Failure to Launch?
Memo to Rockets fans: Don’t Stop Believin’.
As a youth in Houston, TX, I used to go with my friends to the Astroworld theme park. The first ride I ever was convinced to get on was called the Sky Screamer. It took you 131 feet in the air, high enough to where you felt you could touch the clouds, right before you were dropped in a horizontal curve to the ground at breakneck speed.
Astroworld has been closed down, but for Houston Rockets fans the roller coaster ride is still very much a part of their daily routine, only now players like Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady scream along with all of us as they hold various body parts. Since the 1995 championship the Rockets have been on a Sky Screamer of their own, slowly rising before plummeting repeatedly. This season was no different. By now we are accustomed to just paying the toll and taking the ride.
Think for a second how up and down things have been for the Rockets in the past year. The Ron Artest acquisition fooled fans into thinking they had a new version of The Big Three with he, Yao and T-Mac. Then Mcgrady went back and forth on his health status, before finally shutting it down. Daryl Morey traded Rafer Alston to get Kyle Lowry and Brian Cook, allowing for a two-headed point guard attack of Lowry and young gun Aaron Brooks, one which the Rockets used to ride past Portland and into L.A., stealing Game 1 from the heavily favored Lakers. In that game Yao went down hard, only to return and stun the hoops world as Houston stole home court advantage. Then in Game 3 he was injured again, this time for good. Did the Rockets give up as many thought they would? No way. They took the series to seven against the would be World Champs in a battle that Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson said would be the defining moment for his team. That level of toughness with Yao and T-Mac out gave plenty reason to be excited about 2009. Then the worst news came. Yao’s foot wasn’t healing. The R word was whispered. Would Yao end his career? Ron Artest didn’t wait around to find out, taking the “If you can’t beat them, join them” mentality, basically swapping places with the newest Rocket, Trevor Ariza. Finally, we received word that Yao will get bone graft surgery and have his left heel lowered in an attempt to heal the foot… and roll credits. Whew. Is it me or does anyone else feel like they have whiplash from being jerked around so much? Is it possible to sue the basketball Gods or Les Alexander for this?
Depending on who you talk to, the Rockets are either a potential playoff team or just biding their time until the lottery selection in 2010. Maybe I’m just a glass half-full kind of person, but it seems to me there is still a way for the Rockets to turn this into a happy ending. How, you ask? Five words: In Daryl Morey we trust.
You’d be hard pressed to find a mistake that the Rockets General Manager has made so far. (Don’t bring up Artest leaving. The cat was bouncing no matter what. I don’t care what he says. Kobe has been courting him for years and finally got him to come to L.A.) While everyone has been panicking, understandably, over the state of the Ming Dynasty, Morey found a way to pull his latest magic trick, making three talented players in the 2009 NBA Draft appear when the Rockets entered with zero picks. If you haven’t seen Jermaine Taylor yet you’ve missed out on one of the best scoring guards in college last season. Arizona’s Chase Budinger was a potential lottery pick as recently as two years ago and brings the smooth stroke the Rockets desperately longed for last season off the bench, and Sergio Lull cost virtually nothing to grab. All three could end up on the roster in the near future and what did it cost the Rockets? Nothing really. This is what brilliant GMs do. Sorry, Chris Wallace and Donald Sterling, you’re intelligence quotient is too short to get on this ride.
The Rockets also picked up David Andersen last week. The Australian center won’t make anybody forget about Yao, but he could become the player that gives Yao room to breathe if and when he returns, one of the things Houston missed when Dikembe Mutombo went down in the Portland series. You could argue that the reserve’s absence led to Yao’s injury but that would just be speculation for speculation’s sake, like asking what would have happened if Grant Hill or Anfernee Hardaway had stayed healthy their entire careers. It’s best to just move on.
So the Rockets have a roster filled with fiery underdogs but are still lacking star power. Where does that leave them? Ironically enough it has them, in a sense, right back where they started when they began the Yao and T-Mac experiment. The Rockets’ future depends on what happens with their two soldiers of misfortune.
Yao’s contract expires next season and it leaves the Rockets in an interesting predicament. In a what have you done for me lately world, Houston certainly has the right to argue that Yao would have to take a pay cut given his history of injuries. Would you pay $15-20 million to a center who is one rolled ankle from heading back to Chinatown? (Yao recently purchased his former team, the Shanghai Sharks. It’s not hard to see him in a suit and in the war room making moves. Insert “We’re already used to seeing Yao in suits anyway” joke here.) Of course, Yao and his agent can counter by talking about the money he brings in as an international icon, reminding the team he does have an entire nation behind him, and he would have a valid point. Les Alexander loves Yao, and we know he is loyal to his players. That will be a critical factor in the negotiations. He still sleeps with his T-Mac stuffed pillow, if my sources are correct.
And what if Yao retires? Houston’s organization and fan base would be crushed, no question, but in a business sense you are looking at a large amount of cap space freed up, It wouldn’t be the first time a team had to move on without their top two players. Remember the years after Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen left Chicago. Yes, it could always be worse.
Speaking of cap space, there hasn’t been a player in recent Houston memory that has divided fans like McGrady. In the Playoffs, he was booed by many fans when his face appeared on screen. Now he, and by he I mean his contract, could be the key to getting the likes of a Chris Bosh or Paul. Did you know that McGrady will be the highest paid player in the NBA next season? Think about that for a second, T-Mac is set to make $23 million as he rehabs. OK, sorry. I have to admit that I took that pause to go throw up. All better now. I was screaming for the Rockets to move Mac last summer for Rip Hamilton and another Piston player but that time has passed. What’s crazy is that McGrady may have more value now than then.
On Draft night, Rockets fans were screaming for Houston to move T-Mac and other players in an attempt to get Amar’e Stoudemire. That would have been a mistake. I’ll say it again. Stoudemire is not going to save this team. He’s definitely a force to be reckoned with but there’s no reason to believe you should make him the future of the team. We saw how crowded the lane got with he and Shaq down low. Daryl Morey knows this. That is why he is biding his time. If a team strapped for cash makes him an offer he can’t refuse, then he will go for it. If not, the Rockets will be better letting that money come off the cap, then they could really do damage in the free agent market, especially since the NBA announced a lowering of the salary cap. Is Dwyane Wade is coming to Houston? Not likely, but that doesn’t mean a team with a returning Yao, a veteran Aaron Brooks and other underrated pieces couldn’t lure that final piece needed for a championship to Houston. Never doubt the power of money or ego, and never doubt Daryl Morey. Not yet anyway.
The worst case scenario is that Yao retires and the Rockets finish as a lottery team next season, They would have a pick to grab a stud guard/forward like Evan Turner, along with a sick amount of cap space freed up with Ming and McGrady gone. And if they lucked out and got the top pick instead to land John Wall, you move Brooks for another piece, sign a top free agent or two and have a new future. (It’s unlikely but not impossible. Remember that the Rockets only got Yao because they won the lottery ball process in spite of only an 8.9 percent probability.) Another scenario involves Yao’s return, a big name acquisition and a march back to the top of the West in 2010. So maybe the future isn’t that bleak after all.
The Rockets’ ride in 2009 will be a success or failure based entirely on how you look at it. There are going to be bumps along the way, but this is a team that is used to those inconveniences by now. There isn’t a team more prepared mentally to go without their star player in the NBA than Houston. Now it’s a matter of waiting to see what happens when the cart gets near the top of the tracks again in 2010. Strap yourselves in, Houston fans. It’s going to be a wild ride.