• Print


Tuesday June 7, 2011 4:04 PM

Past, Present And Future


A look at where the Rockets have been and where they're headed from here

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - Change is in the air in Houston. A new head coach has been hired, a new staff is soon to follow and the NBA Draft is just two weeks away. What does it all mean and where are the Rockets headed? To tackle those questions (and more), Rockets.com teamed up with Red94.net's Rahat Huq to discuss the past, present and future of the Rockets franchise.

Rahat: Yet another strange season it was with hopes seemingly dashed from the start. Armed with a deadly offense, the team recovered from a rocky first few months thanks to a frantic late-season push which frequently say them crippling opponents in their path. But alas, the hole was too deep, and the dream of the playoffs was not attained.

All was not lost and much was gained upon which to build. The club finished sixth in the league in offensive rating -- even ranking first for an extended period late in the year -- up from 18th in 2009-2010. Youngsters developed and key players hit their stride; a team identity for speed was begotten.  

Looking ahead, head coach Kevin McHale has much to work with as we enter next season.

Jason: It really was a tale of two seasons; the first marked with maddening inconsistency and far too many missed opportunities, while the second revealed the sort of Rockets squad management and fans surely had hoped to see from the very beginning. And while the end result -- no postseason appearance and yet another finish as the best of the non-playoff bunch -- understandably produced plenty of frustration and disappointment, I do agree that there’s plenty of reason for hope, too.

Kyle Lowry was a revelation throughout most of the year, never more so than in the month of March, flashing the sort of form that could make him a future All Star. Kevin Martin stayed healthy all season, allowing him to reclaim his place among the most efficient offensive weapons in the league. Luis Scola was steady as ever. Chuck Hayes remained a defensive maestro while adding a surprising offensive arsenal to his game. Youngsters Courtney Lee, Chase Budinger and Patrick Patterson, meanwhile, provided plenty of proof that they possess the capacity to greatly contribute to winning basketball. So, yes, there are quality pieces in place (and that’s before touching on the heretofore untapped potential of Jordan Hill, Terrence Williams, Hasheem Thabeet and whomever the Rockets end up adding via the upcoming draft).

We all know the needs: superstar talent and additional size in the middle. But that’s Daryl Morey’s job. Right now I’d prefer to hear your thoughts on what you think Kevin McHale -- and the coaching staff yet to be finalized -- can do to help lift the Rockets back into the playoffs after a two-year drought.

Rahat: In succeeding a future Hall-of-famer, Kevin McHale has big shoes to fill. Expectations will be high -- Rick Adelman got the most out of his teams. But I’m confident about the staff. All indications are that McHale will be flanked by specialized strategists, allowing for a divvying up of the load. (With the glut of data available in today’s NBA, this ‘round-table’ approach is not only practical but perhaps even necessary if desiring to process information at optimal levels.)  

Most importantly, the former Celtic great brings instant credibility into a lockerroom largely consisting of 20-somethings. The respect he commands was immediately perceived by all on hand Friday morning at the introductory press conference; a towering figure, he captured the stage with his size and pedigree. Players will respond and staff will be inspired. This is a man who’s achieved ultimate success at the highest level.  

Furthermore, as general manager Daryl Morey told me after the presser, McHale has an “open-mindedness” that will aid in the free flow of ideas. It’s no secret that Rockets management takes a pioneering if not unconventional approach to its basketball operations, placing a premium upon ‘information’ as a valued currency. To best make use of the data unearthed, it’s important that the coach be receptive and flexible in his methodologies. From what Daryl said, Kevin seems to fit that bill.  

With the work McHale did in developing Kevin Garnett, serving as a personal mentor of sorts, I’m very interested in seeing what he can get out of the young Rockets’ bigs. Hasheem Thabeet and Jordan Hill possess physical gifts of which few men on this planet can boast. Neither has really put it all together, up to this point. Can the fabled former frontline great get through to them?

Jason: I don’t think there’s any question he can have an impact; Al Jefferson and Kevin Love will readily attest to that. I would add, however, that no coach is capable of grabbing young players by the scruff of the neck and, be it through either sheer force of will or their own expertise, single-handedly elevating them into the throes of fully-aware, fully-realized professional maturity. That process takes time but far more than that, it requires a commitment on behalf of the players to put in the work necessary to reach that point.
That’s not to imply Hill and Thabeet have been unwilling to do so in the past, but rather to say they must redouble their efforts going forward. Because, at the end of the day, their continued development hinges far less on McHale than it does themselves. As with anything else, you get out of the process what you put in, and should Hill and Thabeet dedicate themselves to the task of being diligent pupils, I’ve no doubt McHale and his staff will be only too happy to provide the tutelage, tools and expertise sure to help them along their NBA journey.

Rahat: Speaking of commitments from players, several Rockets made individual strides last season, contributing to an exhilarating second half.  

Kyle Lowry took All-Star form, improving his overall three-point percentage to 38%, and finishing with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.16 (higher than the likes of Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, and Russell Westbrook).  

Kevin Martin stayed healthy, finishing second to only Dwight Howard in free-throw-attempts/40minutes among all heavy-minute players.  

Chuck Hayes was again a rock, and Courtney Lee and Patrick Patterson grew before our eyes filling their respective niches.  

To carry the momentum from March and April, the Rockets will need a repeat of those efforts.  Can it happen? If healthy, Martin will invariably produce, so it goes without saying that it’s of paramount importance to keep the slender-framed gunslinger free from the sort of fluke injuries that derailed him in the past.

I’m more confident about the others. There’s fear of the sophomore slump with Patterson, but his main contributions are high-energy hustle and smart defensive rotations; those are things that don’t suddenly become affected by fatigue, unlike shooting. Lee played better and better as his minutes increased. As long as his role remains defined, I expect him to flourish. He fits this team impeccably with his mid-range game and smart decision-making.

Then there’s Lowry who, in my opinion, is the safest bet for a duplicate performance. Last season was the first in his career in which he saw extended minutes. His numbers were no surprise given his per-minute production in various categories in previous seasons. He also always shot well on long 2’s, so the 3’s weren’t a fluke. Kyle Lowry is just outside of elite; it’s only that he’s just now getting a chance to show it. For the past two years, I’ve said that where Kyle Lowry goes, the Houston Rockets go. Now that he’s indisputably assumed the role of this team’s general, you can at the very least assume the team won’t be ‘bad.’

Having established that, what more does this team need, in your opinion?

Jason: I suppose that depends upon what your goals are for this team. If we’re talking a postseason berth, then I think it’s fairly obvious to say that the Rockets simply (though there is nothing “simple” about it, of course) need to play at the level they revealed themselves capable of during the month of March. Perform up to that standard for the better part of the season and I think you can start printing playoff tickets come April.

If, however, you’re talking ultimate goals (read: legitimate championship contention), then I’d refer you to the aforementioned needs I touched on earlier: a superstar and (quality) size. Morey has admitted as much and it remains his prime directive. Delivering those two precious commodities also remains ridiculously difficult because every team in the league wants the exact same thing and those fortunate few who possess them are loathe to give them up. It takes ample amounts of good fortune, patience and opportunistic diligence. I absolutely believe Rockets management has heaps of the latter and that it will one say pay off. The first two, however, are frequently fickle beasts never to be tamed: luck is beholden to no one and people will either choose to be patient with the process or they won’t. In the meantime, the best thing Morey can do is make sure that, when the moment to strike finally arrives, he has his team well positioned to make the most of the opportunity.

Lastly, I offer this as an elixir of sorts for those possessing a particular problem when it comes to the patience part of the equation: Take a look around the NBA, paying special attention to the teams currently enjoying elite status. Now think back to how they were constructed and the significant time each had to endure before the puzzle pieces finally came together. In nearly every situation -- be it Miami, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Boston, or even the Lakers -- those teams and their respective fan bases had to suffer through years among the ranks of either the dregs or the decidedly mediocre before fortune finally smiled upon them once more. I don’t offer that as an excuse or justification for what Rockets fans may or may not be currently experiencing after two straight seasons without a playoff appearance, I’m simply presenting a reminder of the reality of life in the NBA. It’s the toughest league by far among North American professional sports in which to win a title. Worst to first seasons like you see seemingly every year in the NFL just don’t happen here.

All of which is my exceedingly circuitous way of answering your question about team needs. If the goal is playoffs then I’ll tell you this team is ready to join that fight tomorrow. If you’re talking about hanging banners, however, then I’ll ask if you’d be so kind as to consult Miss Cleo because while we all know what this team’s most pressing needs are, how to specifically address them looms as a far hazier proposition. So what’s your Magic 8 ball been telling you lately?

Rahat: Outside of landing a legitimate superstar, there is no single event that would have a greater impact upon this team’s fortunes than the scenario that sees Hasheem Thabeet realizing the potential his ample physical gifts bear withness to. While many are pessimistic, I feel there is hope: one of his traits most touted at UConn was an unyielding resolve and work ethic. He also showed flashes in 2009-2010 after his stint in the D-League --to be specific-- catching my eye in one particular game against the Rockets. A 20-something 7-3 rim protector really would be a franchise game-changer for the Houston Rockets.

Aside from Thabeet, I expect management will stay the course, making small tweaks and retaining flexibility. With the focus on team success, individual values will inflate. They’ll continue searching for market inefficiencies, targeting undervalued commodities. They’ll bide their time until luck falls their way and they get their man. In the process, they will have built a proportional roster sprinkled with weapons and free from dead-weight; they could accidentally find themselves duplicating the Detroit model [of success without a superstar]. Based on Morey’s track record, at the very least, they’re on their way to that sort of a roster.  

Jason: Of course, those Pistons teams of the mid 2000s made their mark by playing an elite brand of defense and that is one area the Rockets simply must improve upon moving forward. For two straight years Houston has been a below average defensive club, ranking 18th in the NBA in defensive efficiency this past season. Find a way to climb into the top-10 on that end while keeping the offense humming and I assure you a 50-win season will ensue. That is, of course, easier said than done since that sort of defensive improvement may very well require a personnel change that could, in turn, affect the offense in some form or fashion. But, hey, as we’ve already established, there’s nothing easy about the process of trying to transform a middle-of-the-pack team into a true contender.

That’s the task set out before Morey and McHale as this new era of Rockets basketball is about to begin. Both are undoubtedly determined to put in whatever amount of work is needed to help this team reach its goals. But a little good fortune wouldn’t hurt, either. So when McHale packs up his belongings prior to making Houston his permanent residence, let’s hope he remembers to bring a little of that old Celtics’ luck along with him, too.

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.