Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Rockets' season comes to a merciful end

Last night, the Houston Rockets ended their miserable season with an 87-89 loss to the San Antonio Spurs at the Toyota Center. The injury-plagued Rockets finish the season with a 34-48 record - a big step backwards from their 51-win campaign of a year ago. Their home record of 15-26 is tied for worst in the NBA.

So what to the Rockets do now? Well, they'll obviously see what kind of talent they can get out of the NBA draft and hope that Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady get healthy over the offseason. But, as Chronicle columnist John Lopez notes, there are also some problems in the front office that the Rockets would do well to address. "A lack of vision has turned the organization into a wannabe and a distant — and fading — third option in the local sports market," he writes.

Indeed, the Rockets have become something of an afterthought on the local sports scene. Of course, it's hard for an injury-riddled team to generate much buzz as they limp through a disappointing season. And it doesn't help the Rockets have to compete for attention with other local teams, notably the Astros, that are doing so well at the moment. Nevertheless, a lot of people just don't seem to care about the Rockets that much anymore, and that includes myself. In fact, I can't say I've even watched any of their games on TV this past season for more than a few minutes at a time (and there's no way I could ever afford to see them in person even if I wanted to).

But why the apathy towards the Rockets? It's not just because they're losing, although that's undoubtedly part of the story. Even last season, when Yao and T-Mac were healthy and the Rockets were on their way to their second consecutive post-season appearance, they didn't seem to be generating a great deal of enthusiasm.

Perhaps it's hard for people to pay attention to a team that really hasn't done much since their title runs in 1994 and 1995. A few days ago, I came across my old Sports Illustrated magazine which commemorated the Rockets' second-straight NBA Championship in 1995. I flipped through the pages, looking at the pictures of Hakeem and Clyde and Rudy T and remembering just how much fun that was - eleven years ago. The Rockets were the talk of the town back then, but as their fortunes on the court declined their local cache evaporated as well. Gimmcky and desperate moves aimed at securing a third NBA title, such as adding aging stars like Scotty Pippen and loudmouth Charles Barkley, did little to reverse the downslide. The face of the franchise - Hakeem Olajuwon - was finally traded. By the beginning of the new milennium the Rockets were an NBA afterthought and failed to make the playoffs for four straight years between 2000 and 2003. Sure, the Rockets reappeared in the playoffs in 2004 and 2005, but both times they lost in the first round and that's just not going to do a lot for local fans who remember the glorious runs of the mid-90s.

Then there's the front office. Leslie Alexander is a carpetbagger from New York who is not popular locally. The front office staff has made a slew of dubious personnel decisions: bad trades, poor draft picks, large contracts for marginal players. Jeff Van Gundy was a poor hire as head coach. He is a constant complainer who does not instill confidence in his players or the fan base. And, as Lopez notes in his column, there's no sense of direction coming from management.

Hopefully the Rockets will fix some problems and get healthy over the offseason and be a markedly improved team with the 2006-2007 campaign begins in the fall. But it's going to take a lot more than that for the Rockets to become relevant again.

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