Rockets with contracts and salary cap space that he believed would make him the prime trade partner for the Nuggets when they wanted to deal Carmelo Anthony. But Denver simply wasn't interested in what the Rockets had to offer.

For the five years that he has been on the job in Houston, Morey has tried to trade up for a high draft pick to land the kind of young star upon which to build a foundation. But again last week things didn't break his way and now the Rockets have a roster bulging with seven young players who were drafted in the past two seasons, all but one of whom play forward.

For the better part of a year, the Rockets have tried -- and keep on trying -- to get the Magic to trade them Dwight Howard, despite Howard saying he won't sign a contract extension to stay in Houston. Even renting Howard for eight months makes perfect sense, because it would at least give Morey the kind of high-value chip to swap at next February's trade deadline that could then land the Rockets a veteran All-Star anchor.

"Obviously, we have interest in top-level talent," Morey said. "We've been very straightforward about what we need to do to get back to being a championship team."

The Rockets tried to woo free agent Eric Gordon before he agreed to an offer sheet from Phoenix. They have likely moved on from re-signing their own free agent Goran Dragic due to the price. They have a $25-million agreement with Omer Asik of the Bulls. They are trying to land Jeremy Lin from the Knicks.

"I don't know other than all-out tanking what their options are," said Van Gundy.

Stuck in the middle. It's the right way. But the hard way.

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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