By Mike Silva
Team Name: Houston Rockets
Last Year’s Record: 42-40
Key Losses: Trevor Ariza
Key Additions: Brad Miller, Courtney Lee, Yao Ming (injury)
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
While last year served to be almost a case study for how well Houston could play without a clear-cut star player, the Rockets surprised many by claiming their fourth winning season in a row. With Yao Ming missing the entire season with a lingering foot injury, the Rockets set an NBA record for the best finish for a team with no All-Stars in the game’s history. Seeing that this team could almost get into the postseason with John Does, the men on top in Houston realized how much potential this team really has.
The first line of business was to bring in Brad Miller, the playoff-experienced, battle-tested journeyman who thrived under head coach Rick Adelman’s system in Sacramento a couple of years ago. Miller’s primary role will be to split time with Yao, whose minutes will be limited, until the big man gets back in game shape. Miller provides depth off the bench and can even play the power forward position, which could stretch the court while keeping size on the court.
The next move was to move on from the failed Trevor Ariza experiment. While Ariza’s numbers flourished in the beginning of the season, it was clear that he could not live up to the replace-Tracy-McGrady role that was donned upon him. That role, instead, was to be filled by Kevin Martin. As the season moved along, Ariza’s numbers, and perhaps his dedication, saw a decline. His shooting regressed, he started making bad decisions, and ultimately Houston decided it was time to part ways with Ariza’s hefty contract.
The Rockets decided to swap Ariza for Courtney Lee in a four-team, five-player deal. The move freed up $10 million from Houston’s salary and luxury tax costs and brought in a comparable player for much less money. Lee brings intensity, speed, and playoff experience to the Rockets’ bench, where he will see his minutes coming from in relief to Martin.
Houston also made nice additions in the draft this year. Ishmael Smith and Patrick Patterson look to be promising rookies that will most certainly make a big impact on the team for years to come.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
The depth and heart of this team are by far its biggest strengths. With Yao missing all 82 games last year, the Rockets had to step up and battle through adversity as a team to earn their winning record. The result: the rest of the league discovered that Houston plays hard and can compete with any team in any give game.
Aaron Brooks continued to improve and let the rest of the league know that there is a budding star at point guard in Houston. Luis Scola filled in as the key big man for the Rockets and proved to be the league’s best kept secret.
Heading into the season’s start in Los Angeles on Tuesday, the Rockets have to be confident knowing that they have quality starters and backups at each position. Behind Brooks are the tough Kyle Lowry and the impressive Smith. Lee will come in for Martin to give production off the bench at the two, and the improving Chase Budinger will relieve the veteran Shane Battier at small forward. In the frontcourt, Houston can rely on Miller, Patterson, Chuck Hayes and Jordan Hill to give rest to Yao and Scola.
Something the Rockets can be happy about is being two-deep at each position, with a nice balance of talented youth and veteran experience.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
There are several concerns and striking questions left unanswered in Houston. The biggest one is who the go-to guy will be? While it’s understood that Martin will be the man in Houston, does he have what it takes to lead this team deep into the playoffs? With Scola, Brooks, and Yao (if healthy) teamed up with Martin and a deep bench, points won’t be hard to produce. But with three seconds left in the game down by a basket, who takes the shot? Can Martin fill into these shoes the way McGrady did in the past?
Defense is another phase of the game that must improve if the Rockets plan to play past the regular season. Usually an automatic, Houston’s defense slid down the ranks last season into 17th overall. The Rockets allowed opponents to shoot about 48 percent from the field for an average of a little more than 102 points per game. These numbers have to shrink.
With Miller, Patterson, and Yao in the frontcourt, protecting the rim and staying strong inside will be the strongholds on the defense. But the perimeter defense has to improve, especially the play of the backcourt in Martin and Brooks. This is where losing Ariza hurts Houston most. The play of the defense could be the determining factor in how far the Rockets go this season.
4. What are the goals for this team?
It’s no secret that Houston has talent and a lot of potential. Just another winning season won’t be enough to tame the Rockets’ hunger. This team wants to go back to the playoffs.
With Yao coming back to the lineup, along with a nice rookie class and attractive offseason acquisitions, Houston has the pieces to return to the playoffs. With the rival Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Hornets likely on the decline, the Rockets have a good chance to make some noise.
Though the team is not equipped to make a run at a title, Houston can definitely compete in the West. Remember, this team is the only one aside from the Boston Celtics to push the back-to-back champion Lakers to the brink of elimination in the last two years.
5. How will Yao’s return dictate Houston’s style of play?
Last season, the Rockets defeated a lot of opponents with their up-and-down the court, fast-paced tempo. With Brooks, Martin, and Lee, Houston has players that can get to the basket and draw attention, while players like Battier, Budinger, and Miller can camp in the corner to knock down the deep-range shots. This is where Houston plays best. With Yao returning to the lineup, this style of play may be in jeopardy.
When the Rockets were trading wins with the Lakers in the semifinals two years ago, they did it with their up-tempo game play. Stacked with athletes, speed, and hustle, Houston played a full-court game to keep opponents on their toes. Yao coming back could dictate that the game be slowed down, in a half-court style of play, giving him an adequate period of time to return to form. The Rockets are without a doubt a better team with Yao on the court, but how will his presence affect the philosophy of the game?
Predicted Record: 48-34