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Wednesday May 5, 2010 11:57 PM

Past, Present and Future


Rockets.com and Red94 team up to take a long, hard look at the Houston Rockets


Jason Friedman and Rahat Huq
Special to Rockets.com

Houston - For the Rockets, the 2009-10 season was one of transition. The Tracy McGrady era came to an end, young players like Aaron Brooks rose to the occasion and the team made major moves to reload for a future looking brighter by the day. So to recap what we saw – and to assess what is to come – Rockets.com’s Jason Friedman enlisted the help of Rahat Huq, author of Red94, the official Houston Rockets blog for ESPN.com’s TrueHoop Network. What follows is the transcript of their conversation which took place entirely via email and IM.

JCF: I don’t know about you but I enjoyed the heck out of this season. True, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to but I loved watching our young players grow and, what’s more, there were so many compelling storylines to follow.

Of course, the biggest subplot coming into the season centered around Tracy McGrady: Would he be traded? For whom? Etc. It was all bittersweet in a way – the Rockets unquestionably received maximum value in dealing him to New York but it also closed the book on a player who helped author a handful of thrilling chapters, yet couldn’t quite bring Houston the happy ending we yearned for when he first arrived in Clutch City.

Rahat: Looking back to the time of that trade, there is not a present parallel to such a union.  To fully grasp the extent of the excitement, one must place themselves in that moment, frozen in 2004.  That Tracy McGrady was today’s Kevin Durant, a league savior of sorts, inimitable in talent, and peerless in potential.

And remember, Yao was still ripe with promise.  No one knew the limits of what he could become.

For the pair, historic notoriety seemed almost inevitable.

JCF: Here's the way I see it: Take a look around the league right now. So many teams have worked so hard to clear enough salary cap space to go after the mega free agents assumed to be on the market this summer. Now imagine the bedlam that would ensue if any club were able to convince Superstar A and Superstar B to come to its city. That would be pretty huge, right?

And yet, for as titanic a pairing as that hypothetical duo might be, I'm still not quite sure the fervor generated would equal what Houstonians felt the day Tracy arrived. Given their productivity at the time and their respective ages – T-Mac was 25 and Yao just 24 – one could argue that the closest current comparison would be if a player like Carmelo Anthony were to join forces with Dwight Howard. Think about that for a minute and allow your mind to reflect upon the dreams such a combo would generate within the mind of a fan. Then and only then can you get a glimpse of what the people of Clutch City had in mind when McGrady uttered those fateful words, "I'm looking forward to something special happening here in Houston..." 

Rahat: Even more depressing was that this was not just a match ‘in theory.’ Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming meshed beautifully and more importantly, they were fond of one another.

It amused me that the pundits’ charges of the duo’s purported on-court incompatibility only arose when one of the two was sidelined by injury. On the court, when both were healthy, Yao-Mac was a dream union. The pair simply needed help and that was the collective sentiment entering 2006.

JCF: It just goes to show how much timing, luck and circumstance dictate each and every one of our lives. It's no different than any other relationship; just because you put two great people together it doesn't mean they're going to get married, have a pair of beautiful kids, buy a white picket-fenced house and live happily ever after. Life happens: familial stress; emotional baggage left behind from other failed relationships; health issues; dumb luck and dumber decisions. Any combination of those things can be powerful enough to infiltrate, infect and ultimately wreak havoc upon even the most seemingly sound of foundations.

On paper and in video games, the Rockets were the envy of the entire neighborhood. In real life, however, those tiny cracks and fissures forced our dream home to require some rather significant renovation.

Rahat: Many use McGrady’s failures as an indictment of the trade itself. But even in hindsight, you would pull the trigger again.

That Francis team had no room for growth. They were mired in mediocrity – the worst thing in sports.

It's absurd to blast management for rolling the dice on a chance at greatness. It didn't work out, but you can live with that - the best organizations dare to be great.

If a patient dies on the operating table, that doesn’t somehow render the decision for surgery ill-advised. It’s illogical to judge decisions on the basis of their end results.

JCF: Look, the Rockets rolled the dice on a top-5 player – top-10 at worst – who was at one point considered by some to be even better than Kobe Bryant. That's a fact. Francis, even during his best years, was nowhere close to occupying that sort of rarefied air. In a league which practically requires you to have at least one top-10 player to be considered a relevant championship contender, the trade was a no-brainer, a slam dunk and a steal of a deal for Houston.

Speaking of steal of a deals, let’s fast forward to the present and reflect on the Rockets’ big trade deadline move this season.

Rahat: It was interesting to see how poorly McGrady played down the stretch with the Knicks.  That really underscores the prudence in the decision to deal. Furthermore, with the revelation regarding the cap, New York probably didn't need to give up Jordan Hill at all…

JCF: Well, to be perfectly honest, I always thought McGrady's play and whatever he had left in the tank were irrelevant to that deal – both for the Rockets and for the Knicks. The time had come for a parting of ways here in Houston – and all the Knicks truly cared about was cap space anyway.

Rahat: For both managements, it was definitely irrelevant.  

What I speak of is a prevailing sentiment within the Houston Rockets’ fanbase that perhaps the divorce was premature. I think those concerns have been completely erased.

JCF: That's a great point. From a PR perspective, there's no question that trade worked out well for Houston. But as for as the actual basketball component – which, let’s be honest, is the only thing that really matters in the big picture – I thought it was fascinating to watch Jordan Hill the last two months because it really hammered home how important he was as a key piece of that deal.

What did we talk about all year? The Rockets needed more size and athleticism up front and – voila! – Jordan Hill appears, all long limbs, gorilla dunks and bursting with potential.

Rahat: His production came as a huge surprise because most of the reports from New York seemed negative.  

I would venture to say that the emergence of Jordan Hill was the most promising plotline of the Houston Rockets 2009-2010 campaign. At this point, for Jordan, I don’t see any barriers.

There is really no way that a 6’10 big, with plus-athleticism, and a track record of strong work ethic and desire for improvement, doesn’t evolve into a legitimate starting power forward at some point, especially considering the glimpses which we have already seen.

JCF: I agree. To me, the key is the work ethic. With those physical tools, anyone who is willing to bust their butt and learn from good coaching should be a lock to contribute in this league. It also makes one wonder why the Knicks gave up on him so quickly but there's no need to turn this into a Big Apple bashing session. They only really care about one thing right now anyway.

So we agree on Jordan Hill. Let's talk about the bigger prize – and biggest surprise – of that trade, Kevin Martin. What stood out to you while watching him the last two months?

Rahat: Martin was also a surprise. I hadn't seen much of him prior to the trade and so, in retrospect, I feel the online scouting reports were a bit inaccurate, or at least, without much merit.  

We were told he could shoot, and we were told he drew fouls. But the other subtleties of his game were entirely overlooked and therein lay his real value, in my opinion.

He is very fluid off the dribble, and more importantly, makes his moves quickly without holding the ball. Because these are traits also shared by Aaron Brooks, the Houston Rockets’ backcourt is extremely difficult to defend.

The relationship is fascinating because championship teams are typically built around the greatness of one individual.  Daryl Morey probably recognizes that he cannot acquire a player worthy of this pedestal.

Rather than attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole with an unworthy individual, as is done by many teams, I think he wants to construct a team where the ‘superstar effect’ is manufactured through team synthesis. Other than Detroit in 2004, it’s never been done, but then again, much of Daryl Morey’s approach is unprecedented.

JCF: Hmmm, I don’t think I’d ever say that Daryl feels he’s unlikely to acquire a “pedestal” player. While he displays a tendency to publicly temper expectations, I also believe he has so much confidence in the hard work and overall creativity of his team that anything, even that which presents the longest of odds, is within the realm of possibility. To be sure, NBA history indicates that franchise players are far more frequently drafted, rather than acquired through other means. But I suspect Daryl and the rest of the Rockets’ Basketball Ops group view that as a mere inconvenience or challenge, not as a dead end. Until that day arrives, however, I do think you’re right: the construction of the quintessential “team” will continue.

To that end – and especially as it pertains to Brooks and Martin – I like the fact both players are so unselfish. They each have the ability to go off for 30 points in any given game but I don't feel as if that's something either one of them genuinely cares about. They're not ball-stoppers; in fact, I was especially impressed with Kevin's quick decision making the moment he receives the ball. He either makes his move, or moves the ball along right away.

So there's no question that tandem makes the team very difficult to defend. But we also can't ignore the other end of the floor – can they defend well enough to lift the team back into a top-10 unit, which was Morey's mandate at his end of season press conference?

Rahat: Defensively, the team slipped noticeably this year, finishing 17th in defensive rating after being 4th last season.  But I'm not too concerned.  So much of defensive competence is predicated upon shot-blocking and overall familiarity.  We had many new players this year so it is only natural that there would be a slip.  

While we finished roughly the same in shot-blocking as we did last year, one can't discount the intimidation affect of having a 7-6 giant planted in the paint.  

In addition, for the most part, except for extremes on both ends of the spectrum, any quality NBA guard can get past his defender. It's the help defense and rotations that make great defenses.  

JCF: Very good point. Much like the term "shutdown corner" is a misnomer now in the NFL, I think the same is essentially true for the term "lockdown defender" in the NBA. These guys are just too quick and too skilled to be consistently contained one-on-one.

Team defense is really where it's at, and at the core of nearly every great defensive team is a big man who can control the painted area. I've made this point several times in the last few months but it bears repeating: Look at the Orlando Magic – would you consider Jameer Nelson, Rashard lewis, Hedo Turkoglu or Vince Carter good defenders? I think most people would say no, while adding that each is merely average at best. Yet each of those guys has been part of the NBA's best defensive team over the past two years.

Now Yao is not Dwight Howard, of course. But he is one of the game's best rim protectors and there's no question he will make a BIG difference as part of the team defensive concept. The question is, if Yao is only able to play limited minutes at the start of the season, how will that impact the Rockets' D?

Rahat: There will need to be some other acquisition in the frontcourt, in my opinion, for this team to contend. I don't see Yao playing more than 25 mg mpg right off the bat.

JCF: That’s certainly a legit possibility, though no one knows for sure what the exact timetable for bringing him along and easing him back in will be. So put yourself in Morey's shoes then and take a look at the team’s current needs. What holes are you trying to fill via the draft (assuming the Rockets get the 14th overall pick) and free agency?

Rahat: Had you asked me this question last year, I would have said that the greatest need was playmaking from the perimeter. But the trade for Kevin Martin proved that the Rockets are, as I mentioned earlier, moving with a ‘team’ oriented approach, where no one player dominates the ball. In light of that, I feel that the team is completely set along the perimeter for the next half decade.

The greatest need is size up-front. They need a talent upgrade at the ‘4’ to realistically contend. Addressing that should be the primary focus. There is a premium on skilled ‘bigs’ in this league in that they aren’t quite so easy to acquire. The Rockets are in a position now where they have accumulated some assets to try and make a deal, either in the draft or other trade avenues.

JCF: No question, the addition of someone who could provide the team with size, length, athleticism, shot-blocking and rebounding skills would be a major coup for the team. Of course, I just listed the exact attributes and characteristics every club in the league lusts after in its big men which, to your point, is precisely why quality front-court players are also so difficult and expensive to acquire. On the bright side, however, is the fact that this is shaping up to be a draft rich in bigs bursting with potential and given Morey’s reputation for unearthing gems, you have to like the Rockets’ chances of finding a key contributor whether they decide to stay put in the draft, or move forward or back.

One other note: I’d also like to see the team pursue another playmaker on the wings. Quite frankly, I don’t think you can ever have enough of those guys – players who can create for both themselves and their teammates – and though you’re right to say Houston has a solid stable of players manning those positions right now, I’d still welcome the opportunity to bring another one into the fold. The NBA is increasingly a guard’s game – just look at the way point guards have impacted the postseason thus far – and, as far as I’m concerned, the more perimeter threats you possess who can dictate tempo and conjure big plays come crunch time, the better.

In terms of fit, I also think it’s worth mentioning how desirable Houston is as an NBA location. Just off the top of my head, here’s a quick list of the top things the Rockets have going for them right now:

1.) The roster is loaded with a ton of young talent either in its prime or still blooming. As Daryl has pointed out, this year’s Rockets were the best team ever without an All-Star. Now people can quibble with the specifics of that claim all they want but the core element is true either way: this team has one heck of a supporting cast in place AND it's getting back Yao Ming.

2.) Speaking of whom, while Houston might not rank with NYC in terms of American exposure, the Yao effect means you've got 1 billion ready-made die-hards in China ready to worship the ground you tread.

3.) There is a Hall of Fame level coach at the helm.

4.) There is one of the top GMs in the NBA with a proven track record of making sound, creative decisions in order to give the team a chance to win both now and in the future.

In other words, if you want to win both now and in the future, Houston has to be at or near the top of the list of the most attractive NBA options.

OK, that’s it for my impromptu travel brochure extolling the benefits of playing in Houston. I want to touch on something else now. I know you've been a bit harsh on last summer's free agent signing Trevor Ariza. But I've also noticed that your thoughts on Trevor's game seem to have shifted somewhat since the trade, correct?

Rahat: Yes and no.

What was interesting was that when I would skim through discussions about my pieces on Ariza, where they had been cited online, the conclusion was seemingly, primarily from Laker fans, that “the Rockets/Rockets fans sure do regret the signing.”

That was frustrating because I have maintained all along, despite my criticism of his play, that it was a great signing - I knew that the organization had expectations different to those which were being attributed.

Now, through the emotional subjectivity that accompanies also being a fan of this team, it was tough to see Trevor masquerading as a playmaker, and thus, I certainly did do my fair share of venting my frustrations. But it was also understood that the nature of this season dictated player experimentation and that the role was delegated partly out of necessity and not cemented in the team’s long term vision.

I thought that we would really see Trevor at his true worth upon the return of Yao and McGrady because their presence would allow him to play his natural role. Of course, those two did not return, but we saw that the addition of Kevin Martin, through forcing down his usage, really enabled Ariza to play to his strengths, filling the lanes and slashing to the hoop.

With Trevor’s much improved play down the stretch, I feel the Houston Rockets have one of the most enviable perimeter trios in basketball.

JCF: I don’t think there’s any question Martin’s arrival had a profound positive impact on Ariza and I also believe there was definite value to be gained by allowing him to experience all he did this season. Trevor, his teammates and the coaching staff got a better feel for what he could do and what he couldn't – and that’s not insignificant. The Rockets gave Ariza an opportunity to expand upon his usual role somewhat this season – in part, due to necessity – and I think the successes and failures Trevor experienced will only help him going forward.

I liken it to a young quarterback making the leap from college to the pros. The reads must be made quicker, despite the fact they're also exponentially more complex. There are going to be moments when you just look flat-out bad because your brain and body haven't caught up to the massive increase in degree of difficulty. But eventually things start to slow down as you and your offensive coordinator figure out your strengths, weaknesses and how to best tailor the offense around your particular skillset.

Now in this case, perhaps quarterback isn't the proper comparison because Trevor won't be asked to QB Houston's offense. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe him as a deep-threat wide receiver; not someone you go to every down but a guy capable of providing a big play at any time.

Either way, his baptism by fire this year was almost akin to asking that WR to play a little QB and I think that's why we saw several awkward moments. But especially toward the tail end of the season, it appeared that Trevor and the coaching staff were gaining the benefits of those growing pains and we were seeing more and more of the player Houston coveted last summer

Rahat: So let’s say that no big trades or signings are made. Just bringing back Yao, is this team a contender?

JCF: To me, that was one of the more interesting revelations, if you want to call it that, from Daryl's end-of-season press conference. He essentially said the team probably needs to add at least one more significant piece besides Yao in order to be a true title contender but that he believes they'll still be a very good team if Yao is their only major summer addition.

I happen to agree with him, by the way. I mean, you're adding Yao and a lottery pick in a deep draft to a team that won 42 games this season. I'd say that team can expect to experience a big improvement.

But, and I know I wandered here, here's the truly interesting part about what Daryl said: He mentioned how he feels some teams make mistakes by trying to force a big splash in the summer, thereby limiting their flexibility to make moves in-season. I heard that and was immediately intrigued.

I don't view that statement as Daryl hedging his bets or attempting to temper fans’ expectations. I see it as a classic example of this regime's mentality: They are always going to be aggressive in trying to make significant moves to make this team a title contender. But they're also not going to be forced into potentially making poor decisions simply based on someone else's timetable. If the opportunity exists to make a big splash this summer, they'll do it. If not, Daryl and Co. feel supremely confident they'll be able to pull the trigger on something bigger and better at a later date

Rahat: It’s extremely frustrating that so many still don’t quite grasp the brilliance behind Daryl Morey’s machinations. He just waits…and then takes all the chips.

But when he doesn’t pounce immediately, the village idiots commence the chorus that he “can’t make the big move.”

I feel that with a healthy Yao, this team is on par with the rest of the West’s best, sans LA. They just need one more move.

JCF: No question, this is going to be a fascinating summer. As I said off the top, I've thoroughly enjoyed watching the way this team has undergone its rather extreme makeover. Of course, the often maddening aspect we haven't touched on yet is that one of the necessary ingredients for championship success is luck. Bringing this conversation full circle, the Tracy and Yao days didn't have luck on their side. Let's hope these next-generation Rockets do.

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