Ever since Yao Ming went down in that classic series against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009, the Rockets have been searching for a center who can fill the role of a shot-blocker, rebounder, and occasional scorer on the block. Chuck Hayes has started at the pivot admirably for two seasons, but stands at just 6'6" and can struggle against longer, finesse players that have invaded the league like fire ants over the last few years. Hayes, a free agent this off-season, will likely be brought back, but the Rockets must look to upgrade at the center position if they are interested in competing in the Western Conference in the near future.
After the jump, I'll run down all of the Rockets options at that frustrating position.Nene, free agent: After the Nuggets traded away Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, many were quick to speculate on the Rockets' interest in Nene. The Rockets were known to have expressed interest in upgrading at the center, but, in the end, the Nuggets opted to hold on to Nene and hope for the best in contract negotiations.
Nene has an opt-out clause in his contract that he will likely exercise barring unforeseen circumstances and will enter free agency when it begins (right after the lockout). At 28, he may not be the long term answer at the center position, but he'd add a lot to a team that desperately needs size. He would not be the shot-blocking force some would want next to Luis Scola (or Patrick Patterson, if Scola is traded), but he would give the Rockets a very quick center who excels at scoring efficiently, a quality Daryl Morey would undoubtedly appreciate.
Aside from defensive issues and his age, the other problem with Nene would be how to acquire him. If Nene decides to leave Denver, he'll likely look for a contract starting at $10 million a year. However, as the Rockets already have committed $48 million next year to 11 players not including draft picks or free agents to be, signing Nene would require some interesting financial moves. The Rockets would have to convince the Nuggets to sign-and-trade him to Houston, and given the Nuggets' aversion to trading him to a conference rival, that might prove difficult to pull off.
Verdict: Not Worth It
Tyson Chandler, free agent: Chandler, like Nene, would present a number of issues related to his acquisition. After a huge comeback season, the Dallas Mavericks center will also likely demand seven figures as a starting point on a long term contract. Given the Rockets financial situation, it would be tough to swing.
However, unlike Nene, if the Rockets were willing to pay the price, Chandler could turn out to be a godsend to a defense that has so desperately needed a shot-blocking force for years. He struggled in Charlotte when asked to post up and score, but next to a scoring forward like Dirk this year, he excelled as he was just needed to play defense, secure rebounds, and finish alley-oops from Jason Kidd.
The only problem is Dallas, most notably Mark Cuban. After seeing that his squad has the potential to reach the NBA Finals as currently constituted, there is little to no chance that Cuban lets his stud center leave for greener pastures, especially not to a division rival in Houston. For that reason, bringing Chandler to Houston remains a pipe dream.
Verdict: Perfect fit, but not happening
DeAndre Jordan, Restricted Free Agent: For many, Jordan represents the ideal player for the Rockets to target when free agency begins. He's young, he's a good shot-blocker, and he might be available in a sign-and-trade as the Clippers are already paying Chris Kaman over $10 million a year to be, well, Chris Kaman. Jordan, a Houston native who attended Episcopal High School, has said that he would love to come back to his hometown, but, as has been the case with the others before him, there are problems with him.
Despite flashing some of the tools that had some scouts rating him as a top five draft prospect in the 2008 Draft, Jordan remains far from a complete player, lacking any semblance of an offensive game outside of the paint. He can make little hook shots if he gets the right position, but is a horrific free throw shooter and cannot make a jump shot.
Defensively, he grew up last season as he put himself in better position for blocks while still playing fundamental defense. He is not the stalwart on the block that Chuck Hayes is, but he'd be a definite upgrade on team defense, as he could help on penetration from wings much better than the height challenged Hayes.
Some will debate the merits of giving up assets and committing long term to a guy like Jordan after acquiring a similarly raw player in Hasheem Thabeet, but Jordan has proven himself over the last year to be a very good NBA center, something Thabeet hasn't done. If the Rockets are willing to give up an asset like Courtney Lee or a draft pick or two to make it happen, getting Jordan is possible, and he'd instantly provide the Rockets with a long term answer at the center position.
Verdict: Will be tough to get, but the Rockets' best option
Yao Ming, free agent: Here's where the debate gets really interesting. While few would argue that getting DeAndre Jordan for the right price would be great or that Tyson Chandler would be a great fit if we could pry him from Dallas, the topic of whether Yao should be brought back or not sparks incredible debate among Rockets fans. Some hope that he can regain his health and return to the dominant force that he was before a string of injuries while others just want to move on in a rebuilding phase.
After years joined at the hip to Yao because of a max contract extension he signed in September of 2005, the Rockets must finally make their own decision on him. Both sides have said they are amicable to an agreement, but until he signs his signature on a contract, it is impossible to tell whether he will be staying in Houston.
While the excitement of having the 7'6" center back again would undoubtedly help ticket sales, you have to wonder how much he has left after years of painful rehabilitation and horrific injuries. Even if he did come back, could he be counted on for more than 10 or 20 minutes a game? Would he be in and out of the lineup a la Tracy McGrady with various maladies? It is tough to say goodbye and I hope Yao can regain his form, but the Rockets should stay away.
Verdict: Time to Say Goodbye
Verdict: Only value to the team is in his potential to rep the cornrows
Hasheem Thabeet, Houston Rockets: Like Yao, Thabeet inspires his fair share of debate among Rockets fans, with some thinking that his combination of size, athleticism, and a decent jump shot makes him more than an adequate center while others say that his inability to put it together in his first two years dooms his existence to one on the bench.
However, unlike Yao, it's time for the Rockets to give him a chance. While he was not a dominant force in the D-League, he showed that his offensive game has improved from the Jared Jeffries-esque levels that he showed off in Memphis. He flashed a nascent perimeter game, hitting face-up jumpers, and even made some nice finishes in the paint. He won't be confused for Hakeem Olajuwon any time soon, but he could thrive in a role off the bench for 20 minutes a game.
Verdict: Give him a chance, even if it's only to see what we have with him
Marc Gasol, restricted free agent: The odds are so laughably small that we can get him that I'm not going to even continue.
Verdict: Not happening