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Houston Rockets 2009-2010: Are we over/under-rating what the team will be?

I've been called an eternal optimist around here before. Mostly because I've always want to believe that this team could do things like the 22 game winning streak, or taking LA to 7 games. In the life of this blog that optimism has been proven to be "correct" if there is a such thing. It's also been proven to be wrong (Utah 2 years ago and Yao's injuries) pretty often as well. This is called being a fan, though you could easily be a pessimist and be just as big of a fan (ask Dave). The team, provided there is solid management and coaching will have it's ups and downs, all teams do. The great Celtics went forever between Larry Bird and a championship. The Lakers have had plenty of droughts as well. The Rockets, as a upper middle half team historically will take more lumps than those two teams, but that's just life.

I've seen everything from "this team will suprise people in the play-offs" to "This team will have a shot at John Wall". Granted any lottery team would "have a chance" but I suspect that wasn't the point of that comment. To get to my opinion let's look at how the team stands right now:

FA: Von Wafer
Retired: Dikembe Mutombo
Lost via FA: Ron Artest

Injured: Yao Ming (entire season), Tracy McGrady (half the season)

Under Contract
PG: Aaron Brooks (3 more years), Kyle Lowry (2 more years)
SG: Shane Battier (2 more years), Brent Barry (1 more year)
SF:Trevor Ariza (5 more years), James White (2 more years)
PF:Luis Scola (1 more year), Carl Landry (2 more years), Chuck Hayes (2 more years)
C: Joey Dorsey (3 more years though he's really not a C)f

Rookies that may sign:

SG: Jermaine Taylor
SF: Chase Budinger

Doesn't count: Brian Cook

Point Guard: I feel like the Rockets are set here. That doesn't mean that if Rubio was offered to me I wouldn't trade just about anything on the team (not Scola) to get him, but overall, I'm happy going into the season with an upper half point guard tandem. Both guys could start in the NBA and both guys bring different talents to the floor for a given match-up. Last year I wanted Lowry to start because the offense needed his balance. This year the offense is Brooks, Scola and whatever cuts Ariza makes. So ABZ is the answer as the starting 1, and a lot of teams wish that was the case, so I certianly will not (nor want to) complain about it.

Shooting Guard: There are four wild cards here. 1. Will Shane Battier be traded before the season and 2. Can Jermaine Taylor step in this year and contribute at SG right away. 3. Does Von Wafer resign? 4. When does McGrady come back/is he traded?
1. With Battier that isn't speculation on my part. I do not have a lot of inside sources, but the few I do have say that the Rockets are actually listening to offers for Battier. Not openly shopping him mind you, but last year they didn't even listen simply telling teams he was untouchable before they spoke. Battier himself has said he thinks he's gone and that was never a thought of his before.
2. Jermaine Taylor looks like a player, especially on the offensive end. His shot isn't falling right now, but his body positioning and offensive talents are evident. Is he ready to step in day 1? Probably not, but the Rockets have 4 months to make him that player.
3. Von Wafer is going to be a Houston Rocket, I feel very strongly about that. This has all the makings of Landry last year. Agent upset about not getting respect, but the simple fact is that Daryl Morey is a very respectful guy, he's just not stupid. He doesn't bid against himself, and he knows good and well that Wafer likes it in Houston and knows that Houston gave him a chance when no one else would. The Rockets will ultimately get him at a very cheap salary (I'd say much less than Landry's 3/$9MM).
4. Good old Tracy McGrady. He seems like a whipping boy around here this year. That was never the case before. We've all loved him in our own ways for a long time. I think it's just as simple as a set of circumstances that were poorly approached by him, but that's another post. Is McGrady traded? Does he come back and play? I wish I had the answer. If he is traded it will be for a big name or for young players with talent and draft picks. No matter what though, Morey will give himself the most flexibility he possibly can while also making the future as positive as he can.
So there are basically 2 scenarios I see here that are likely. 1. Battier is the opening day starter and 2. Battier is traded and Rudy FernandezWafer or Taylor is the starter. In the first case the Rockets are in better shape overall for THIS season. In the second I believe Wafer would be the starter and they'd bring Taylor along with a lot of playing time. Mid season you could get McGrady back, maybe even a little earlier. If this is the case, McGrady will be starting. Morey will want to maximize his value at the trade deadline and at that point he'll decide if he likes his trade options or if he simply wants to let McGrady's contract expire.

Small Forward: Trevor Ariza is the future here. Yes, he will play some SG, but he's a true SF in my opinion and given the Rockets options I think it makes the most sense to play him here and Battier at the 2. It's semantics though, as Battier will guard the other teams best player between the 2 and 3 and neither of them are true shooting guards. James White will have plenty of opportunities to show what he is made of between now and the first game of the season. Either way he will get some second team reps during the season to show if he can score even half as well as he did in the D league. This position has a lot of what ifs, but ultimately it is the Trevor Ariza show and he'll have to prove he was worth this much money. I'm coming around, but I can guarantee you that last year I had more confidence when this was the Battier/Artest show. That's in no way to say Ariza can't do it, just that I want to see it with my own two eyes, and I really hope I do.

Power Forward: This spot on the court is as solid as any 1, 2 punch in the NBA. Both guys could start depending on a teams make - up, and they both care about basketball in unhealthy ways. Scola is a top 10 PF and he'll likely climb that chart this year as he will be expected to be the star. That's a role that he can and will fill. I've said it for almost 2 years now, he can score 20 points a game in this league and he will prove me right this year. I expect a huge season from him, 20/10 is what I think he's easily capable of. Without Artest taking wild shots, and with being the focal point in the post he is going to absolutely take off. Carl Landry will be used some at the 5 and possibly even the 3 (a spot I think he'd do well), and will provide a spark off the bench as he always does. A season removed from getting shot should help him mentally return to himself. I have no concerns at power forward. And for all of you on Morey about not getting a backup center and acting like it was the Rockets number on concern, please allow me to tell you that you are insane. The Rockets have needed a power forward since Barkley retired. Daryl Morey has delivered a top 10 guy and a versatile guy. That is what the team needed more than anything. And you know what? That's not even taking into account Chuck Hayes who is a defensive dynamo and has more often than not helped the team. I'm listing him at center though for discussion purposes.

Center: Okay, so the Rockets are non-existent thin here. Having Dikembe Mutombo finally retire and yao go down for what may be forever, tend to cause issues like that. They had the same problem when Hakeem left. And you know what they did? They gave Kelvin Cato roughly 8 trillion dollars to suck completely. Many of you are angry about the Rockets not having this spot filled. Apparently you think that because the PG (always a problem pre-Morey) and PF (same) have 2 starter quality players that every spot should. Newsflash, most teams don't have back ups for their superstars that can step in right away, no matter how brittle that player is. Ask yourself, who plays for Kobe if he's out for a season? How about Lebron? DWade? Dirk? The point is, the Rockets rolled the dice (and frankly with no other real choice) on Yao's health because it was the absolute best chance at getting a ring. It came up craps, but they still had a shot at the championship. Anyway, that's not the point of this post, so I digress. The Rockets are starting the season (as of today) with Chuck Hayes as their starting center. Considering Joey Dorsey is the other option Chuck has to be the starter. That's not to say that Dorsey can't develop, quite the contrary, he can, it's just to say he's small too. Dorey does have the athletic ability to play the 5, even though he's 6'9. Now, he's not Bill Russell but the average height of the NBA center does seem to have come down, and the overall quantity of quality centers is at an all time low. (On a side note, given all the hormones that people take and the taller than ever height of everyone, isn't it odd that there aren't more dominant 7 footers like Shaq and DHo?) So this is the worst spot on the court going into the season. That's not to knock Chuck Hayes, just to say Chuck is a PF playing center and Dorsey is a project that could still pan out.

Overall: Gven the Rockets are good/great at the 4, solid/good at the 1 and either 2 or 3, potentially lottery bound at the 2 or 3 and the 5, where does that leave the team. Seriously, look at that. There is depth, but it's specific depth. There is an excess of potential, but it's 2 years off potential. McGrady is potentially the best player of the bunch but is out until mid-season/may be traded. Scola could have an All Star year, this is absolutely true. But can this team do more than 41 wins? I say yes, it can, but I don't think it will do much more if it does. My opinion, after really having time to look at it is that, given how it stands today, this is a lottery bound team. Late pick lottery, but still lottery bound.

With that lottery prediction, that's as it stands today. What we've learned from day 1 of Daryl Morey (Shane Battier trade, I don't care what anyone says, he did that) is that he can make the team better with 1 or 2 moves and he will if they make sense to the cap and the flexibility for the future. It's a testament to him that I'm even talking about this subject. As of right now the Rockets have $71,245,249 in payroll. They are under the luxury tax mark and only have $35,423,040 under contract going into the sweepstakes year of 2010. Ariza is the only player with a contract past 2011/12. They also have $39,617,886 (55.6%) of injuries sitting on the bench unable to contribute. And yet, some of you are extremely bullish on their chances to make the playoffs. That's pretty impressive if you ask me and flexibility is something Daryl Morey has created, it absolutely was not something that was given to him.

So I ask you, what is your predicition for the seasongiven how the team stands today (we'll do this again if/when a trade happens)?