One year ago, these teams had no business being in the discussion for home court advantage in the playoffs. Houston hung on to take the eighth seed (losing to OKC in six games) while Portland missed the playoffs altogether at 33-49. But after various moves via the draft, trade and free agency, Portland and Houston are right where they want to be- in the thick of the playoff race.
The plan each organization had to get to where they are was supposed to happen years ago. But such is sports and life- plans don't always unfold as originally thought.
The origins of this story can be traced all the way back to June 26th, 2002 during the NBA Draft Lottery. The purpose of the lottery is to sort out the draft order of the first fourteen picks. On this night, the Houston Rockets had an 8.9% chance at landing the top overall pick, finishing the season 2001-2002 season an ugly 28-54. At 22.5%, the Bulls and Warriors each were favored to snag the rights to the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft. But as fate would have it, Houston swooped in and plucked the pick away from both teams. With that overall pick they would select their future franchise cornerstone, Yao Ming.
Ming was a physical specimen: 7'6, over 300 pounds. In China for the Shanghai Sharks he had amassed a fairly impressive career. He wasn't just a gimmick. Ming was a polished young star with fundamentals and finesse. The stats were there. In his final year with Shanghai, Yao averaged 38.9 points and 20.2 rebounds a game. He also shot 76.6% from the field. But the question was would it translate to the NBA? Could he be depended on to carry a franchise on his tall and lengthy frame? His sheer size and skill would bring on a forced rivalry with Shaq. The comparisons were there, but unfair. Shaq was built on power and interior domination. Ming was finesse and efficiency, complete with shooting 80% from the charity stripe.
The proof was in the pudding. Ming added to the talents of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley improved the Rockets by fifteen wins in 2002-2003. He averaged 13.2 points per game and over 8 rebounds as well. Those totals would climb steadily the next few years. In 2006-2007, Yao averaged 25 points per game (in only 48 games played due to injury). Houston was seemingly going in the right direction, winning 45 games in 2003-2004. But another splash had to be made. Enter Tracy McGrady. Paired with Yao, the duo was hyped as the new Kobe/Shaq off pure speculation and intrigue. The duo were mentioned in the same breath as "title hopes" frequently. Owner Les Alexander was looking to restore the franchise as a contender for the first time since the mid-1990's.
"I sure hope so," McGrady told ESPN. "I can't predict the future, but it definitely would be nice. The ultimate goal is to win a championship for the Houston Rockets."
That very first season together saw the duo lead Clutch City to a 51-31 record, good enough for 5th in the West. They would lose to the Southwest Division rival Mavericks 4-3. It was a series which the Rockets were up 2-0, stealing the first two road games from the Mavericks. Dallas would storm back, winning the next 3 to grab control. Houston would prolong with a win at home before being knocked out after an embarrassing game 7 forty-point loss in Dallas, 116-76. They would miss the playoffs altogether the next season, while the Portland Trailblazers had missed them for three straight seasons. But the summer of 2006 was a game-changer for a franchise once dubbed the "Jailblazers", a team full of headcases.
The 2006 NBA Draft saw the Blazers acquire both Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge. The pair, like Yao Ming and McGrady, were to spearhead the new movement in Portland. They wouldn't see results right away, going 32-50 in 2006-2007 and missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
While not a huge deal at the time, in the spring of 2007 Northwestern product Daryl Morey transitioned into general manager of the Rockets after serving a season as assistant to Carroll Dawson. No one could foresee his plan at the time, but the wheels inside Morey's head were always turning and never slowing down. This would become very fruitful in later years for the Rockets.
The next draft saw them procure the first overall pick, taking Greg Oden out of Ohio State. It's hard to believe it now, but during that summer, "Oden or Durant?" was a very serious argument. Franchise big man or franchise scorer? We all know how that turned out. But I digress.
Portland would break even at 41-41 the next year. That same season, the Rockets would lay claim to the second longest win streak in NBA history at 22 games (behind the 1972 Lakers' 33). It now sits third, after the 2012-2013 Heat's 27 in a row. The streak lifted off with the help of Yao-who would become injured- but it was McGrady who strapped the Rockets to his back and willed them into playoff contention. They'd finish 55-27, losing in the first round again to the Utah Jazz.
The 2009 playoffs were unique for both franchises. The Blazers made the playoffs for the first time in six years, and the Rockets won a first round series for the first time since 1997. The team Houston beat? Portland. That would kick of a three year period where the Blazers lost in the first round, the last being in 2010-2011. That was the last time they made the playoffs. But it was even a more significant year for the Rockets.
And not in a good way.
After five games into the 2010-2011 season, Yao would have to sit out due to a lower leg stress fracture. His frame would ultimately not hold up to the constant wear and tear an NBA player goes through: games, practice, travel and the general awkwardness of being 7'6". He would later announce his retirement, throwing the franchise into somewhat of a tailspin. That following February, Tracy McGrady was traded to the New York Knicks after playing in only six games for Houston. His career would never reach the heights it had in Orlando or Houston...or for that matter even Toronto. The Rockets hadn't just lost the superstar duo they had spent over six years developing.
Houston was entering the most dreaded of phases for a fan or GM: rebuilding mode. The first piece to the puzzle after making moves for picks and cap space was stealing Chandler Parsons out of Florida at the 38th pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. While a good college product, Parsons bloomed even more in the NBA with his dynamic game complete with an absolutely filthy pump fake.
In December of 2011, the Blazers had cut ties with Brandon Roy with the one-time amnesty clause. The reason? Nagging knee injuries/surgeries.
Both teams were in disarray by 2012, but help was on the way. After Oden had microfracture surgery on his knee that year, doctors suggested he retire. While he'd never play another game for the Blazers, he's since returned as a member of the Miami Heat. Aldridge quietly remained one of the best big men in the game. By being on a mediocre team in a small market city, he stayed off everyone's radar. That year's draft saw them get Weber State's Damian Lillard sixth overall. Lillard would be looked at to help Aldridge lead the offense as a scorer and distributor.
But the Rockets were only getting started. After beginning turning over the majority of their roster (Chandler Parsons is the only player left from 2011), they drafted Terrance Jones. They signed Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik as free agents. They drafted Royce White, which ultimately was one of Morey's least wise decisions. White was later released after never playing a game for the Rockets. But less than a week before the NBA season started, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded former sixth man of the year James Harden to Houston. The Rockets once again had a star to build off of. While it was not the end all and be all of Morey's plan, it was a massive step in the right direction. Harden would lead Houston to a 45-37 record and a playoff berth for the first time in three seasons. They'd lose 4-2 to- who else?- The Thunder. While they had a little fight in them, the Rockets just weren't ready yet.
Following progress, Houston was still in search for a star to pair with Harden. Dwight Howard was a free agent after one season in LA, and Morey once again had his eye on the big man. Howard would eventually choose Houston and the Rockets once again had a star duo. Morey proved his doubters wrong. He not only delivered on his promises of putting Houston in a position to win. He did each time in almost buzzer-beater style.
Both Houston and Portland had rebuilt, in two vastly different ways. The difference now is that Houston had high expectations, and Portland did not.
Houston took time to gel. Like Miami in 2010, they needed to build chemistry with each other and gel together. Initial growing pains included blowout losses to the Thunder and Pacers, not involving Howard as much, missing alley-oop passes, and finding a power forward. But the tide has turned.
Howard is found frequently for alley-oops from Harden and Parsons. Terrance Jones has solidified himself at the four spot with double-double after double-double. They recently got back at the Pacers with a 112-86 win and are a league best 22-6 since the new year.
But while they are hot, not everything is rosy. Parsons is set to be a free agent (which I can only imagine Morey will do everything to keep him). Lin and Asik will be due to make 15 million each next season, and so far both have proven to not be worth even half of that due to the latest roster. Patrick Beverley has hounded opposing point guards with superb defense and developed quite the offensive game, too. Lin is too turnover prone, while Asik has struggled with mental (attitude) and physical health issues since the arrival of Howard. Since his return from injury, Asik has struggled to look like last year's version. But there's one thing he'll always have: his defense. Along with the Howard, Beverley, a re-invigorated Harden and newly acquired Jordan Hamilton, Houston's defense is vastly improved.
Sunday night's showdown may just be regular season NBA. But it goes to show that the regular season still matters in such a competitive conference. Rome was not built in a day, and neither were these two franchises. If anything is to be learned from the rollercoaster paths Houston and Portland took to get back to contention, it's simple.
Enjoy the ride. You never know when it will end.
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