Shoals Unlimited: Rockets Are Bizarro Celtics


↵
↵Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week.
↵
↵Coming into this season, hopes were high for the Houston Rockets. Maybe the two-star model of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming had led to immeasurable disappointment and injury. But with the addition of Ron Artest, plus the team concept the Rockets tapped into while on their partially Yao-less 22-game winning streak last year, Houston was in the unique position of being able to turn over a new leaf without sacrificing the old one. Maybe T-Mac is fading, but a healthy Yao still dominates, and Artest provides a frightening new presence at both ends. It didn't seem too bold to suggest they'd challenge the Lakers for Western Conference superiority.
↵
↵That hasn't quite happened. McGrady has been a mess; at times, he's tapped into his reservoir of playmaking and versatility, but just as often, he's looked every bit the washed-up, crumpled scorer. Artest has dealt with injury issues, periodically missing games and now coming off the bench, though it's hard to tell if this role is strategic or out of medical necessity. In addition, Shane Battier, the hero of a thousand fantasy teams and key cog in the Rockets plan, took forever to even get on the court and is now struggling to get his game stabilized. And yet despite these setbacks, the Rockets are currently eighth in their conference, firing on just enough cylinders enough of the time to keep themselves in the playoff race.
↵
↵This should be cause for optimism. Just wait until Rick Adelman has his full cache of weapons at his disposal, when this good-not-great team receives a sudden infusion of star power, or at least high-test basketball talent. They should, ahem, "rocket" up in the standings, making a late season run that finds them red-hot at just the right time. Right?
↵
↵But Houston's dealing with two issues: Nursing a team back to health, and deciding on a new version of the team that involves an altered McGrady and the versatile, but mercurial, Artest. It's like one of those elementary school math problems with two trains moving at different speeds, hoping to pass each other in such a way that your answer comes out right. Do Battier and Ron Ron overlap too much? Luis Scola and Carl Landry have been foundational for Rockets 2.0; darest Adelman downplay their roles? Suppose McGrady returns to form, as opposed to resigning himself to sublime point forward-dom. Won't he, Artest, and Yao need some to jell sharing the ball -- or at least not cluttering the offense?
↵
↵What's more, it's tough to discern whether, as with Artest's sixth-man steez, we're seeing a player on his way back from injury, a team learning about itself, both, or neither. Perhaps trying to talk and chew gum at once is keeping either prophecy from being fulfilled. It's a bit strong to call either goal a distraction, but it's decidedly difficult to get a player back on track when he doesn't know what that track is, or to find a track for said player without knowing what he's capable of.
↵
↵The real irony here stems from last season's win streak. Without Yao, the Rockets found new life, embraced Adelman's offensive flexibility while doubling down on the defensive intensity they learned from former coach Jeff Van Gundy, and became darlings of the league. T-Mac seemed to find a middle ground between distributor and primary offensive option, one that allowed him to go off when he could, or needed to, but very much saw him defer to a system. Yet the Rockets lost that spark, and there was yet another early playoff exit. Some fans trotted out the well-worn "Ewing Theory," though only a fool would suggest that a giant in his prime was holding the team back.
↵
↵So now, the Rockets are stuck with, depending on your points of view, either Ewing Theory redux, or Ewing Theory to the fourth power. There's good evidence to suggest that this team doesn't need star turns to win, just smart play from capable players. Maybe this season will crest with McGrady, Artest and Battier accepting muted roles, their very own "Ubuntu" born out of a particularly sharp brand of pragmatism. That could be enough to give them a late-season boost, and put them in prime position for the playoffs, if not quite the lofty spot we'd slated for them. Or Rick Adelman will be stuck juggling players to save the Rockets from their surplus of talent, limiting minutes and running an equal opportunity offense that never allows a balance of power to take hold. That seems like a recipe for disaster, but it also sounds like something Mike D'Antoni could do en route to the Conference Finals.
↵
↵For the moment, as the Rockets hang tough in standings, they've got that benchmark to build on, which makes all these hypotheticals far less shrill and desperate. Let's just hope that this situation doesn't backfire on them -- down the stretch or when 2009-10 rolls around.↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Spinner

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.