HOUSTON As his eyes scanned the practice court at Toyota Center on Wednesday, Rockets forward Chase Budinger echoed a sentiment a few of his teammates expressed as the 2011-12 season crawled to a close.
Of course Budinger would like to see this group return intact for another season with the aim of finishing the job it failed to complete this campaign thanks in large part to a mid-April, six-game losing skid. But just beneath the surface Budinger recognized the reality of the situation.
For three years the Rockets have chased the playoffs only to come up just short of their stated goals. The likelihood of team management cleaving to the status quo despite these failures is nil. Change is going to come, even given the players' reticence to embrace that realization.
"You never know what's going to happen in summertime," Budinger said. "The Rockets, you know they like to make trades here so you never know if you're going to be here or not. Hopefully I'm here.
"You let it play out. They're going to make decisions upstairs and we've just got to play. I'll do the same things I have done in the past in the summertime: get my game right and get ready for the season, and not worry about what's going to happen with the team, the roster or anything like that."
Circumstances have dictated that no one on the Rockets' roster should be deemed untouchable. Before the lockout-shortened season began point guard Kyle Lowry appeared to be off-limits. But when he was lost for a month to a bacterial infection, Goran Dragic filled the void and outperformed Lowry. Suddenly Dragic is of increased value, but he's an unrestricted free agent, so the Rockets are preparing for a bidding war.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey could very easily gut this roster, one he has tinkered with constantly since trading Tracy McGrady to the Knicks while watching Yao Ming deteriorate into premature retirement. Morey has proven unable to acquire the premiere player around which he can build a championship contender, and with two picks in the teens in this summer's draft, it appears unlikely that he'll be able to select one.
Thus it wouldn't come as a surprise if Morey displayed an "Everything Must Go" sign outside of Toyota Center. Veteran guard Kevin Martin will hold an expiring contract worth 12.9 million next season, making him a prime candidate to be jettisoned. Veteran forward Luis Scola has three years and more than 30 million remaining on his contract, but with a frontcourt flush with younger, cheaper players, the Rockets might acquiesce to accepting pennies on the dollar in exchange for Scola.
Marcus Camby is in the final year of his contract. The Rockets hold options on Budinger and Samuel Dalembert. Beyond the forecast addition of Lithuanian forward Donatas Motiejunas, one of their first-round picks last summer, the only guarantee is the Rockets interest in Dragic and guard Courtney Lee, who is a restricted free agent.
"I was working for that moment for years in the NBA," Dragic said of his pending free agency. "I try to establish my name here in the league someday to be a starter, to lead the team. I'm really happy it happened.
"It's still not over. I know still I have to work hard. You never know: every day somebody new is coming for your spot, for your job, and still you have to work hard."
Petulance on the part of Aaron Brooks enabled Lowry to work hard and take Brooks' job last season. Injuries to Lowry and Martin opened the door for Dragic and Lee, and both took advantage of the opportunity.
For Lee, what beckons is a chance to secure a lucrative contract after being traded twice and playing for three franchises over the first three seasons of his career. Morey has publicly stated his intention to match whatever offer Lee receives, but security is fleeting for most professional athletes, especially those not considered star performers.
Lee has witnessed teammates come and go, and given the Rockets' revolving door of personnel he is hesitant to take anything for granted.
"Out of all the teams in the NBA all you need is one team to want you," Lee said. "That's what it's about at this time. You just need one team, and that'll put the pressure on Houston if they want to match or not. That's what you play for, that's what you put all the work in behind the scenes for so when you get out there you can showcase it. Every game you play you're playing for 29 other teams, let alone the team that you're on.
"At this point, that's what we're waiting for."
Waiting will be the operative word as the Rockets embark into another offseason separated from postseason glory and mired in reconstruction. As first-year coach Kevin McHale recalled all the adjustments he made on the fly this season, modifications complicated by the compressed schedule and fluctuating roster, he was reminded that several of the players he altered his approach for might not be around next season.
Change is going to come. How much remains to be seen by everyone.
"Whoever we have back I have a better idea of what they can and can't do on both sides of the ball," McHale said. "If there's a ton of roster turnover then you're assessing that next September. It's part of the deal."
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