30 Teams, 30 Days
Houston Rockets Season Preview.
We continue previewing the Southwest Division with the Houston Rockets. You can read past previews here.
by Adam Sweeney
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Houston Rockets’ chance at playoff contention this season depends heavily on the impact Tracy McGrady can make. That statement is as obvious and has been repeated as often as a frat boy saying, “dude, Megan Fox is hot.” At this point, if you’re a Rockets fan, the dance Houston has done with McGrady has become less of a tango and more of an awkward slow dance with the partner who keeps stepping on your toes. Is it a shocker that the season that may ultimately determine McGrady’s fate in Houston also happens to be in the final year of his contract? Gasp!
It wasn’t that long ago that Houstonians were walking around speculating that McGrady, Yao and Ron Artest could be Southern answer to Boston’s Big Three. What a laugh that was. If there is anything that you should know about Houston teams, it’s that they don’t handle the weight of expectations well. Yao’s season ended abruptly in the playoffs, Artest made more headlines for jawing with Kobe Bryant than actual buckets and McGrady never could get on track because his body was a bigger letdown than Transformers 2. In spite of all that, the reaction and adversity to all of the said outcomes left the Rockets feeling that the 2008-2009 season was a success. The Rockets pushed L.A. to the brink of elimination. Imagine if T-Mac had been there for Game 7. Say what you want about Mac but he brings his A game in the playoffs.
But enough about T-Mac for now. This is, after all, a team preview and there isn’t a group of players in the NBA that understand the team concept more clearly than the Houston Rockets. From the starters all the way down the bench, it is hard to find a player that won’t play above their skill level. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has done a magnificent job of finding players that will put their egos aside and fill the role placed before them. Credit also must be given to Rick Adelman, who is an underrated head coach (Is it too late to take back Mike Brown’s Coach of the Year award and give it to Adelman?) and has found a way to keep the dam from bursting in spite of his squad suffering more than when I have to listen to Lady Gaga on the radio.
Unfortunately, the 2009-2010 Houston Rockets will likely lack what separates the contenders from the pretenders, an alpha dog. Yao Ming is rehabbing his foot after undergoing surgery. The Rockets can not afford to rush their franchise player back. Rockets fans would do well to remember that if the team goes into lottery territory sometime in February.
They also lack a true big man that can hold down the fort inside. Australian acquisition David Andersen will draw defenders outside but he shouldn’t be expected to battle in the post with the likes of Shaq. To compensate for that, we will see the Rockets go to the races. You want small ball? You’ve got it? Aaron Brooks, who emerged as a postseason star for the team, will for now have the green light on offense. His ability to penetrate will leave players like Shane Battier and Trevor Ariza open on the perimeter. It’s not the same as an inside-outside approach with Yao Ming but it will have to do. If Brooks can keep the turnovers down while increasing his scoring production, the Rockets will win more games than expected.
The major acquisition in the offseason came in the form of Trevor Ariza. Ron Artest claims he was mistreated by the Rockets but for some reason I find that hard to believe. I’m not calling the guy a liar but the Rockets aren’t known as an organization that treats their personnel poorly. In his place the Rockets get Ariza, a younger and more disciplined player that fits the mold of what Rick Adelman wants from a player. He doesn’t have the offensive skill set or strength that Artest has, but damn if he won’t save Adelman a ton of headaches. There were plenty of times in the playoffs last season where Artest would fire up a contested three and you could read Adelman’s lips, asking Artest what he was doing. You won’t see that with Ariza. He will benefit greatly from having offensive freedom he lacked in L.A. and from the tutorship of the ultimate team player, Shane Battier. Battier is the heart and soul of the Rockets.
For all the run Ariza has had, the new Rocket that fans should also be excited about is Chase Budinger. He fits the system Adelman runs and could do damage if he will realize he can jump out of the gym. He already has the outside game, that’s not a problem. It is a question of whether or not Budinger will realize the potential that had many scouts ranking him as a lottery pick two years ago.
The Rockets are in many ways like the mythical Hydra. You can cut off one of its heads but it will only grow back another. Look at the power forward position, where the gritty Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry will all give opposing teams fits. Excluding the aforementioned center position, the Rockets run relatively deep at every position. Now if they only had that closer they could do wonders, which brings us back to McGrady.
T-Mac has been working vigorously with Tim Grover at ATTACK Athletics in Chicago to recover from micro-fracture knee surgery. McGrady says he feels better than he has in years and has guaranteed he will be the player he once was. Word is that he is way ahead of schedule but this isn’t an injury that he should trifle with. McGrady knows he has pressed too hard before (last season, anyone?) and it won’t help the Rockets to have him at anything less than one hundred percent. Oddly enough, McGrady’s bouts with the bench may have insured that Yao won’t rush in to save the day. If Mac can come back this season, and at this point if is McGrady’s middle name, the Rockets could turn into a sleeper to make it to the second round of the playoffs. I can assure you that McGrady still aches to have a team he is an active member of get out of the first round. Last season doesn’t count.
It is nearly impossible to say what we should expect from the Rockets in terms of wins or losses. The heart is willing, we know that, but it doesn’t help Houston’s cause that they are in the brutal Western Conference. Still, I’ve said a thousand times that there isn’t a team better equipped to handle a season shorthanded than the Rockets. They will be in it until the end for more than the majority of games they play. If they actually have some breaks go their way, look out. Expectations should be kept at a moderate level, but that doesn’t mean you should be shocked if Houston creeps up and takes a playoff spot in the West. Look at this team as the ultimate underdog in 2009-2010.