Sometimes the only options left are bad ones. On March 4, the Houston Rockets signed Michael Beasley, who had spent the season to that point with the Shandong Golden Stars of the China Basketball Association. The Rockets, for their part, had spent the season establishing the circumstances that made hiring the ultra-spacey oft-cut swingman a worthwhile gamble.
The year after producing 56 wins, an MVP candidate, and a Western Conference finals appearance, Houston has bobbed uneasily around .500 all season, and into and out of the playoff picture. They have fired their coach and endured a trade deadline controversy that only their irrelevance spared from top-of-SportsCenter status. To Houston, Beasley represented the possibility of another off-the-dribble creator. To everyone else, he just emphasizes the extent of their troubles.
Last season's Rockets were loathed for the shamelessness of their strategy—weighing analytically prudent threes and layups and free-throws above everything else, up to and including basic dignity and just kind of agreed-upon basketball etiquette. But they were loathed also because of how completely they realized that vision. No other team in the NBA fulfilled its objectives to such a degree. They did their lousy job very well.
This year, though, they're much worse—because they're much worse—the Rockets have taken on some meager humanity. You see it when James Harden sails a pass to a spot where nobody has spotted up and, lately, when Beasley swivels his way into a well-guarded 18-footer. They are trying to become the logarithm again, but in the meantime they're just another team wondering what's gone wrong, and puzzling over the difference and distance between intention and act.
What has gone wrong, exactly, is more or less everything. Dwight Howard is back full-time after missing half of last season, playing 30 so-so minutes a night and sending out vague signals of dissatisfaction with his role. Houston's team defense, once an understated strength, has been an unqualified wreck. Their three-point shooting, so vital to the floor-spreading binary-ball of a year ago, has dropped a few spots below league-average, even as they continue to hoist the most attempts in the NBA.
This across-the-board deterioration wants for a reasonable explanation. It seems almost like the Rockets have been victims of season-long sabotage, and have spent these last five five months playing with the itchy discomfort of slightly shrunken jerseys and warped sneakers. Everything is miscalibrated by a few crucial inches, and looks it. It's visible when Harden throws a lob that clanks too high off the backboard and when Corey Brewer launches one of those two-handed, back-twisting crosscourt heaves that proves too much for the aging reflexes of Jason Terry; only two teams in the NBA turn the ball over with greater regularity than Houston.
Saturday night's loss to the Hawks in Atlanta was representative of all this. The Rockets twice lost track of Kyle Korver—about whom someone waking from a decade-long coma might reflexively say, "Hey, can't leave that guy open for a three"—in transition, and he stepped into easy triples both times. Midway through the fourth quarter, Dennis Schröder snatched away Patrick Beverley's dribble and zoomed down the court for a layup; a couple minutes later Harden's attempt at splitting a double-team resolved in Al Horford dunking on the other end, putting the game out of reach.
Before that, it had been slapstick. Howard's uniquely grating comedy instincts blundered to the fore when he responded to being discovered applying stickum to the game ball with his trademark wind-up laugh. The only thing that might have made the evening a more complete summary of the Rockets' season is a shot of Harden asking Mike Budenholzer for the Phillips Arena wi-fi password while his man cut backdoor.
Perversely, the shambolic version of the Rockets are more fun to watch. Last year's team was a synthetic masterpiece, quick and arrhythmic, complimentary without needing to be cohesive. This year's is a fumbling mess, which means the bloodless scholasticism of its SmartBall doctrine coexists with a nightly need to try whatever might work. Brewer has occasion to boomerang across the court at ill-advised angles, Beverley to start a trench war against the opposing point guard—they need to try something, after all.
In this setting, a lifelong puzzle-missing-a-few-pieces like Beasley makes sense. Some of his 30 points against the Hawks came via the drives and hard rolls that the Houston ideology favors, and the rest from ambitious step-back long twos that might have relegated him to the bench in a more successful time. These days, the Rockets don't have the luxury of scoffing at buckets imprudently gotten.
Even Harden, who on last year's team was discussed as a threat to everything joyful about his sport, becomes a little more palatable under these circumstances. Before exiting the Atlanta game late with an injured ankle, he played breezily, threading pocket passes and tiptoeing behind screens for 25 points and eight assists. He still has the most encompassing bodily control in the NBA; at his best, he seems almost to be stop-motion animating his own maneuvers—pausing play and stepping outside of himself, positioning his legs and arms exactly in this and that posture, and then hitting play and starting it up again. This talent is often used in the service of blatant foul-chasing, still, but when the Rockets are losing, Harden's trips to the free-throw line stop being so annoying and start to seem funny, and even a little sad. He is trying to nudge them back to excellence point by point, using basketball's smallest unit; it is like seeing someone try to stop a sewage leak with a tissue.
This season's Rockets will likely peter out with a first-round playoff exit and the departure of free-agent-to-be Howard. The offseason will no doubt be dedicated to recapturing the efficient anti-spirit of 2014-15. In the meantime, and by no choice of their own, the Rockets have stumbled onto the emotional spectrum that most basketball teams know pretty well. They are gifted, frustrated, confused, lethargic—and, at the end of it, just the tiniest bit endearing. Their goal might be ignoble, but there is always some worth in the struggle.