Fraternizing with the Enemy: DITD & Only_A_Lad Talk Rockets vs Spurs

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Houston: We're not Dallas!
via indiehouston.org

What's that? We're playing the Rockets AGAIN? Man, those guys won't just leave us alone! Time for some inside scoop: I sat down with Only_A_Lad from The Dream Shake, in his Fortress of Solitude, to talk tonight's matchup. Enjoy, and play nice in the comments!


DITD:

I pretty much spent the off-season playing Zelda and getting my heart broken by the Texas Rangers, coming close to forsaking basketball and sports in general. How did you keep busy, and does it come close to the storm of publicity the Rockets have found themselves in the past few weeks? It looked at one point like nearly every team in the league was doing a three-way trade with Houston. Does that fill you with optimism or dread?


O_A_L:

I spent the offseason enjoying watching the Rangers lose (I never cared about them before, but the combination of the bandwagon and the Rangers' ownership's push to move the Astros to the AL has made me loathe them forever. Congratulations, Nolan, you wastrel) and trying to replace the NBA with college basketball (didn't work!) and criticism of the NBA's owners voiced to my friends and family (unfulfilling). As much as the lockout was a basketball wasteland, it was also a wonderful glimpse into how messed up the league really is. I mean, maybe we had an opportunity to forget about all that after the Seattle hit job and the Donaghy scandal disappeared from our short-term memory, but the lockout brought all that back in force. To those who wanted to see some basketball, it sucked, but to those of us who also wanted to see the league's scarred, wart-covered, tumorous underbelly exposed to the paying public, it was kind of glorious.

From one perspective (I want to see some basketball!) the past month was just a painful reminder of what the biopsy that was the 2011 Lockout discovered: Stern is totally out of touch with the public and the players, and legitimate basketball has taken a backseat to "basketball reasons" -- that Orwellian phrase, code for "everything not basketball and really about the business and politics of the game." The past month for the Rockets played out like the lockout in
miniature, scarring, disastrous, and ultimately beyond their control. From another perspective (let's call it Hunter S. Thompson but with basketball instead of football), it was an opportunity to witness the tragedy of the NBA's governance play itself out once more, reminding everyone about how nonsensical (I'd use a bovine-related scatologism, but I think y'all actually follow the SBN writing guidelines here, so I'll refrain) the NBA really is right now.

So I'd say December 2011 has been a low-point for the Rockets. Only a few other moments in club's history rival it in gutter-scraping lowness: tanking the 1984 season to get Olajuwon, losing Yao forever just a few weeks into the 2011 season, Scotty Pippen, THE PUNCH, and that time the team accused Hakeem of faking an injury in the early '90s. That's really about it. And all the others (save for THE PUNCH) were at least sort of the Rockets' fault.

But, despite it all, despite the insanity that has surrounded the Rockets for the last month, I'm hopeful. This doesn't get much air-play beyond those of us who worship at the altar of Daryl Morey (AKA Golden God), but the Rockets are kind of loaded with "assets" right now. Normally "assets" are the thing that GMs like Isiah Thomas would tell everyone they're getting to swing a trade for 2006 Kevin Garnett, but the Rockets have guys like Chase Budinger (average
forward making less than $1 million/year) and cap space going forward instead of Al Harrington and luxury tax payments.

Yeah, the Rockets got the rug pulled out from under them, Kevin Martin may or may not be miffed (I'm leaning towards "not really"), and they lost out on a plan to get the best frontcourt in the NBA and surround it with young talent, but to quote Speed Racer "Daryl showed his cards." The plan everyone assumed they had -- get pieces, trade them for someone awesome -- is apparently the reality. More to the point, Daryl showed that he's ready and willing to take advantage of whatever moves come up in the next year.

Beyond all that, the Rockets' assets are generally pretty good. Kyle Lowry is poised for a breakout season. Martin has struggled in his efforts in the preseason and the first game of the season, but he'll almost certainly get his form back soon. Scola is as good as ever. Everyone else should improve in some way (we're hoping for Jordan Hill, Terrence Williams, and even Hasheem Thabeet over at TDS). Even if the Rockets don't pull a major trade this year, they have great cap flexibility in the coming months and years, and any trade that takes on a major contract for cap relief wouldn't really harm that, because the Rockets still have their amnesty ability. For a team that (commendably, I think) refuses to lose to win (it might be non-ideal, but by God it's the Right Thing to Do), the Rockets have a lot of
good, young players who don't make very much money (you know, by NBA standards).

So, yeah, I'm optimistic. Well, I don't think I'm optimistic -- I think I'm being realistic and that there's good reason to think highly of the team right now -- but that's what it probably looks like to outsiders. The Rockets aren't the Next Big Thing like the Durants or Bulls or whatever, but they're possibly the Next Big Thing in the making.

What about the Spurs? I guess everyone would agree that the Conventional Wisdom is right and the Spurs are in a race against the erosion of Timmy's knees, but they keep trying to get younger, right? And what about Tony Parker? I remember the Spurs were reportedly trying to move him back in June before they shipped George Hill to Indianapolis, but the trade rumors have been circulating for, like, forever now. Is that a (hypothetical) move that even makes sense right now?

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via t.qkme.me

DITD:

Wow, what an epic response. I'm going to have to work hard to keep up. Your analysis of the lockout--and ensuing insanity--was spot-on. "Basketball Reasons" is a meme with legs, because it single-handedly encapsulates everything that's wrong with the sport. If this is the end of the road for Stern (PLEASE GOD IF YOU'RE THERE AND CARE ABOUT THE NBA MAKE IT SO), that will be on his tombstone. Everyone has their opinions about how that particular trade would have affected the Lakers and Hornets, but the team that really got screwed was Houston. You guys were the third wheel, standing off to the side, while the Mighty Stern slapped down two kids wrestling in the sandbox, and then you just for watching. And then the fans, just for reading about it.

If you're still in the market to deal your many assets (which you are,) it's been the feeling of most of us at PtR that losing Scola was one of the worst, if not the worst, moves that our front office has ever made, and we would give a large quantity of powerful magic artifacts to get him back. As for me, I've got a pretty sweet broadsword that gives +5 hit points, and a magnetic tractor beam that keeps objects out of the reach of your enemies. We've been using it to keep Dejuan Blair away from Whataburger, but I'll make the sacrifice. What do you say?

The two preseason games were an interesting diptic. In the first game, our old guys obviously rusty and the young guys were obviously inexperienced, but things started to gel in the second game. Then, through sheer will, we beat the Grizzlies in the first game of the season, though it would only even things between us if it counted as five losses instead of one, and also engraved our name next to the Mavericks as co-champions [Editor's Note: Ugh! Just -- blech and ... retch! -JRW]. I guess you can't always get what you want.

The Rockets appear to have the look of one of those teams that will always be competitive, but will hang just on the outside of the championship hunt, barring an extraordinary stroke of luck or an improbable run worthy of a teen-sports film starring Emilio Estevez. I hope you don't take that as an insult, because it isn't. It means I think they're dangerous. Very dangerous.

As for the Spurs, they've been fighting the "too old" label for... well, about six years now, and have managed to exceed then fail to meet expectations once a season, every season. While this could be Tim's last year (certainly the last of his contract, but we've got a long way to go), and Manu is looking more fragile by the week, we've got a truly remarkable crop of young guys: James Anderson, Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, a re-born Richard Jefferson, and a steadily-improving Tiago Splitter who can take up the slack. Last year, we felt like we had one of the overall best "TEAMS" in franchise history, and were unceremoniously dumped by the #8 seed for our trouble. This year, our expectations are publicly tempered, but privately we're clapping our hands together in glee.

We all thought that Parker was on the trading block, and perhaps he still is, but TJ Ford is not a starting point guard, and any residual bad feeling after the Eva/Barry fiasco appears to have waned. If they can keep RJ around, they can keep Tony. It looks like we're going to be standing pat this season, which a few weeks ago looked like a worse idea than dumping Scola, but is now looking pretty good as we see other teams--the Lakers, the Mavericks--get worse. Of course, with the Clippers coming to town, we could be in for a rude awakening.

To me, it looks like a three-way race for the Southwest division, with the Memphis still being strong, the Mavericks fading, and the Rockets remaining as dangerous as ever, minus one 7-foot-tall Chinese man. Is that how you see it? Who in the West scares you the most right now?

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BEST FRIENDS FOREVER

O_A_L:

I don't really think the Southwest is a three-way race. As you say, the Spurs are probably better than most think they are (which is weird since they won 61 games last year). I think, despite all the talk about how badly "old" teams like the Spurs will do in the compressed season, San Antonio is still the class of the division. A lot of that is just because I find the Grizzlies totally perplexing (I guess the Spurs did, too), but it's also because I see the Spurs as something of a benign version of the Jazz -- militarily efficient and unstoppable in the regular season, but without anything close to the fascist malevolence of the (now departed) Jerry Sloan. Pops might be old and somewhat humorless, but that's not really the same thing. I normally don't put much stock in that "veteran presence" stuff, but Popovich and the Spurs know how to get the most out of that lineup over the long haul. You might be worried about young teams like the Clippers coming to town, but if there's anything the Spurs have taught us over the last decade, it's that they have an extraordinary ability to destroy interesting and fun teams through their military precision and discipline (see: the SSoL Suns). Pay no mind to that Memphis loss. There was very little interesting or fun about that team. Memphis is something else entirely: utterly bewildering, and not in a crazy fun way at all. It's a team that has probably capped out its abilities for the foreseeable future as a 5-seed in most seasons. Too much of that roster's cap is tied up in mediocre-to-pretty-good players given max contracts. Still, they're dangerous this year. Young, defensive-minded, and deep. Ho hum good for them.


Labeling the Rockets "dangerous" is sort of sweet, and I'd like to
emphatically agree, but I'd settle for something more like "sort of unsafe, like a moped going a little too fast." "Dangerous" implies "actually threatening," and while they're cool and I believe in this team and all that, they're a few moves away from being the real deal. I think they can make the playoffs with the right breaks, but it's going to take some growth and luck to make it happen. They desperately
need a mega trade to make a championship anywhere close to possible. So, yeah, I think the Spurs have got the Division race locked up (as much as it matters), barring injury.

That Luis Scola trade was such an interesting turn of events for both the Rockets and Spurs, wasn't it? It made some sense for the Spurs, who if I remember right were in the luxury tax or something, had just taken Splitter in the draft, and it wasn't immediately clear that Scola was going to figure out his contract situation, anyways. So maybe it wasn't nearly as awful a move as y'all tend to think. For the Rockets, it demonstrated a lot of why the Rockets are where they are today: Morey swung basically the perfect trade, and Adelman refused to play the guy they got for the first few months of the season because, well, he was a rookie (even if he was 27 and had been playing pro basketball for nearly a decade) and he had to earn his lumps on the bench or something. Acquiring players and then resisting using those players because of... whatever: that's why Kevin McHale is now head coach of the Rockets.

Well, I guess the Rockets are also in their current position because of the whole Yao thing, too. Thanks for reminding me again of that. But if you're interested in trading magical assets, a Cleric who can cast Heal on Yao's feet, or a set of magical silver legs, etc would be acceptable. I guess that would make everything better. Excuse me while I weep for a little bit.

As far as who in the West scares me, I guess it's the Thunder, even if that isn't a sexy pick. If anything, it's a tremendously frustrating pick, given that team's travesty of a history and location. But BPro picks them as the best team in the West, and even though they have some terrible traits (a basic inability to run plays, for instance),
they're cheap, young, and very good. And they're well-run, so there won't be any NOLA or Minnesota shenanigans where they waste Durant's prime with bad signings and worse trades.

Other than them, it's kind of barren. I've already said that I think San Antonio will be okay this season, and I fully expect them to get a top-four seed (or, at the very least, pull a '99 Knicks, rest everyone, and punk the West in the playoffs out of the sixth or seventh seed). Dallas has regressed (remember how everyone said the Rockets were doomed because they didn't have a center last season even though Chuck Hayes is really awesome? Well, this season Dallas has a really crappy center, and in crunch time Dirk either takes the five or Odom/Marion sits. That team's got some problems, and while they might get it all figured out by the playoffs, they won't have the advantages of Chandler allowing them to play a zone and shore up the paint. I don't care what Shawn Marion thinks, Dallas is getting more than enough "respect" at the start of this season). Denver promises to be good, as do the Clippers. I don't really have much confidence in anyone else. It's an OKC/Spurs/Denver/Clippers conference, with the Lakers, Mavs, and Memphis bringing up the rear. Houston, Minnesota, and Portland (and, distantly, Phoenix) will fight for the honor of facing the Durants in the first round.

But I'm a firm believer that basketball, like most things in life, aren't fully enjoyed by focusing on the excellent. Basketball is best enjoyed by seeing the critically flawed, and the West has that in bunches. You might think the East has "critically flawed" all locked up, but there's a difference between being just flawed enough that you're still good-but-weak, and being so "flawed" that you're just genuinely bad.

The Lakers are a glorious mess. Kobe is going to kill Mike Brown and/or request a trade by February, and I am totally serious about that. And it will be a real thing, too. He'll pressure his way out of the organization, since he desperately wants to win and the Lakers aren't going anywhere unless they can pull off that trade for Howard, which won't happen, either. Maybe the top of the West is filled with sort-of-boring teams and the Clippers, but the Lakers promise to make this season priceless. That team is set to implode.


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via Doc Funk

If the Spurs don't trade Tony in a year or so, then there's at least some chance that the team will turn into a similar mess, right? Of course, Pops would have to retire first, but if that happens and Timmy's gone, and it's just Parker and Manu and a bunch of rumors about who slept with whose wife, it's going to get good. Not for Spurs fans, definitely, but certainly for the rest of us. This could be some Maury Povich-level stuff...

...Okay, so there's no real chance that the Spurs turn into the Lakers 2.0 in this lifetime. But there are other options for insanity this season. Nash could wake up one morning, realize that the Suns are wasting his last few quality years, demand a trade to the Knicks (it would have to be the Knicks) and cause another showdown between Robert
Sarver, Stern, and the NBAPA. Mark Jackson's commitment to defense and grind-it-out basketball will undoubtedly offend Warriors fans, common sense, and his players, and it may be enough to sink the Warriors and force that Monta Ellis trade everyone has been waiting for. Mark Cuban will undoubtedly say something exceedingly dumb and sickening at some point this season (he already has!), and there's a strong possibility that Houston's own Terrence Williams will rebel against inadequate playing time by starting another Twitter war.

Basketball is best when it's pure anarchy, and all the pieces are in place for chaos to reign in the compressed '11 season.

DITD:

One more, and I'll keep it brief because this is shaping up to be the longest FwtE in history--which I don't believe is a bad thing.

There's an ongoing conversation among Spurs fans about who is going to be "THE GUY" in the Post-Duncan era; who is going to take the torch that was passed from David Robinson to Tim. Most of us think that "THE GUY" isn't here yet, others believe it's going to be Manu's team for a little while longer, and still others think one of the new faces like Anderson, Leonard or Splitter have what it takes. Franchise players don't exactly come out of a cereal box, and perhaps we're just spoiled to have gotten two #1 draft picks precisely when we needed them (thanks, Gandalf!), so maybe "THE GUY" just isn't going to exist until we've gone through some lean years.

I look at the Rockets roster and see a similar problem--Yao was a towering force when healthy, but the combination of wretched injury luck and a weak supporting cast kept him from taking you to the promised land. And now he's gone. Is simple agglomeration of role players enough to do the job? Or do you need to wait until the opportune moment, and acquire a true all-star--a Duncan, a Nowitzki, a Bryant, a Paul, a Griffin (CURSE YOU DONALD STERLING)? And who do you think that might be?


O_A_L:

If there's any other team that has a front office capable of pulling off what the Rockets are trying to pull off (rebuild without tanking by drafting well and throwing enough good young players at someone so they give you a franchise star), it's probably the Spurs. A decade ago, it was the Lakers who did it through Jerry West's moves to sign Shaq, but I really doubt the Lakers' ability to pull that off nowadays. Kupchak just doesn't have the same cunning as West, and he has too much that he'd have to tear down. The Spurs, however, have a front office that really knows what it's doing, which is the biggest advantage you can have in basketball these days.

I suspect the Spurs will probably have a little '94 Bulls in them after Timmy finally hangs it up, and it will be Manu's team for a little while. But Manu isn't exactly young, either. He'll be 35 next summer, and while he could possibly keep playing for several more years, that's a ticking clock, too. If the Spurs think they can rebuild on the fly, I guess it will then become Parker's team, but if they think they need to endure the lottery to rebuild, he'll be gone, too.

You never know. Maybe Splitter or Leonard can become stars, but either of those would be at least a little surprising. Still, it's the path the Rockets are currently following until they can figure out a new trade, and as a fan it's not so bad.

But, like you say, you need that superstar. No, the collection of role-players doesn't work -- it won't get you to the playoffs in a competitive conference, and it definitely won't win you a championship. People like to point to that '04 Pistons team as a championship squad without a superstar, but that team had a loaded lineup nonetheless. You just can't do it if you don't have at least one star player -- the math doesn't work. You need someone who can claim 10-15 wins a year by himself every year -- that's the difference between the ninth seed (the Rockets) and the fourth seed (the Thunder). Yao was that guy when healthy, and now he's back in China going to college.

The Rockets obviously need to get someone to replace him. That doesn't have to be a positional thing, of course, they just need someone good enough to make an All-NBA team every year (you know, not really make it but be good enough that they could appear and nobody would say "wut") and lead the team to greatness. The problem is you have to find someone who is actually a good enough to do that. You have to find someone more like Kobe Bryant than Danny Granger. There are a lot of "false stars" in the NBA -- guys who aren't actually good enough to be the best guy on a championship team, but who nevertheless masquerade as superstars. It's not their fault or anything, it's just that the media proclaims the leading scorer on every crappy team a "star" (unless they're the Rockets I guess).

Obviously, if the Rockets could somehow get Howard, that would solve all their problems. I have total confidence that if they gave up the farm to get him (why not? The current squad isn't good enough to win, and fortune favors the bold and all that...), they could quickly reload in the offseason. They would just need some commitment from Howard that he would still be here in the 2012-2013 season. But, regardless of how cool of a team I think Morey and Co. could build around Howard in a few months of effort, I seriously doubt that the Rockets could make an offer that will beat out an offer from other teams.

Other than Howard, I don't know. There are plenty of guys I think the Rockets could acquire and make the team a little better, but they wouldn't be the piece they really, really need (For instance: I'm a huge Iguodala fan, and I'd love to see him in Houston, but he's not the guy to make it all happen). But no one knew that Pau Gasol was on the market a few months ago, so who knows how this will play out? The Rockets (and Rockets fans) are basically just waiting for the other shoe to drop at this point.

I want to thank y'all at Pounding the Rock. It's been a pleasure, and I hope we can do this again at some point.

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