• Print
Thursday April 15, 2010 4:52 AM

Looking Forward, Looking Back

What the Rockets' recent past tells us about their future

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

Houston - No, it wasn’t the happy ending hoped for.

Losing 123-115 to New Orleans on Red Nation Appreciation night was not the way the Rockets wanted this season to conclude. Then again, a win would have only done so much in that regard.

This is a franchise which aspires to far bigger and better things than simply emerging victorious on the final night of the regular season. Winning the final game of the postseason – that is the goal. Which is, of course, precisely how it should be.

With that in mind, this seems as good a time as any to contemplate the process of winning a title. What defines winning and losing, success and failure? Where is that line drawn? Only one team lays claim to the NBA throne each year, meaning 29 clubs are ultimately found wanting at the end of every season. Are those unfortunate franchises all dubbed failures for their inability to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy? Certainly some would answer in the affirmative. They might even be right.

But such a binary viewpoint fails to account for the journey each team must take on its way to a title. Championship clubs don’t just materialize overnight. They take time to coalesce and to evolve. There are ups and there are downs. Faith, doubt, depression, euphoria – they’re all part of the package. And management, coaches, players and fans willingly put up with everything – the trial and error, the good and the bad – as long as they know progress is being made. Sure, the next step might not land them in Shangri La, but it should still be deemed successful so long as it brings them one stride closer to the divine.

Viewed through that prism, then, the Rockets unquestionably took a successful step forward this season. Once news broke that Yao Ming would miss the year in order to rehab and recover from his foot injury, winning a championship in 2010 was destined to become a truly Herculean task. Expectations had to be tempered. The goal – hanging a third NBA title banner at Toyota Center – remained the same but it suddenly had to be seen through a wider lens. Smaller steps had to be taken first.

This season was to be one of transition – the Rockets transformed. Once veteran-laden, Houston now boasts a blossoming cast of characters aged 25 and under. The youth movement started in the summer with the additions of Trevor Ariza, Chase Budinger and Jermaine Taylor and continued through the season with the acquisition of 22-year-old Jordan Hill. And with those young legs came the ability to run. And run. And run some more. The Rockets evolved from one of the league’s slowest paced teams into one of its quickest and the change does not figure to be just a one-season anomaly. Houston will continue to attack next year, with the primary difference being the team will also possess the ultimate fallback option – Yao Ming operating in the half-court with Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin spacing the floor – if nothing is available to them in transition.

This season was to be one of growth – the Rockets grew. Brooks developed into a game-breaking, playmaking go-to guy in the clutch. Trevor Ariza hurled himself head-first into the teeth of a new challenge and, after hanging tough through a series of ups and downs, emerged with the look of a more comfortable and confident player by season’s end, finishing the year in style with his first career triple-double. Kyle Lowry became a truly formidable force of nature off the bench. Luis Scola showed signs of dominance. And the Rockets’ Arizona connection of Budinger and Hill displayed enough bounce and skill to believe that the sky truly is the limit for both of them.

Lastly, this season was to be one of perseverance – and the Rockets not only persevered, at times they downright prospered, producing memorable road wins against the likes of the Lakers, Jazz, Mavs, Spurs and Celtics. Such signature victories not only served as a testament to this team’s heart but also to its talent. Go back and read the recaps and check out the highlights – not a single one of those wins was a fluke; the Rockets earned each and every one of them.

Of course, Houston also suffered home defeats to teams such as the Clippers, Pacers, Kings and 76ers. Such inconsistency is often a trademark of youth and the Rockets seemed especially prone to riding that roller coaster during the second half of the season. Injuries unquestionably played a part as well but they can only be used to explain away so much. Too often the Rockets saw their effort or execution wane and in a season which required maximum amounts of both to succeed, their occasional lapses led to a fair share of tough lessons learned.

The key going forward of course is to ensure those lessons get digested and applied. Leaders like Scola, Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes must work diligently to ensure that this team’s step forward is not followed by a step back. Their words must be not only heard but heeded. And as head coach Rick Adelman said after Wednesday night’s finale, every individual in the Rockets’ locker room needs to keep growing and keep getting better – especially on defense.

Because this is not the end of the journey – merely the continuation. This summer is filled with promise, possibilities and potential. Yao is coming back. The draft and free agency beckon. Youthful exuberance will soon start transforming into veteran wisdom. And all of it – every jumper taken, every weight lifted, every move made, every day, period – offers the opportunity for progress and another step forward.

It is, after all, within those steps that the building blocks of success can be found. And it is with those blocks that the Rockets hope to one day craft the happiest ending of all.

QUOTES

RICK ADELMAN

(On the game) “A very disappointing way to end this season. I thought we would come out with more energy than what we did tonight. It’s just typical of what happens with this team is that we just have to come out with energy and everybody aggressive and we didn’t do it. They (Hornets) got off to a great start and they never slowed down. They had two guys that were killing us. (David) West just killed us. (Darren) Collison killed us. They shot it very well. They just got it going. We talked about it all year with our team. If we didn’t bring it, if we didn’t have the effort, that’s going to happen to us because we have a lot of issues defensively. I’m still proud of this group. “

(On the season) “As a coach, they (Rockets) generally competed all year long. You get the last game of the year, you never know how it’s going to go. I don’t think either team did too much defensively. I think they really came together early and had a great start and at the end it was disappointing but it was still a pleasure to coach these guys and I’m proud of the way, for the most part, how they competed all year long.”

At the start of the year, when everybody was looking at our team, the objective was to try to win games and win as many as we can, while at the same time trying to throw guys out there in situations and roles they’re not used to – guys like Aaron and Trevor and all these guys. We wanted to watch them develop and bring them along, so as we move forward, we have these guys improving. That’s probably the most pleasing thing: the young guys had career years and that’s what I was looking for.

We obviously wanted to compete for the playoffs but I thought that was probably a long shot all year long. We kept hanging in there. That was our intent at the start of the year and from that point we saw some real strides made and now we have to make more strides next year. Guys like Trevor and Aaron have to understand why they had success and why they didn’t have success. They’re going to have to figure that out and build on it and we’re going to help them. From that standpoint, we accomplished some things.

We have to step back now that the season is over and look at our guys. We’re all hoping to get Yao back because that’s going to make a huge difference but in the meantime we need to get these guys to concentrate on what they need to do this summer to make another step next year.

(improving defensively): Defensively, we’ve had so many changes in the past year. You just look at the people that we don’t have that we had before: we had Rafer, we had Ron Artest, we had Shane when he was playing and we had Yao. That’s a group that’s pretty darned good defensively and when you change all that around and you’re moving pieces right and left like we’ve done – I think we have four guys left from training camp two years ago – then you start piecing them in and you’re trying to develop a defensive scheme.

To start, you have to have guys who can guard people one-on-one and it was pretty obvious tonight we didn’t have that or step up for it. But your schemes, if you’re not trusting each other or paying attention or you’re young and not used to it, you get broken down in this league. The teams are too good and that’s what happened to us the last 30 games. Our coaching staff does a great job out there but if somebody blows an assignment or they’re not sure what’s going on because the game is going too fast, it makes you look bad. I think you need repetition, you needs guys playing together on the court so they have confidence in each other. We didn’t have that; we were all over the place. It’s not an excuse, we just couldn’t practice it. When we made the trade, Kyle and Trevor went down and then other injuries happened. We had guys going in and out all the time and, like I said, we don’t have great defensive players so you need to have some repetition in your practices where guys get used to doing things. I was trying to find a way to win games and the team we had coming down the stretch here it was going to be offensively. We weren’t going to win them 82-70.

From a coaching standpoint, we have to put them in a situation where they understand what we’re trying to do but every individual has to get better. We have two very gifted offensive players at guard but they have to be better defensively. They have to get better. Everybody has to grow and get better. I truly believe that when we go back to training camp and we start doing things, this group will be better than they were the last half of this year.

LUIS SCOLA

(On the Rockets being close to being competitive) “I’m optimistic that Yao (Ming) is going to be back and that we’re going to have a great year and that we’re going to be right there fighting for a ring.”

(On the Rockets effort this year) “I am pretty proud. I think it was a good year. We’ve got to be happy. We lost today but we didn’t want to finish this way. We’ve got to be happy for a lot of things.”

KEVIN MARTIN

(On the season) “This is definitely a time to reflect on the season and from being picked to win only 35 games, I think as a whole it was a successful season.”

(On the outlook for next year) “The first thing I think about is definitely being a contending team but as I’ve been telling people and I think Adelman said the same think, it looks great down on paper but we have to work hard this summer and we’ve got to come into training camp and we’ve got to click right away.”

KYLE LOWRY

Proving people wrong was a big success for us. We battled through injuries the whole season and I think it shows that we went out there and battled and played hard and busted our butts to get where we are.

Being here with this team and organization is great. I’ve formed some great relationships and me and Aaron are like brothers now.

AARON BROOKS

(On the game) “The way we played today, we came out and we didn’t play hard and we let up today and I don’t know why that is. All in all though, the year was pretty good.”

(On the Rockets potential for improvement) “Hopefully, we will continue to get better. We built it and we haven’t done anything yet so we don’t have anything to hang our hats on. We haven’t won a championship or made it to the championship or anything like that. We haven’t accomplished anything. How I feel is we gotta come in this summer and work hard and get better individually and then come back.”

We made it a competitive season. Right now in the West you have to win 50 games to get in the playoffs so that’s pretty tough. We were in the hunt, 42-40 is respectable, but that’s not what we came to the Rockets to be.

(learning how to play at the end of games): I think I improved with my decision making throughout the year. I think that’s going to help next year.

(improving defensively): I need to get stronger. And the same way you watch film to learn offense you can learn about playing defense as well. My defense is going to get better. I think my defense is better than it was last year and it’s going to continue to get better. One day I hope to say that it’s one of my strong suits. I know I have the skill to do it, it’s just about repetition and getting better at it.

TREVOR ARIZA

(On his outlook for next year) “If everyone’s healthy we will eventually be a more dangerous team, especially with Yao (Ming), Shane (Battier), the guys that we missed this year, David (Andersen).”

(On what he takes from this season personally) “I did a lot of growing up this year. I see what it’s going to take to be the player I want to be. I’ve got to go this summer and work on my game and get better.”

LUIS SCOLA

We finished with a winning record and finished 9 th in the West and if we would have been in the East we would be in the playoffs right now. I feel happy about a lot of things.

We have to see what kind of team we can put together for next year but I’m optimistic in everything. I’m optimistic that everything will be resolved quick and everything will be the way I want it and Yao will be back and Kyle will be back and we’re going to have a great year and we’re going to be right there fighting for a ring.

I am pretty proud. I am pretty happy. We lost today and didn’t want to finish that way but I think it was a good year and we have to be happy for a lot of things.

We have a style which is to always play hard, always fight, always compete and I think the guys who have been here longer, we are responsible for making the new guys get on the same page and getting us all going in the same direction.

HORNETS COACH JEFF BOWER

(On the game) “We're very happy with the way we played and finished off the season. I was pleased with our offensive execution and our passing. David West had a great offensive game and we scored a lot off his post up positions.”

(On the team's play this season) “I think we showed our biggest change in our transition game and our offensive flow. We became a real scoring threat in the open court. We had to work extremely all year to defend the paint inside. That's where most of our problems came from.”

(On the Rockets season) “ Houston was outstanding all season when you consider their injury situation. The adaptability they showed early in the season was key. They pushed the pace and their scoring increased.”

DAVID WEST

(On the season) “Obviously I'm disappointed the way the season turned out. We had some lessons with chemistry and how the key came together. We are not where we want to be. We played very hard but we didn't get where we wanted to. We are in the catch-up mode and we have to get better. I don't know what's missing. When you miss a guy like C.P. (Chris Paul) for 37 games it is just too much to be able to make up.”

(On the game) “We finished the way we wanted to. We wanted to come out with a good effort and we wanted to feel good about ourself. We felt like we would play with high intensity. We are comfortable playing against Houston.”

DARREN COLLISON

(On the game) “We wanted to come out and get a win in the last game. Houston has very good guards and I wanted to compete against them. I thought as a team we showed growth all season. It's frustrating to not be in the playoffs.”

(On defending Brooks) “He is one of the top point guards in the league and I really enjoy watching him play. He is an extremely good player and you want to do your best against him.”

NOTES

Tonight’s attendance of 18,191 marked the 12th sellout for the Rockets this season.

Houston dropped a 123-115 decision to New Orleans tonight, snapping its home winning streak over the Hornets at four straight games. It also marked the most points scored by the Hornets against the Rockets in the history of this series (prev. best: 120 on 12/29/97).

The Rockets finished the 2009-10 campaign with the best record in franchise history without an active All-Star on the roster (42-40). Houston capped off three prior seasons with no All-Star player appearing in the final game of the season, but all three of those teams had an All-Star play 100 or more minutes and make significant contributions: 1967-68 (record: 15-67), 1977-78 (record: 28-54) and 2001-02 (record: 28-54).

Houston had a winning season with a record of 42-40. The 2009-10 Rockets marked just the 26th time in NBA history for a team to finish a season with a winning record and not make the playoffs. Overall, Houston has done this four times in club annals (45-37 in 2000-01, 43-39 in 2002-03, 42-40 in 1991-92 and 42-40 in 2009-10).

The Rockets completed the season with an average of 102.4 points per game, which marked their best offensive output since scoring 102.5 per contest back in 1995-96.

Houston recorded a 9-7 record in the Southwest Division in 2009-10. The Rockets also finished with a 9-7 mark in 2008-09, which marked Houston’s first time since 1997-98 (14-10) and 1998-99 (12-9) to complete back-to-back seasons with a winning record within the division.

The Rockets, who netted 60 first-half points tonight, totaled 18 60-point halves in 2009-10.

All five Houston starters scored in double figures four times this season: 11/2/09 at Utah, 11/4/09 vs. the L.A. Lakers, 1/13/10 vs. Minnesota and tonight against New Orleans.

Aaron Brooks (82), Chuck Hayes (82) and Luis Scola (82) started every game this season. The last time the Rockets had three players start all 82 games was 1989-90: Buck Johnson (82), Hakeem Olajuwon (82) and Otis Thorpe (82).

Trevor Ariza recorded the first triple-double of his career with 26 points (11-18 FG, 3-7 3FG), 10 rebounds and a career-high 10 assists. Overall, Ariza had 12 20-point games on the season, giving him a total of 16 career 20-point outings. Ariza now owns 10 career double-doubles with six coming this season.

Kevin Martin, who went a team-record 16-of-16 from the free throw line at Sacramento (4/12/10), made another 29 free throws in a row dating back to vs. Charlotte (4/9/10) prior to his lone miss tonight (7-8 FT). Martin also made 29 consecutive free throws prior to this run (3/22/10-4/7/10).

Chuck Hayes tied his season highs with 14 points (6-6 FG, 2-2 FT) and two blocks tonight. Hayes also registered a season-best 14 points (7-9 FG) vs. the L.A. Lakers (11/4/09).

David West, who had a career-high 44 points (18-30 FG) and 12 rebounds in the last meeting at Houston (12/29/09), finished with 35 points (16-20 FG), 10 boards and six assists tonight. Overall, West averaged 30.3 points (.585, 48-82 FG) in four games against the Rockets this season.

Darren Collison totaled 26 points (11-17 FG, 2-4 3FG) and a game-high 11 assists tonight, marking his 14th double-double of the season and his third 20-point, 10-assist game of 2009-10.

Got a question for Rockets.com? Send it to Jason Friedman. And for up to the second news and injury updates follow the Rockets and Jason on Twitter.