HOUSTON-– Late Wednesday night in a mostly empty locker room Jeremy Lin said one of the strangest, truest and ultimately most meaningless things ever said about a sports team.
To understand the quote, you need only the following context: The Houston Rockets had just lost to the Denver Nuggets 105-95 on a night they committed 22 turnovers that led to 28 points for the Nuggets (26-18), and the Rockets’ record had just fallen to 22-22.
“Any good team,” he began, “if you look back to before they were good, they went through all this.”
Indeed. Before the sun came up, it was way darker.
Lin is implying a sense of inevitability to the Rockets’ rise. Or at least he’s saying he feels this is all part of a process that ends with a parade. Considering he is a member of the Rockets, this is really the only viewpoint available to him. He has to think this.
But nobody outside the organization does, and with that record settled at rhetorically ideal .500 it is fair to wonder if the Rockets are going anywhere.
This team – Lin, James Harden, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Carlos Delfino and Greg Smith – does not play very good defense and doesn’t show much potential at it. Houston gives up more points than anybody in the NBA. NBA teams shoot better against Houston than all but seven teams, and it’s even worse at the 3-point arc. Only three NBA teams block fewer shots, though the Rockets are fourth in steals.
This team also commits a ton of turnovers, the most in the league, and you’ll remember that this was a major criticism of Lin while he was still in New York. His 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio puts him way down the list among guards. Backup point guard Toney Douglas’ ratio is 1.5:1.
This team also does not play through the post with any particular determination (or success). Its two starting big guys, Patterson and Asik, average 21.1 points between them. The only true big guy who comes off the bench is Smith, and when he’s in they’re mainly just hoping he’ll get a couple of offensive rebounds. He averages 5.8 points per game. The others, Morris and Delfino, shoot a lot of 3s. And that’s pretty much the rotation.
It’s a fast team, and it has led the NBA in scoring most of the season, but fast is about all it is. Fast teams often make a lot of turnovers, and fast teams often give up a lot of points.
“I think right now we are low on confidence,” coach Kevin McHale said. “There’s no question. You can see it with our guys and we’re going to have to pump them up and get them believing again.”
That might be more difficult than it sounds. Because it could be that the Rockets are not so much in a psychological funk. It could be that this is just who the Rockets are this season.
Which makes them different from last season, and yet the same. Which was the same story as the year before. And the year before that. The last three years they went 42-40, 43-39 and 34-32. They missed the playoffs all three years.
The banging on that drum has become background noise in Houston, like the late-night woosh of traffic on a nearby highway. Nobody needs to hear any more about how the middle of the NBA is this no-man’s land that never lets you out. General manager Daryl Morey’s plan all along has been to shuck that old philosophy of getting bad in order to get good by parlaying assets into bigger and bigger assets, like those guys who use Craigslist to barter up to a Cadillac from a guitar amp.
Getting Harden made it look like Morey finally had his Cadillac. And it’s not that Harden has disappointed — he’s averaging almost 26-5-5. It’s just that in November and December, when the Rockets were talking about how it was just going to take some time for everybody to get used to each other, it sounded patient and true.
And maybe it still is. But at 22-22, it’s fair to wonder where that Cadillac is taking everybody.