TrueHoop: TrueHouston

Failure to launch for Rockets

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
10:00
AM ET
By Jason Friedman
Special to ESPN.com
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RocketsBill Baptist/NBAE/Getty ImagesInstead of adding a final piece to the puzzle, Houston ended up losing rising star Chandler Parsons.
“It was a tough weekend. … We were very close to what we thought was maybe the best team in the NBA.”

Daryl Morey made his way through the sports radio circuit Monday morning, dutifully expressing the heartache attached to a mind-bending 48-hour stretch that saw his Houston Rockets go from the edge of title contention to taking, at least for now, an agonizing step back in their tireless attempt to scale the NBA mountain.

And yet, Morey’s mood was neither morose nor downtrodden. It was borderline defiant. Surely the Rockets general manager would rather be preparing for a press conference welcoming Chris Bosh to Houston after a years-long pursuit and feting the return of Chandler Parsons. But with Bosh staying in Miami and Parsons heading to Dallas, Morey seemed ready to move on and begin the plotting yet again.

The Rockets have been here before. In December 2011, the Rockets were up in arms over the vetoed Chris Paul trade that would have landed them Pau Gasol. Two summers ago, Houston was branded a team incapable of acquiring superstar talent when the club’s efforts to trade for either Dwight Howard (fresh off back surgery and with no desire, at the time, to come to Houston) or Andrew Bynum fell flat.

But Morey never stopped maneuvering, and all of those trades and draft picks and failed trades ultimately ended with both Howard and James Harden ending up in Houston.

That is the silver, or at least pewter, lining surely being peddled by those at the helm of Houston’s mission control today. It is not unreasonable. This team should still be very good. Howard and Harden remain the best players in the league at their respective positions. The newly acquired Trevor Ariza should fit nicely alongside them, supplying sorely needed wing defense and 3-point shooting at a price far more palatable than Parsons’ new deal. Young talent like Pat Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas ought to continue to improve. 2014 second-round selection Nick Johnson has acquitted himself quite nicely during summer league so far. And the first-round pick acquired from the Pelicans (with protections guaranteed to make it fall somewhere between selections 4-19) in the Omer Asik deal and the $8.4 million trade exception courtesy of the Jeremy Lin trade with the Lakers are valuable tools now at the Rockets’ disposal. They have and continue to value most the things that lie at the heart of the formula that has brought them to this point: asset accumulation and flexibility. Prepare to hear Houston’s name connected to Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic, Paul Millsap and LaMarcus Aldridge approximately 1.8 million times between now and the moment those players are either locked up or shipped elsewhere.

For now, though, the Rockets must live with their misstep. And given the belief in some circles that Houston’s brain trust routinely exhibits a confidence bordering on arrogance, rest assured there exists a sizable faction of NBA execs and insiders who could not be happier at how this past weekend’s events unfolded. Comments such as, “You have to be the one to find the Chandler Parsons, not the one that gives the Chandler Parsons the max contracts,” which Morey said Monday morning during a radio interview, don’t exactly help in that regard.

To some, Morey’s wings just got burned to smithereens by the twin suns of Bosh and Parsons. After all, it was the Rockets’ calculated roll of the dice that allowed the newest member of the Mavericks to hit restricted free agency this summer instead of holding on to him for another discounted season and letting him hit the unrestricted free-agent market next year. Now they have nothing to show for their efforts after being force fed the same sort of bitter pill they made New York and Chicago swallow two years ago because of the creatively structured contracts they conjured for Lin and Asik, respectively. Morey called Parsons’ contract “one of the most untradeable structures I’ve ever seen” Monday during an interview with KBME-AM.

[+] EnlargeMorey
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty ImagesIntroducing two draft picks is hardly the summer celebration Daryl Morey was hoping to have.
The loss of the 25-year-old forward deprives Houston not only of a versatile secondary playmaker, but also a valuable voice in a locker room that wasn’t always on the same page a year ago. Parsons is a uniter, a player with a gift for bringing different groups together and making everyone he comes in contact with feel valued. His loss in that respect is by no means catastrophic, but it does place even more responsibility on the shoulders of Howard and Harden to grow, mature and prove that they are capable of creating a culture that is all about winning – and not just about winning their way and on their terms.

Yes, it’s only mid-July and we’re still two-and-a-half months away from the start of training camp. We can’t yet see anywhere close to the complete picture. But from today’s vantage point it’s clear the Rockets face big questions -- questions they likely didn’t envision having to tackle a week ago -- both on and off the court. Making matters more difficult, they will be forced to find solutions while toiling with the NBA’s most demanding division. The Spurs are the Spurs, and Memphis, Dallas and New Orleans all appear bigger and better than they were when last we saw them.

But perspective is important here. Remember: the Rockets were a mere “yes” from Bosh away from having what no less an authority than Jeff Van Gundy declared “the best starting five in the NBA.” A yes from the Heat center would have yielded Houston an All-Star talent for a third consecutive summer. The same maddening, capricious and uncontrollable twists and turns that can ruin even the most flawless play call on the court can just as easily wreak havoc with team building off of it. Failure doesn’t mean you ditch the plan if you believe it remains the best path to ultimate success. Houston’s patience and predatory instincts are what put the franchise in position to land Harden and Howard.

Like 28 other teams in this league, Houston sees San Antonio as the benchmark for team-building, culture and sustained excellence. When an unfathomable twist of fate left the Spurs reeling 13 months ago, provoking shouts that their title window had closed for good, they never wavered in their response. In their own way, the Rockets’ reply to excruciating misfortune will be no different: For better or worse, through well-placed belief or misguided hubris, they will faithfully stick to their vision and continue the quest to build a lasting NBA empire, hoping all the while that their story eventually mirrors that of the fairy tale that seemingly never ends in San Antonio.

Jason Friedman is a writer living in Houston. He previously wrote for the Rockets' official website.

Tracy at the bat

May, 13, 2014
May 13
10:39
AM ET
Serrano By Shea Serrano
Special to ESPN.com
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Tracy McGradyBob Levey/Getty ImagesNow pitching for the Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters: seven-time NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady.
On Saturday night, Tracy McGrady, former two-time NBA scoring champion and seven-time NBA All-Star, played professional baseball for a team called the Sugar Land Skeeters in Sugar Land, Texas. Eight notes from the game:

McGrady's history, to me and to the world

McGrady is one of my all-time favorite NBA players. His movements were always just so languid and seamless. He really was breathtaking. When he played, it seemed less like he was moving around a basketball court and more like he was performing in a ballet. When I played basketball, it looked as if someone dropped a pail of wrenches down a flight of stairs. I suppose that's why I was drawn to him.

I remember first rooting for him when he was in Toronto. (This was back when he was playing with Vince Carter, with whom basically everyone on earth was in love because that was back before he became insufferable.) I followed McGrady to Orlando (where he was unreal) then the Rockets (when he started to become a second-tier superhero, like Hawkeye* or Daredevil**) then the Knicks (where he was human) then the Pistons (where he passed away) then the Hawks (where his body became wholly stiffened from rigor mortis) then the Spurs (where he was angel from heaven). We had a brief breakup after he poured acid on the Spurs in 2004 (his legendary 13 points in 35 seconds game), but we've since made up. Tracy McGrady is dope. He's all-world. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. And if you don't think so then I hate you.

*Oh, you're very good at shooting arrows? Cool. So's basically everyone in the Winter Olympics.

**He was blinded by a radioactive substance but that same radioactive substance heightened all of his other senses so his superpower was that he could almost see but still not really.

Sugar Land is a slightly deceptive name

Sugar Land is a city right outside of Houston. It sounds like a place that you'd land on if you were playing Candy Land. It's not though. (They don't even have any normal mountains, let alone one made of gumdrops.) Mostly, it's just a place where people that make a nice amount of money move to when they don't want to live in Houston anymore. They called it Sugar Land because it was founded as a sugar plantation, and also because Imperial Sugar's distribution center used to be there. If you tell your kids you're taking them to Sugar Land they get super-duper excited. Then when you get there they act like first-class jerks because it's not a city made of lollipops like they'd imagined. Basically what I'm saying is don't tell them you're taking them to Sugar Land if you're taking them to Sugar Land. Tell them you're taking them to Omaha or the doctor's office or whatever.

The Skeeters

The Sugar Land Skeeters are part of a professional baseball team in something called the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, which describes itself as the "highest level of Minor League Baseball." The league is 16 years old. The Skeeters, however, are relatively new; this is only their third season. If you seem to remember the name, it's because Roger Clemens pitched there in August 2012. McGrady actually worked with Clemens when he decided he wanted to pursue being a pitcher. Neat note: The catcher McGrady was throwing to during the game was actually Clemens' son Koby.

An actual skeeter

"Skeeter" is a slang term for "mosquito." The name was voted on by fans of the team. I suppose if you're going to name your baseball team after a parasite, "Skeeter" is fine enough.

McGrady's performance

In 35 pitches, he threw 18 strikes (though no strikeouts), gave up a home run and a base hit, and recorded two walks. (You can see him pitch right here.)

I asked one of the stadium staff members how he felt about McGrady's performance. His response: "It was a good showing. Now we can release him and get a real pitcher."

It's nice to see that McGrady's baseball fans are as unruly as his basketball fans were.

The four best songs played

All through the game, music was played over the PA system. The four best songs that were played:

  1. "Walk It Out": They played it any time one of the Skeeters players was walked, which is probably a thing that happens at a lot of baseball parks. It's a good enough song all by itself (it's actually the platinum debut single from an Atlanta rapper that accidentally named himself Unk). More important than that though: It's the soundtrack to the part in "Stomp the Yard" where the main good guy dance battles the main bad guy for the first time. I can't think of a more important scene in my whole life.
  2. "Dark Horse": This is that Katy Perry/Juicy J song. You can pretend you don't like it if you want, but, come on. It's pretty great. The drop right where Juicy J comes in is perfect.
  3. The very loud, very exciting song from "The Departed": I could look it up but you know the one I'm talking about. It's the one that's very loud and very exciting.
  4. "Jump, Jump": Sometimes I miss 1992 a lot.
Ice-T

The fifth-best song that was played: "For the Love of Money." I don't know if that song is supposed to make me think of money or the O'Jays or maybe even stealing from my mother. It doesn't make me think of any of that though. It makes me think of Ice-T, because he was in a movie called "New Jack City" from 1991 that I still watch today and "For the Love of Money" is on the soundtrack. "New Jack City" is the greatest movie Ice-T was in of all time. The others in his top five: 5) "Leprechaun in the Hood" (2000); 4)"Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo" (1985); 3) "Mean Guns" (1997); and 2.) "Surviving the Game" (1994).

McGrady and baseball

McGrady pitched only 1 2/3 innings. As is usually the case with baseball, the rest of the time was mostly spent just waiting around and enjoying the air. McGrady spent a few minutes talking to reporters about things. Most of his comments were ready-made. ("I love this. This is what I love waking up doing every day. I love being around these guys in the clubhouse.")

But one comment felt larger than all the rest, and, upon examination, I found to be ultra-moving. After speaking for a few moments about pitch count, he worked his way to saying, "If this is the only time I pitch, it's a gratifying feeling." That's a powerful statement thick with sentiment.

McGrady has talked for a long time about how much he always loved baseball, how he probably would've pursued it fully if he'd been at a school that offered it (and probably if he'd not grown to be 6-foot-8). That he was able to accomplish this at 34 years old on a professional level as an afterthought to an impressive career in a different sport altogether is a bright, beautiful indicator of his cosmic athleticism, but that there’s a possibility that it’s over already --and that he expressed it-- is maybe the most McGrady of all.

I remember watching Game 7 between the Rockets and the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 2007 NBA playoffs. McGrady threw up a very McGrady-like line (29 points, 13 assists, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks), but couldn't drag his teammates to victory. They lost by four. During the press conference afterward, McGrady cried softly. It was hard to watch. But it didn't feel unnatural. It just felt like part of his arc.

This does too. It didn't feel like a play for publicity or the last bit of light from a dying star, it just felt like what it was: A guy throwing baseballs for a few minutes. And that's dope for him. He deserved the moment. And if you don't think so then I hate you.

Has Houston found its missing piece?

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
9:46
AM ET
Huq By Rahat Huq
Special to ESPN.com
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Terrence JonesAP Photo/David J. PhillipOnce an afterthought, Terrence Jones may be just what the Houston Rockets have been looking for.
On draft night 2012, in the media workroom deep in the bowels of Toyota Center, a collective groan evinced upon the announcement of the No. 18 pick. Most present were content with the Houston Rockets’ earlier selections of Jeremy Lamb and Royce White. They were both tantalizing prospects with some of the most unique skill sets in the entire draft – a prototypical shooting guard and a powerful 4 with the playmaking ability of a point guard. But Terrence Jones? With Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson already on board, were the Rockets attempting to corner the market on unimpressive, undersized power forwards?

A year and a half later, the tune in Houston has changed. After a rookie season in which Jones often rode the pine, the Rockets entered training camp for the 2013-14 season with no veteran power forwards on the roster. That made Jones the default option next to Dwight Howard in the starting unit. With Houston desperate to make an Omer Asik-Howard “Twin Towers” lineup work, Jones remained chained to the bench to start the season. But when that experiment failed, Jones was sent back out with the starters to start the second half on Nov. 11 against the Toronto Raptors. He hasn’t given up the spot since, and as result, the Rockets’ offense has taken off.
[+] EnlargeRockets
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsAfter a lengthy search, the Rockets' first unit has fit together quite well in Terrence Jones' 18 starts.

The quintet of Jones, Howard, Patrick Beverley, James Harden and Chandler Parsons has posted an offensive rating of 115.3 in 228 minutes played. They’ve posted a net rating of plus-17.9 per 100 possessions and accumulated a true shooting percentage of 60 percent. By comparison, that same lineup with Asik in for Jones scored 82.6 points per 100 possessions, with a net rating of minus-26.5. Their true shooting percentage was 45.7 percent. While Houston’s 17-9 record to start the season is worse than one might have expected, Jones was the antidote to its early-season offensive woes. With Asik out and Jones in his place, the offense has worked exactly as Daryl Morey had envisioned.

Jones, a former Kentucky standout once projected to be drafted in the top five, doesn’t have any elite indicators: average size; no post game to speak of; and while athletic, you wouldn’t pin the “freakish” label on him. But what he can do fits the Houston lineup.

A former point guard, Jones’ best attribute is his handle. The 6-foot-9, 252-pounder gets low on the dribble, a fundamental ballhandling habit ingrained into young children but a trait rare for NBA big men. Setting out on the perimeter almost exclusively during his court time, Jones attacks off the catch either with a pump fake or a hesitation dribble.

One of the more entertaining spectacles from each Rockets game involves Jones corralling the rebound and leading the break on his own. In these moments, Houston’s guards stroll the other way, confident Jones will finish the play. And with a surprisingly accurate shooting stroke, Jones can spread the floor and give Houston’s stars the space they need to operate inside. He is always moving, either in transition or in the half court, finishing the passes off cuts to the rim that Asik couldn't handle.

After attempts to honor Asik’s long-standing trade request, reports surfaced on Thursday that the Rockets had backed away from the negotiation table and planned to hold onto the big man for the time being. Undoubtedly, they weren't too thrilled by the available offers. But it's fair to assume that the urgency over filling the power forward spot has also diminished.

Still in just the infancy of his development, Jones’ next assignment will be developing the ability to create on his own out of nothing. As this face-up game evolves, a midrange jumper and some varied finishing moves would also be of use.

Jones will also have to improve on defense. While he averaged 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes last season (by comparison, Serge Ibaka averaged 2.6 per 36 his rookie year), too often he gets lost in rotations, not reacting quickly enough to help out his teammates in the scheme of the team’s defense. For the Rockets to seriously contend, this will have to change. The good news is that he is only 21 years old and will get better with each opening tip.

It’s unclear how and when the Asik situation will be resolved. The team will probably look to deal him again closer to the trade deadline. It will surely try to get him back out on the court in the meantime. But one thing is already clear: In Jones, the Rockets have their power forward.

No more Moreyball; just basketball

November, 20, 2013
11/20/13
10:31
AM ET
Huq By Rahat Huq
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Dwight HowardAP Photo/Don RyanAfter years of uncertainty and chess moves, the Rockets finally have their superstar core in place.
It’s early November of 2012. An unfamiliar buzz flows through Toyota Center; the stands are dotted with makeshift beards. Eyes are fixed upon the oversize HD screen hanging at center court. When the camera focuses on James Harden, who is warming up, the crowd becomes delirious. There is, once again, a star in Houston.

It’s October 2013. Dwight Howard stands at the corner locker in Houston’s expensively renovated locker room. An LCD monitor hangs above him -- there’s one above every locker -- detailing some unconventional stats. The big man seems content, quietly joking with reporters nearby. About an hour has passed since Howard pulled down a career high-tying 26 rebounds in his Rockets regular-season debut. Like the billboards with his image that can be seen on the drive into the arena, Howard at this moment stands taller than his listed 6-foot-10. He is the fruit of an almost two-year-long pursuit.


Long after Yao Ming’s body could take no more and Tracy McGrady had already been shipped away, the quest for a fresh foundation had begun. With the two forlorn superstars off the books, everything in Houston revolved around finding the franchise’s next centerpieces. Management took gambles on lottery busts and let several free agents walk for nothing. It traded Kyle Lowry and amnestied Luis Scola in the name of flexibility.

The mission in Houston was “asset arbitrage,” creating value where it didn’t exist. The goal was not so much to fill a lineup but rather to short on players while value continuously accrued, waiting for the moment to completely cash in on one prized stock; in some ways, that revolving door of acquired lottery busts represented Daryl Morey’s idea of diversifying his odds.
[+] EnlargeMcGrady-Ming
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Rockets struggled to find their way after the Yao Ming-Tracy McGrady era officially ended.

Some decried the constant, seemingly directionless dealing. Morey didn’t understand basketball, they said. He didn’t value chemistry and longevity, bedrock elements in sports success. “You can’t manage a roster like a stock portfolio. How will a team ever grow?”

But now, with Harden and Howard in tow and Morey’s methods validated, for the first time in years on 1510 Polk St., the rumblings are not about cap space and asset accumulation. The debate does not center upon the high-end free agency market but rather defensive rotations. For the first time during the Morey era, basketball matters most.

The transition began last year, when Morey applied his ideology to the game action, designing a system that pushed the pace and eschewed midrange jump shots. The strategy led to a playoff berth and precious experience for foundational pieces like Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin -- experience that can be seen as more valuable than the acquisition of yet another low lottery pick. In the following months, still distraught from the bitter defeat, players approached offseason regimens with added emphasis. That extra attention has paid off for Lin and Parsons in particular.

Yet for all of the individual progress, for the sum of the parts, the results have been mixed. Anointed by many as contenders, the Rockets have underperformed by most people’s expectations, entering Wednesday’s matchup with Dallas at 8-4 and in fifth place in the Western Conference. On Nov. 7, the Los Angeles Lakers torched Houston with a 3-point barrage, a few nights after the Clippers had carved up its perimeter defense. Those L.A. affairs raised concerns about the team’s ability and willingness to defend, things serious observers wouldn’t have cared about even a year before. Blown leads in consecutive games against the Clippers, Raptors and Sixers raised other red flags about focus and late-game strategy, which again would have been ancillary matters in the past.


Before an early-November home game, Omer Asik peeks out from the corridor -- near the showers where press is not allowed -- into the Rockets locker room. Seeing a few reporters awaiting pre-game availability, he retreats back into safety around the wall. A week earlier, already clad in blue jeans and a green sweater, Asik is stopped by Rockets staffers on behalf of the media as he attempts to dart toward the exit elevators. This was the same night that Howard was introduced over the PA as the starter at power forward for the first time since 2004. “This is the only time we’ve gotten to speak to him in two years,” someone quips of the shy big man. Asik is asked his thoughts on starting next to Howard, an experiment to which the Rockets -- at the time -- were committed. He responds in expected generalities.

But any hope for that frontcourt marriage has ended. With the thinking being that Asik was too valuable to just give up, Kevin McHale tried in vain to pair his two centers together for 12 minutes per game. The results were disastrous and the plug has been pulled. Now Asik has yet again asked out and will inevitably be dealt.

But while that matter is of a transactional nature, the on-court implications are of paramount concern. In previous years, the focus in these situations was placed upon greatest value return (or whatever star was available, for that matter). Now the key words now are “stretch 4” and “rim protection.” The Rockets have a set manner in which they play and a set foundation, and whomever they acquire for Asik must fit neatly into that master scheme. We care now about floor spacing and the interior defense when Howard is not on the court; we’re no longer only counting dollars under the cap.


Prior to yet another Houston home affair, Chandler Parsons walks into the Houston locker room following warm-ups, sweating lightly but hair still immaculately sculpted. With a smile and a wink, Parsons pushes the rap music sounding overhead to deafening levels before sprinting away, rendering Patrick Beverley -- speaking to the media about his replacement of Lin in the starting lineup -- barely audible. Parsons is in some ways the team’s leader, its longest tenured member. And the upcoming decision regarding his status might perhaps be the greatest sign of an evolving ethos in Houston. The club can either make the swingman a restricted free agent in 2014 or allow him to become unrestricted the following year. Either way, judging by the dollars commanded by comparable players such as Nicolas Batum, Parsons is due a hefty payday.

The Morey Model that we've come to know would point toward an obvious route: selling high on Parsons and plugging in a cheaper replacement. That familiar paradigm would likely say that Parsons, not a true star, probably wasn’t worth what he’ll command on the market. But these are different days in Houston, when the games are played on the court rather than strictly on spreadsheets.

We've reached that point where “cashing out” is no longer an option. Cutting ties with Parsons would mean relinquishing the longest tenured Rocket, the team’s “glue guy.” It would disrupt the chemistry and stability. And as some have said, these things matter. And with Howard and Harden now in the fold, the Rockets are in position to take heed, to embrace the intangibles that quantitative analysis might miss.

We've reached the point where Morey no longer has to -- or needs to -- play Moreyball.

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