For the Rockets, winning in 2012 would be nice, but losing might be better

Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale

Daryl Morey and Kevin McHale will have to make some tough choices about how to build the Rockets

Pardon the dust around here – I confess I had very little love for the NBA during the lockout. I can’t think of anything that drains a fan’s passion more than watching pro sports greed on full display, to the point of canceling games because they can’t come to an agreement on how to split billions of dollars. I could talk about the state of the economy and how the NBA doesn’t relate to the average Joe just trying to pay his bills, but it was really more about the back-and-forth that grew so tiresome. It’s like discussing the interest rate and amortization schedule of Scarlett Johansson’s mortgage ad nauseam for five months — that’s not why I’d be interested in her and this is not why I’m interested in the NBA.

However, there is something else that is tempering my enthusiasm about this season.

Apparently, the Rockets want to win now.

New Rockets coach Kevin McHale said it’s on him if Houston doesn’t make the playoffs this year. Rockets GM Daryl Morey took it a step farther, adding just before the lockout started that the Rockets want to be the first team to rebuild without suffering a losing season.

“Leslie [Alexander] has an approach I totally agree with,” said Morey. “He really believes that we need to turn the corner while remaining competitive. That’s the plan. I do think being terrible is definitely the way to get better in the NBA, but it’s not the way Mr. Alexander wants to go about it. He wants to turn the corner, get back to having a strong foundation while remaining competitive. He feels the Houston fans deserve that.”

I take a hard look at the situation the Rockets are in and I’m struggling to understand why they would take this approach.

The Rockets are just seven months away from feasting on the free agency buffet of 2012 with potentially double-digit millions in cap room. It’s unlikely that even half of the Rockets current roster will still be wearing the uniform in 2012-13. Unlike the past two seasons, there is no superstar in Houston’s back pocket, no hope of contending “when Yao Ming returns.”

And there’s one other key element – the 2012 NBA Draft is expected to be one of the best in years (Anthony Davis could be something), but if the Rockets make the playoffs in 2011-12, they hand over their own first round draft pick to the Nets, courtesy of the Terrence Williams trade (the Rockets will have the New York Knicks’ first round pick, assuming it’s not in the top 5, from the Tracy McGrady trade and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ second round pick from the Brad Miller trade).

Combine all those facts and it’s not hard to realize that this sardine can-packed, 66-game bastardization of a season is poised to be the biggest lame duck year for the Houston Rockets since they sold off Moses Malone to the Sixers 30 years ago. Losses may just be wins.

Several weeks ago, my nephew called me to tell me he was only one piece away from winning a reward at McDonald’s Monopoly, a gimmicky game where you collect pieces representing monopoly property in the hopes of getting the right combination to land the big prize. Of course, I didn’t have the heart to tell him the catch, that there are ridiculously rare pieces that you need in order to win big. If you weren’t aware that the system was weighted like that (and my nephew wasn’t), you could feel pretty proud of yourself for building up the entire board minus a few key pieces, thinking, “I’m so close — all I need is that one final piece, and JACKPOT!”

That’s the Houston Rockets right now. They have collected all the secondary pieces – some more unique than others – but not a single piece that isn’t replaceable. They’re only a piece or two away from legitimately contending, but unfortunately those pieces are Boardwalk and Pennsylvania Ave., and the sad truth is the value of those pieces is so great that you’d give up every chip you have and then some to get just one of them.

Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Moses Malone, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and now Dirk Nowitzki. The harsh reality (and poorly-kept secret) about the NBA is that one or more of these 11 superstars have been on the roster of 31 of the last 32 Championship teams. Which current Rocket would you put in that class? Having a superstar isn’t a luxury – it’s mandatory.

Priority number one, two and three should be acquiring an impact player or laying the groundwork to do so, and that means player development, trades for the future, improving draft position and maximizing 2012 cap room. The Rockets don’t have to be committed to a long haul rebuild – those are the types of assets that are a lot easier to flip for a superstar than it would be dangling Chase Budinger and Hasheem Thabeet. But if the Rockets strike out in 2012 free agency, as they did in their pursuits of Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony, then there is something to fall back on. All this should put “Winning in 2011-12″ fairly low on the totem pole, somewhere between chicken nachos sales and corporate marketing of T-Will’s tweets.

Let me be clear – I’m not talking about kicking the ball out of bounds and losing games on purpose. That’s absurd. However, do the Rockets have to strongly consider letting Chuck Hayes walk? Yes. Do they have to seriously explore trade options for Luis Scola and Kevin Martin? I think so. Do players like Patrick Patterson, T-Will, Courtney Lee and Marcus Morris need to see more time? Probably. Cap room, draft picks and young players to trade — the Rockets should enter the summer of 2012 with all three at their disposal.

The Rockets have consistently stated that they plan to follow the “Celtics model”, signifying that they hope to make trades that will catapult them to contender status, much like the Garnett and Ray Allen heists did for the Celtics in 2007, however the similarities between the two situations are fading. The Rockets no longer have an established superstar under contract, as the Celtics did (Paul Pierce), and Boston had two trade chips the Rockets can’t match — a top 5 lottery pick and a 22-year old, 6-foot-10 big (Al Jefferson) that many felt could be a 20-10 guy for years.

Boston had one other thing Houston has been unwilling to have – a losing record. The Celtics were dead last in their conference and the second-worst team in the entire NBA, yet two trades made them NBA Champions the very next season. Winning culture and ticket sellouts didn’t take years to develop – they sprouted overnight.

When the Rockets let Rick Adelman go, I praised management for saying that they needed change, that they needed to alter their core. Morey summed it up beautifully –

“The mistakes that are done across the league are [by] teams that stabilize on a foundation that wins you games and maybe preserves jobs but they’re not making the tough choices, with either players or in other areas, that get you the improvement you need and the change you need to get to where you want to be,” said Morey.

We’re at that point, confronted with another tough choice, and the Rockets can’t afford to simply engage the cruise control on another .500 season. Yes, Morey could stun us all in short order and pull off a trade that renders this all moot, making winning an immediate priority, but barring foundation-altering change before Santa’s sleigh arrives, the Rockets should strongly consider taking a step back. They may feel Houston fans deserve a competitive team every season, but it would be a mistake to disappoint the fans in the long-term by being afraid to disappoint the fans in the short-term.

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