Eulogies are designed to praise someone recently lost. But what if you are simply remembering them without the whole “praise” part? Is there a term for that? Let’s just call this a “sort-of eulogy”.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered today to pay our final tribute of respect to that which was mortal of our deceased kind of loved one and team, the 2015-16 Houston Rockets. To you members of Red Nation who maybe/ almost/not really mourn your loss, we offer our shallowest of sympathies.”
The most praise that can be given to this team is the promise they showed on paper heading into the season following an appearance in last year’s Western Conference Finals. Sure, they lost in resounding fashion to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors- but it felt like progress. At worst, it could be something to build off of in some fashion. With essentially the same line-up, being a top five team in the West seemed a realistic goal.
Instead, it was a mere fluke. It was just a mirage in the desert that gave Houston fans false hope and even falser visions of grandeur. If the high of this iteration of the Rockets was coming back from a 3-1 deficit to the Clippers, last night’s blowout loss in a series full of blowout losses to the Warriors is the rock bottom. It wasn’t just a team exiting the playoffs. It was being tossed out forcefully, eviscerated by a team missing its best player for the better part of the series (losing by an average of almost 24 points per game). It was being thrown onto the curb with the stark realization that almost everything with this team has to be blown up and reset again. The Rockets are the NBA version of Will Ferrell in Anchorman walking the streets drinking out of a milk carton on a hot summer’s day.
Initially thought of as a potential championship caliber pairing, this rock bottom sees James and Dwight as only a punchline. This rock bottom saw the Rockets perpetually talk a big game, but never back it up. Case in point: Jason Terry. Terry guaranteed a game five win, but went scoreless on 0-7 shooting. Not that I can fault him for trying to motivate his team since they had to win- but even Terry admitted “it didn’t hit home with this group.” Forget lighting a fire under their butts- this Houston squad couldn’t light a fire with an actual rocket engine. They had a misplaced sense of entitlement all season, seemingly in disbelief and denial at their record which often times was under .500.
Forget lighting a fire under their butts- this Houston squad couldn’t light a fire with an actual rocket engine. They are the NBA version of Will Ferrell walking the streets drinking out of a milk carton on a hot summer’s day.
It wasn’t only Terry who failed to shoot well from the field, either on Wednesday night. The Rockets shot an anemic 32.6% from the field and an even less impressive 18.8% from three-point land. Outside of Harden’s 12-23, the other four starters shot a combined 8-33. The first field goal not scored by Harden came on a Beverley floater at 11:26 in the second quarter, breaking a 0-16 streak from the other four.
“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
That may be the old adage, yet interim head coach JB Bickerstaff’s seemed to be “when it’s broken, don’t fix it.” I use the term “interim” as strongly as possible, because in at no point during Bickerstaff’s time running the team did I feel he was ever equipped to be the actual head coach. Bickerstaff seemed married to certain line-ups despite whether they worked or not, and either failed to adjust to the current situation or did so too late once the game was out of hand.
General manager Daryl Morey and owner Les Alexander failed to trust the process with Kevin McHale, and instead they chose to try and send a message to a team that seemed comatose to any sort of provocation. And while I can fault Bickerstaff for certain actions he took or lack thereof, you can only do so much with a team that has zero fight and crumbles at the first sign of adversity.
Heading into this series, I outlined my ideas of how to put this Rockets team in the best position to win the series. No matter the odds, a coach and his team must look for the smallest of opportunities to poke holes in their opposition’s armor.
I use the term “interim” as strongly as possible, because in at no point during Bickerstaff’s time running the team did I feel he was ever equipped to be the actual head coach. Even a cardboard cutout of Rudy Tomjanovich would be a better option.
I stand by them, aside from admitting Howard deserved more touches on offense to help collapse the Warrior’s defense. Yet the one thing I was most off about was assuming this team would show up mentally ready in the first place. To even be in the realm of thinking you can beat this Warriors team, egos need to be set aside and statistics and shot counts come second to the overall goal: winning. That’s why Golden State has been so successful. Curry might have averaged 30 points per game, but never did so as to cost his team games or take away from his teammate’s opportunities. And when interviewed, his teammates would only express their support and excitement of watching Curry work his magic.
Either this team psyched themselves out or they just didn’t care. Watching them over the course of five games, I’ll go with the latter. They got punched in the mouth, and instead of squaring up and fighting back, they continued to take the punishment (aside from six quarters in games 3 and 4) until they were knocked out.
At halftime of Game 1, Andre Iguodala described the intensity of the game similar to a scrimmage. TNT even had an image indicating games 5-7 would not be necessary. Before Game 5, Draymond Green stated the Warriors “didn’t want to let the series linger.”
None of these slights seemed to anger the Rockets. No amount of passion from fans or coaches could spring this team into another gear like last year.
Instead of limiting turnovers, they only increased (19 per game). The ball movement was scarce, and for a team predicated on the three-point shot- shooting 27% for the series was downright shameful. On defense, they didn’t go around screens- instead choosing to try and go through them. There was no help on defense. The Warriors had their choice of whatever shot they desired, and didn’t waste their chances (48% FG/40% 3PFG).
Back to the Drawing Board
The first part of hitting that reset button begins with Dwight Howard. He’s the elephant in the locker room, and it was never more evident than last night following the Rocket’s 114-81 loss. The media cared not to delve into why an underachieving 41-41 team lost handily to a historic 73-9 team (and rightfully so). The reporters wasted no time in stirring the pot, the first asking about the team’s bumpy season.
“We just need to go back and reflect on how we can better ourselves.”
“What about the team’s chemistry?” asked another.
“Like I said, that’s something we all need to sit down and think about.”
Then one member of the media went straight for the jugular: asking Howard about his impending free agency.
“I’m not going to talk about that today.”
How did a team that seemed poised to make a splash with Harden and Howard get to this point? At first, rumors of discord between the duo seemed like just that- rumors. But it all came to a head at the trade deadline this season when Howard was dangled like a carrot among multiple suitors. It wasn’t just management making the moves- but Harden trying to pull strings as well. Rockets CEO Tad Brown denied the ordeal.
Regardless of personal animosity, the two were never destined to work. I’m a firm believer in being optimistic and giving benefit of the doubt, but Harden is incredibly ball-dominant, so much so that a center like Howard who demands touches similar to an NFL wide receiver cannot be successful offensively. Pick and rolls were where they saw their most success- but inexplicably rarely capitalized on that advantage. If one vine could sum up the Harden/Howard era in Houston, it would be this failed lob against Golden State.
The vine came straight from LeBron James, sarcastically declaring the two “the best duo in the NBA.”
Rumored teams interested in acquiring the big man are the Blazers and Hornets. It’s still early, but after watching a somber Howard with the media last night, I’d bet my life he won’t be in Houston come next season. It’s his decision and not the team’s- but he’ll likely look for a better fit system-wise.
On the flip side, a culture change is needed and the tone must be set by none other than James Harden, according to Marc Stein:
On the coaching front, Houston has been linked to Jeff Van Gundy and as of last night, Luke Walton. Either in my opinion would be a better option than Bickerstaff. Even a cardboard cutout of Rudy Tomjanovich would be a better option.
Player wise, outside of Howard moving on- Houston needs to hold on to Michael Beasley. Amidst such a team full of issues, Beasley was a bright spot following his stint in China. He was able to create his own shot (on a team that lacks such capabilities from everyone outside of Harden). He seemed to play well alongside Harden, and has little to no ego to boot.
Corey Brewer and Trevor Ariza took some of the most noticeable steps back this season. Once prided on being defensive stalwarts, the two struggled at times- and looked even worse shooting the ball. Even the “junkyard dog” style of Patrick Beverley was more bark than bite- failing to get in the heads of the Warriors even once this season. While endearing to Red Nation at times, Beverley is in no way the answer as point guard with his minimal offensive skillset.
Energy needs to be rewarded, and added playing time next season for young gems like Montrezl Harrell and Clint Capela will give the Rockets that added boost.
The history books will show 2015-16 Houston Rockets were 41-41 and made the playoffs. What they won’t show is the team failed to turn that ever elusive corner into giving their fanbase and basketball pundits a true reason to believe in them. “Pursuit” has been their rallying cry, chasing a third title for Les Alexander- but the pursuit for a new culture will be this offseason’s mission statement instead. Houston might be regarded as a massive disappointment drawing the ire and frustration of fans- but now that their season is over, there seems to be a sense of relief that they can begin to wipe the slate and start anew.
Rest in peace, 2015-2016 Houston Rockets.
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