Monday, January 5, 2009

The Rockets, The Mirror, and Tracy McGrady

When I was in junior high, I decided to only take the advanced coursed for math and science. I like English the best, I had the best grades in English, but I thought that there was no hope for me ever getting a job in English, and I should just stick to what's "important."

Nevermind the fact that it was the job of the TAG (Talented and Gifted, FTW) teacher to identify where my specialties lay. I just declined to say anything about it and carried on. But after my first writing exercise my sophomore year my teacher busted me and asked why I wasn't in the higher classes. I explained and she said that was pretty stupid and set about getting me into AP English, mostly so I wouldn't ruin the curve and cause everyone to hate me more than they already did. I got into the AP classes, discovered I loved English and things have been pretty different since.

Now, I'm not saying this to stroke my ego based off my high school accomplishments ten years ago in small-town Arkansas public schools, as awesome as that is, but to illustrate a fact. Eventually, you've got to look yourself in the mirror and realize who you are, regardless of how you intended to become.

The Houston Rockets have not done this.

The best this team has performed in the past three years was during their massive 22 game win streak last season that coincided with Yao Ming's injury. Additionally, the best game of their season since opening night was Saturday night when, without Tracy McGrady, Shane Battier, or Crazy Pills, they battled, rattled and flummoxed the very-good-no-for-real-stop-laughing Atlanta Hawks at home. Luis Scola was making mince meat out of Josh Smith, even as Smith was popping off at the other end of the floor. Aaron Brooks commanded a topside screen, flew past it, threw himself through the air and sliced in layups. Rafer Alston made big steals. Yao Ming did his thing. Carl Landry brought the energy. There was ball movement, there was effort, there was Von freaking Wafer playing through a hamstring issue, still hitting big shots. It was everything the Rockets have not been.

Was it Battier's absence? Clearly not, he was around for the run last year, and if anything, the team's movement and leadership is improved with him on the floor.

Crazy Pills? Maybe, but Artest is a wild animal you sick on your opponent. He may bite you from time to time, but it's worth it just to scare the bejeesus out of them.

Which of course leaves Mr. McGrady.

I can throw stats at you, if you'd like. I can talk about his shooting 39%. I can talk about the fact that his page on Yahoo! actually says "Injury Note on January 3rd, 2008 (Chronically sore left knee). I can talk about the fans turning on him, hard. But none of that reaches the real issue. Because the issue's not really McGrady. It's the Rockets.

See, McGrady's doing what he feels like he has to. He's playing through pain, like a leader should. He's trying to shoulder the immense burden, which has compounded with every loss to the Jazz in the first round. He's trying to rise above. The fly in this martyrdom ointment? He talks about it. He said before the season he didn't think his knee would be right all season. He constantly talks about the issue. Let me put it this way. When Manu's ankle got worse after the Olympics, did you hear him constantly talking about? Was he trying to play through it? Were there constant discussions of it? No. Popovich shelved him and told him to stay quiet, get healthy, come back. Period. Because otherwise, you're still going to get the criticism. If you can't play, don't play. Because if you do play, no one's going easy on you just because you tried hard. It's harsh, and unfortunate, and honestly, it sucks for him, but that's how it is.

Conversely, the Rockets can't look at themselves and say "We can win without him." They did it last year without Ming, but without the player that is constantly saying he wants to just "take what comes to him" instead of forcing the issue, which the Rockets desperately need from him from time to time on the offensive end, they tend to lose their heads. Richard Justice, who is reviled by the blogoshphere, speaks to this fear.

"Yet the Rockets must have McGrady playing at a high level to make any noise in the playoffs. That’s the bottom line. At the moment, they can’t win with him. During the playoffs, they can’t win without him.'

There's some truth to that, that you need those kind of players in the playoffs. But they have enough talent to make some noise if they were to trade McGrady for a composite. A reliable point, a shooter, and another big to throw in their Ultimate Frontcourt Of Doom Machine. You want Yao to be your franchise? Let's see it.

This is moot of course. No one is taking McGrady. And giving up on McGrady would mean further revisions to the team, another direction which takes time. And that's not what Morey's angled for. They're stuck.

It's too bad because when this team is clicking, when Brooks is haphazardly attacking the rim, when Scolas is shocking people with his post moves, when Landry is finishing on putbacks and Barry's hitting big shots, they have a good team. They're just a little shorthanded.

Unfortunately, McGrady can't give them the hand they need. It breaks too easy.

For Christmas, Paroxi-wife got me the McGrady Free Darko print. As much as T-Mac frustrates me, I love the print. It talks a lot about what I love about the game. Because McGrady, at least for now and the forseeable future is doomed. And yet he's still trying to force his way through skeletons, fully aware of the doom that shrouds him, but going on. I don't know if it's masochism, perserverence, martyrdom, obsession, or good intentions, but it says something about him. And I'll keep hoping for things to turn out right for him, finally.

But in the meantime, I have to keep pointing at the mirror and hope the Rockets turn to see what they are, and what they could be.

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