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Tuesday May 12, 2009 0:42 AM

Kyle Lowry Is The Revolution

ESPN.com's Henry Abbott weighs in on the Rockets

Henry Abbott
ESPN.com Senior Writer (Special to Rockets.com)

Los Angeles - Perhaps he needed a ten-day mourning period. Or maybe he just couldn't find the right words to capture the essence of this Rockets team until watching them dismantle the Lakers in Game 4. Whatever the case may be, ESPN.com's TrueHoop blogger and unapologetic Blazers fan is now ready to pay up after (once again) coming up on the losing end of another Sports Columnist Smackdown.

Henry has been here before, you may recall. In late February he was forced to wax poetic on the Rockets under similar circumstances. Still, some Houston fans felt somewhat shortchanged by that column; they wanted even more groveling. This time, however, I suspect there will be far fewer complaints. There's no groveling, but in its place is something far more satisfying - a finely-crafted, thoughtful piece filled with some very astute observations on what makes this club so special, so unique and so compelling.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

- JCF

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The Houston Rockets are a good, hard-nosed basketball team that really makes it tough to score at the basket. They are some lesser-known players who do their thing, but mainly they are famous for superstars like Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, both of whom tend to get injured a lot. They have not done well in the playoffs, until this year, when they managed to beat a team that had never been to the playoffs before.

I think that's more or less the normal sports fan interpretation of the Houston Rockets circa 2009.

But on another level, the Rockets are a wild theory, being tested before our very eyes. Owner Leslie Alexander entrusted the team to a GM, Daryl Morey, whose stated intention was to assemble a massive and expensive team of geeks with laptops and spreadsheets, who would give Houston the NBA's first front office fully empowered to make evidence-based decisions.

Not that data would rule -- Morey talks of balance between old and new methods -- but it would be at the table in a meaningful way.

How's that going to work? In a way, that's the question that hangs in the air when the Rockets play. And now, without three of their best players (Yao, McGrady, and Dikembe Mutombo have all succumbed to season-ending injuries), they are tied 2-2 with the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, tied 2-2 in a series that really feels it could go either way.

Morey took over in May 2007, and since then there haven't been all that many personnel decisions to be made. The big pieces -- Yao and McGrady -- were already set in stone.

Many of the other pieces were keeping keepers Mutombo and Chuck Hayes. Rick Adelman has replaced Jeff Van Gundy. The Rockets have had the same flood of middling moves that any team has at the end of its roster -- names like Joey Dorsey, James White, Von Wafer, Brent Barry and Brian Cook are in, where names like Steve Novak, Bobby Jones, Loren Woods, have moved on. It's hard to know what to make of all that.

There have been some real successes. Aaron Brooks at the end of the first round was demonstrably a tremendous draft pick. Carl Landry for a future second-round pick is proving to have been grand theft. Ron Artest has been on his best behavior in a contract year, and a team-centric Ron Artest for almost nothing is a big thing. Adelman has also been judged to be among the NBA's best coaches.

But to me, in assessing the Morey adminstration, the move that defines the times was trading Rafer Alston for Kyle Lowry, in the middle of a good season.

Think about that. The Rockets are in the hunt in the West. Yao Ming's clock is ticking, and this team has a genuine need to get him deep into the playoffs sooner rather than later. It has been almost a comedy: The Rockets have changed point guards like most of us change clothes for Yao's entire career. Alston had at last settled in as the "one" for this team.

Teams don't like to change point guards, period. They're the engine that makes the team run. And to trade the starting point guard of a team that's playing well ... it's a way of throwing in the towel.

And what's more, when the move was made people stopped just short of accusing the team of tanking for better draft position. Throwing in the towel on a season lost to yet another McGrady injury.

But Morey's message was essentially: We really like that Kyle Lowry.

Kyle Lowry -- the odd man out in the point guard battle in lowly Memphis? A Grizzled cast-off is your prize? The undersized player who missed most of the early part of his career to injury and appears to be one of the NBA's only wing players to have gotten rounder in his first few years in the league? Lowry, who isn't exactly a lights-out shooter?

Morey said at the time that Lowry was a real threat who couldn't be abandoned on defense, not because he'd knock down the open jumper, but because if you left him, you'd give him a running start to drive.

OK, Daryl, whatever you say.

I remember thinking at the time that if Lowry works out, Morey is a genius. When you make a move that people think is tanking, and you use it as part of improving, then that means you know something most people do not.

At the same time, Morey said the move would free playing time for Aaron Brooks, who had been promising, but not consistently outstanding.

Now, of course, you saw the Rockets dismantle the Lakers this weekend. Brooks made a name for himself in that one day. But did you also notice Lowry?

He cuts craftily without the ball, he runs a decent pick and roll, and he has that amazing bowling ball approach to the defense, banging off everybody he encounters until he either gets to the rim or the free throw line.

He doesn't waste shots or possessions, and he's certainly gritty. Playing him has empowered the fleet Brooks to come off picks, which has made him a deadly scorer, and has posed matchup problems for the Lakers.

On defense, Lowry has certain obvious limitations -- he's shorter or slower than many players he attempts to stop, which means sometimes he is beat off the dribble, and often he has trouble getting a hand high enough to challenge 3-point shooters. But he's wholly committed to the cause, chasing his man vigorously all over the court, while going over the picks he's supposed to go over and under the ones he's supposed to go under. He keeps himself well positioned when covering space instead of a man. And he's crafty at all times.

And all the while he relished in the physicality of the playoffs, which clearly suits him just fine. (It's also worth pointing out that Alston, meanwhile, is in Orlando spending much of crunch time on the bench.)

In general, somehow, despite the pundits, Lowry's making the Rockets better while they should be in crisis mode, deep in the playoffs without a superstar. Nobody predicted that -- except maybe the people in the Rockets' front office, who must be loving every minute of it.

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