Rockets prove rebuilding doesn't require tanking

Rockets prove rebuilding doesn't require tanking
November 20, 2013, 1:00 pm
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Last night in Houston, the Celtics lost to the Rockets by 24 points. And while the 109-85 final score clearly demonstrates that Houston was the better team, it doesn’t accurately describe the manhandling that took place.
You know how sometimes you watch a blowout and walk away thinking, “Well, it wasn’t as bad as the final score. . .” Last night wasn’t one of those times.

It was as bad as the final score. Probably worse. The Rockets jumped out to an 18-1 lead. They scored 68 points in the first half. They did whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to.
Not that anyone in Boston was looking for a reminder as to how far away the Celtics are from Banner 18, but last night provided it anyway.
At the same time, a game like last night’s only makes a Celtics fan, and really, the whole organization, even more desperate for that next banner. At the very least, for a return to the status of “NBA contender,” where an early-season game in Houston would have been in the national spotlight. Fans would have taken anything instead of what happened last night. That was an embarrassment. And regardless of where you sit on the Tanking Scale, no one wants to see this team get embarrassed.
How do they get better?
That’s the only question that seems to matter after Tuesday night. And for the most part, the consensus answer around Boston has been: “By losing more games.”
It’s a sick existence, but that’s life with the Celtics. When you look at where they are and what they have, there’s the look of a team that might want to get worse before they can get better. And with the state of next summer’s draft, it’s a very tempting option.
But it’s not the only option.
Just look at last night’s opponent: The Houston Rockets. A bonafide NBA contender that never bottomed out.
The Rockets rebuild began in 2009. They were coming off three straight 50-win seasons, but it was clear that their championship window had closed. Tracy McGrady had nothing left in his knee. Yao Ming had even less left in his foot. Change was their only chance. So GM Daryl Morey started on the process. He traded McGrady. He obviously didn’t resign Ming. He slowly but surely changed the face of his team.
After four full seasons, the Rockets look nothing like they did. Every player and coach has been replaced. And today, they’re one of the best teams in the NBA. The rebuild is complete.
But here’s what’s interesting: The Rockets spent all four rebuilding seasons smack dab in the middle of the NBA pack. In 2010, they finished 42-40, the ninth seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. In 2011, they finished 43-39, once again the ninth seed in West. In the strike-shortened 2012 season, they finished 34-32, and you guessed it, as the ninth seed in the West! Last year, with addition of James Harden, they finished 45-37 and snuck into the eighth seed. Still, Houston spent four years in that so-called NBA purgatory.
They weren’t good, but they weren’t bad. They never hit it big in the draft. In fact, here are Houston’s draft picks since 2010: 14, 14, 23, 38, 12, 16, 18, 34.
Instead of tanking, for four years, they were competitive. Morey kept smart coaches in charge (Rick Adelman and Kevin McHale). He didn’t tie himself down with any excessively bad contracts (at least none that he didn’t think he could move). He understood the salary cap. He got creative. He carved out room for a few max contracts and put faith in his ability to convince superstar free agents to come to Houston.
He got lucky. Of course he got lucky. You need a little luck to have success in this business. Who knew that James Harden would become available as soon as he did? Who knew Dwight Howard would flame out so quickly in LA? What if David Stern hadn’t blocked the original Chris Paul-to-the Lakers trade that was supposed to send Pau Gasol to Houston? What if the whole league hadn’t missed on Chandler Parsons? What if they didn’t find Patrick Beverley on the scrap heap?
There are a ton of outside factors that have contributed to Morey’s success. In many ways, the way he built these Rockets is just as risky as another team putting their faith in ping pong balls. He could have very easily failed, and most people thought he was going to, right up until he didn’t. But ultimately, he put himself and his team in the position to benefit from those outside factors. He took risks, and they paid off.
The same way that Danny Ainge did back in 2007, when he put all his eggs into landing a player like Kevin Garnett. And if nothing else, for all the tanking talk around Boston, it’s an approach that you can be sure Ainge hasn’t ruled out this time around.
A few more games like last night, and he’ll be ready to try just about anything.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine