Know Thy Enemy: Houston Rockets
Last Season: 53-29 (.646, 2nd in Southwest Division, 5th in the Western Conference)
Key Additions: Signed Trevor Ariza, traded for David Andersen, drafted Chase Budinger, Jermaine Taylor
Key Subtractions: Ron Artest, Von Wafer, Brett Barry, plus Yao Ming is injured
I like this team.
I respect the work ethic, and how hard they'll compete. If my future children grow up to play basketball and I end up the coach, I'll fire up game film of the '09-'10 Rockets and use them as a model of determination and teamwork. (As an aside, I also wonder how much we'll win, given that our entire playbook is likely to consist of hoping one of those six year olds can dunk.) I think they'll win an ESPY for Best Scrappy Team. They will never mail it in. They won't even own postage.
I just wonder how much they'll win.
The problem here is that despite all their virtues, the Rockets don't have much high end talent, and unlike, say, the Big 10, the NBA is unquestionably a league where talent rules. What Houston does have in excess are solid and often underrated role players. Guys who have been quietly productive throughout their careers, putting up the type of stats number crunchers love. In fact, this year's Rockets have become something of an experiment, particularly among advanced metric types, as people wonder if a well run team of good-but-not-exceptional players can be something greater than the sum of its parts. Some say it's possible, and GM Daryl Morey has a reputation for generating lemonade where others see lemons.
Despite losing Yao early in the series, the Rockets pushed the Lakers to a Game 7 in last year's Western Conference Semi-Finals. Impressive as that was, two surprise Yao-less wins in a short series can't be equated to the day in, day out grind of the regular season. It'll be harder for the Rockets to pile up wins against teams that will know going in their game plan. They'll have a system plus the discipline and dedication to execute it, but Houston won't sneak up on anyone.
Continuing to pick out weaknesses is like shooting fish in a barrel. Start with height. With Yao on the sidelines, they won't have a rotation player taller than 6'9", beyond the Euro import Andersen, who doesn't arrive on this side of the Atlantic with the reputation of a force in the paint. Calling them simply undersized in the frontcourt is an insult to undersized members of the NBA fraternity. The Rockets are wee.
Then there's the question of scoring. Nobody who will suit up on opening night cracked 13 points a game last season, so there are questions of scoring. Houston lacks players willing and able to put the ball on the floor and create shots for themselves and teammates. It's one thing to play defense, but it's only half the story. At some point, the ball has to go into the basket.
Even if Tracy McGrady returns as expected in early December, there's no way to know what impact he'll have. We're talking about recovery from microfracture surgery for a guy who has suffered a seemingly endless string of injuries over the past few seasons. If he doesn't have the offensive burst from Days of Yore T-Mac- Do you want to make the bet he will?- his presence could cause as many problems as it solves, since Houston will be giving away defense with McGrady on the floor.
On the other hand, on some nights they may not need to score. Aside from Aaron Brooks, just about every important member of that team is a solid defender or better, and as a group, they'll hit the glass effectively, despite a lack of size. Effective doesn't necessarily mean conventional, either. Chuck Hayes, who at 6'6" is probably the shortest center the league has seen since players stopped wearing belts, is brutal on the opposition (as opposed to the offensive end, where Hayes is just brutal). Getting him off the block is like moving a tree stump off the lawn. It takes a lot of sweat and some sort of really big digging machine. Their lineup of quality defenders is impressive. Luis Scola. Carl Landry (right). Shane Battier. Kyle Lowry. Ariza.
They'll be put to good use by Rick Adelman.
Speaking of T.A., the story of how he got to Houston has been well documented locally, and in the long run I think he'll endear himself to Rockets fans the same way he did the Staples faithful. Short term, I wonder how he'll respond to defenses prepared for him to be an offensive contributor, and without players like Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol to work off of. Ariza's game with the Lakers was predicated on outside shooting and slashing to the basket. Mid-range stuff and putting the ball on the floor, not so much.
If the Rockets are smart, they'll integrate Ariza into their system and not look to him to be a high volume offensive force. I don't think that'll work. But as far as personality and work ethic go, he's a great fit there.
If there's such a thing as a great bad team, it'll be these guys. They will lose more often than they win, particularly to good teams, but Houston will make the opposition earn it every time and ought to find some success against the league's less disciplined squads. They won't be any fun to play, and it wouldn't surprise me if they become among the more popular Rockets teams in recent memory among their fans. My heart wants to believe they can squeak into the playoffs.
The head, though, just doesn't see it.