HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – This was supposed to be the day the Rockets organization and the fans had looked forward to since Tracy McGrady broke down and Yao Ming returned.
But it’s Friday and we are all just puzzled and disillusioned with the direction of the Rockets.
Everyone was fully expecting All-Star center Dwight Howard or even Pau Gasol to be formally introduced by the Rockets on Friday after a week of draft maneuvering aimed at brokering a trade for a big-time veteran who would not only re-energize the city but put the franchise back into the playoffs.
But Thursday night’s NBA Draft came and went without any deals being made. So instead of a perennial All-Star to become the face of the franchise and the presence in the paint, the Rockets will introduce rookies Jeremy Lamb (guard), Royce White (point power forward) and Terrence Jones (combo forward) – their three first round draft choices from Thursday night – during a press conference Friday.
A great idea went terribly wrong.
That’s not to suggest the three players are scrubs, because the Rockets used the 12, 16 and 18 picks in the draft on three qualities athletes. It’s just in a perfect world they would have added just one rookie and one marquee veteran.
“It’s going to be a challenge, there is no question,” admitted Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who did his best to put a positive spin on the turn of events Thursday night. “The NBA historically is not kind to young guys. There is such a learning curve and it is so hard to explain to people. It’s 20 times the jump from high to college, I can’t even explain what a big jump it is. It’s kind of getting over that.”
It’s also dealing with the reality the Rockets are finally in rebuild mode. They added three rookies last season and now really four more this upcoming season with last year’s draft 7-foot pick Donatas Motiejunas set to join the squad this season after opting to spend last season playing in Europe.
The word rebuild has long been a dirty word around the Rockets organization. But it defines the franchise now, no matter who admits it or not.
The Rockets traded away two quality veterans in backup forward Chase Budinger and starting center Samuel Dalembert this week in order to position themselves to make a splash acquisition.
And with the real prospect that depth players like Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic could be gone when free agency gets going next week, the Rockets could be looking at figuring how to work seven first or second year players to plug holes that were once filled by reliable veterans.
The problem gets worse when you realize they now have a bunch of tweener forwards on the roster and there is a big hole in the middle now that the shot-blocking presence of Dalembert has been traded away.
McHale still has his sights on making the playoffs at the end of next season but the reality is with this roster taking a serious step back in experience, it’s finally back to the drawing board figuratively and literally.
“We’ve got free agency coming up but we are young, there is no question about it,” said McHale, whose team just barely missed the playoffs last season. “We are a young team. Rebuilding, I wouldn’t say that. We’ve got to find a way to make the playoffs. We’ve got to find a way to do it.
“It’s going to be challenge, I can tell you that but we’ve got to find a way. I said the same thing last year when we got assembled in December that was our goal and we fell short so now we have to find a way to put all the pieces together.”
The reality is the Rockets failed in their quest to simply reload and once again become a contender in the West Conference. And there is no question this reflects most poorly on no other than general manager Daryl Morey, who failed in his quest to reel in a franchise-type big man once again.
Morey has long held the reputation of a wheeler and dealer around draft time and during trade deadlines, able to make something out of nothing at times and at others just stir the pot. It looked like Morey was about to do it again when he got Minnesota to give up its 18th pick for a reserve and then then shipped Dalembert to Milwaukee for the right to swap lottery picks, moving up two spots to No. 12.
But then Morey started working the phones with Sacramento and Toronto trying to package two of those three picks and even disgruntled Kyle Lowry to move up into the Top 10 to have enough to entice either Orlando or Los Angeles.
In the end Morey couldn’t pull it off. So the Rockets and McHale are stuck with three promising rookies they didn’t want or need.
“It’s hard to tell, it seemed close,” Morey said when asked late Thursday night how close did they come to making a trade deal. “One of them came down if there was a guy there that would be open to making a move. It’s hard to tell because sometimes everyone is misleading everyone in the draft. Sometimes people will set up things just to cancel them. It’s frustrating.”
This is the type of frustration that could lead to tearing up the management structure as we know it. Owner Leslie Alexander may soon find out McHale isn’t all that interested in building a team from scratch. At this stage of his career and life he is looking for a team of quality veterans he can mold into a championship contender.
This could also be the beginning of the end for Morey who has swung and missed much more than he has made contact here lately. Remember, he was also involved in chasing Howard right before the trade deadline in March and none of us will soon forget his failed three-team trade deal that would have brought here only it was nixed by commissioner David Stern last winter.
“There were a lot of different things in the hop, there were a lot of different things we were looking at,” McHale said of failed trade attempts leading up to Thursday night’s draft. “Ideally it would have been nice to pull off a trade that would help the team immediately, but when those fell through then we took the players we felt were best there.
“We are really happy with the Draft. Am I disappointed in the few trades we might have been able to do …. ? When they fell through you move on and we drafted and I thought we had a really good night on the draft.”
Still it was interesting listening to both McHale and Morey try to put a positive spin on a disaster of a night Thursday night.
“We are excited,” Morey said. “That 14 to 12 move was the key to either we were going to get all the players we wanted or we could make a trade. So we were comfortable to go either route.”