In trading Johnson, who was one of Indiana's best players but will soon be a free agent, the Pacers took what is known as "the long view," which allows for a great deal of moral flexibility. Houston adopted the long view last Sept. 15 when it traded free agent Malone to Philadelphia for Caldwell Jones and that first pick obtained so long ago from Cleveland. The Rockets also let go of free agents Mike Dunleavy and Bill Willoughby and obtained journeyman players like James Bailey and Wally Walker to replace Robert Reid, a starting swingman, who retired. The only free agent who might have helped the Rockets and for whom they bid seriously was Cleveland Forward Cliff Robinson, and Patterson concedes that was done "to make sure Cleveland finished last." The Cavaliers matched Houston's offer and kept Robinson. "From the very start we were hoping we would get Ralph Sampson or a player of his caliber to mend the ship," says Houston Coach Del Harris. "There was never a time when we said, 'Let's lose games.' On the other hand, there were times when we could have acquired players who would have helped us this year. But it would have been at the expense of the future."
The Rockets' management made only one significant roster change after the season had begun—the addition of Bailey—and then told Harris to go out and do the best he could. "Every game we played," says Patterson, "I emotionally wanted to win, but logically you can absorb the losses. Everything was done looking toward next year."
That brand of thinking didn't necessarily inspire a charitable view of Patterson around the league. "Ray Patterson hasn't done anything this year except sit around and talk at meetings," says one NBA team official. "He just left the club with all those older players."
The big question, of course, is whether Indiana and Houston were as bad as they appeared to be or whether they purposely went into the tank. "I'm already going down in history as coach of the team with the second-worst single-season record ever [14-68]," says Harris. "I don't want to be known as the NBA equivalent of coach of the Chicago Black Sox or the LIU Blackbirds, too." Cleveland Coach Tom Nissalke, who has more than a passing interest in the Rockets' situation, says the pressure on a coach in his or Harris' circumstances can be "excruciating." During the final week of the season, the Cavs played Indiana twice. Nissalke is rumored to be in line for Harris' job in Houston next year, so it would have been in his best interest to lose to the Pacers and guarantee the Rockets the first draft choice. Instead, Cleveland beat Indiana twice, including a 132-124 victory in overtime last Friday.
Result: The Pacers were assured of the worst record in the East; they ultimately finished 20-62, while the Cavs came in at 23-59. "Where do you draw the line when you're in the last game of the season and if you lose, the prize is Ralph Sampson or Lew Alcindor?" Nissalke asks. "I'd hate to think what my reaction would be if the loser gets Ralph and you know your owner wants you to lose."
Patterson insists that tanking games in the NBA is too difficult to pull off, even if one wanted to do it. "It sounds a lot easier than it really is," he says. "You might be tempted to do something, but as a practical matter, am I going to go to a guy and ask him to throw a game when he might be working for somebody else next year?" If you get the impression that Patterson may not care, you're not alone. "I think in both cases [Houston's and Indiana's], the owners of the teams said, 'What the hell,' and wrote the year off," says San Antonio General Manager Bob Bass. "That carries over to the players and can be reflected in their play. If the owners don't care, why should they?"
Houston lost its opening game by 33 points to Seattle, and in trying to describe the magnitude of his team's comedown that night, Harris said, "It's like going on a blind date and finding the ugliest girl you've ever seen waiting at the door for you." After the 0-10 start, Harris suggested the team might have some personnel problems. "All of our players belong in the NBA," he said. "I'm just not sure they all belong on the same team."
At season's start, Houston had the second-oldest roster in the league, while the Pacers had the youngest. "Our situation has been more trying than Indiana's," Harris says. "My guys who are sitting on the bench are eight-, nine-, 12-, 14-year veterans. It's a painful thing for them. Anybody would lash out at whoever's in authority under those circumstances."
When it became apparent that the Rockets weren't going anywhere this season, Harris met with Patterson and Thomas to inquire about his job security. "It was made plain to us that everyone's job is safe here," Harris said later. Harris also claimed that Thomas had told him then that he "wouldn't trade me for any coach in the league." But Patterson says, "I don't remember that. I very rarely use the word 'never,' and Charlie is a man of few words." Harris had offered to quit then, rather than be fired later. "If Del came in now and wanted to relieve everybody of the contractual responsibility," says Patterson, "it might be a different answer." If that is not exactly a vote of confidence, it's a rave compared to Patterson's feelings about Harris' relationship—or lack of one—with the players.
On Jan. 25, after Harris took Forward Elvin Hayes out of the starting lineup in favor of Bailey, the Big E gave a withering assessment of Harris. "He's a petty person," Hayes said. "He's paranoid, and he's not a good coach." "If that's a manifestation of his personality, his ineptness and his lack of leadership," says Patterson, "then that's a problem." But the final blow for Harris probably came when the Rockets had Cleveland down by five points with 91 seconds to play on March 8 in Houston, only to let the Cavaliers—the one team the Rockets really wanted to beat—outscore them 8-0 down the stretch. When Houston played at home against Golden State two nights later, Nissalke, whose team was off, and Patterson watched the game together on TV in Patterson's office. "I thought that was cheap," Harris says.