Note: Thanks, as always, to Celtics Blog's Jeff Clark for organizing these previews. Always a great way to begin the season.
Team Name: Houston Rockets
Last Year's Record: 42-40
Key Losses: Trevor Ariza, David Andersen, Brian Cook
Key Additions: Yao Ming, Courtney Lee, Brad Miller, Patrick Patterson, Ishmael Smith
I didn't want to mention Carmelo Anthony's name in this preview, though now I've obviously begun the preview by doing such. Odds are, the Rockets won't be acquiring him. They'll likely get outbid. But since it's such a prevalent topic, I did my best to save him for the end.
Read this accordingly. The first four questions and answers? They'll inform you on what matters most: this roster. This team, currently. Let's get excited for what we have.
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
I'm telling everyone, right now, that Patrick Patterson is going to be the overlooked gem in the 2010 NBA Draft class.
He's exactly the kind of player that Daryl Morey has drafted in the past: an overachiever with a good head on his shoulders who can do a little bit of everything. It worked with Carl Landry. It worked with Aaron Brooks. These guys are not just athletes. They are intelligent, dedicated basketball players who have managed to turn heads throughout their tenures in the NBA.
Patterson appears to be no different. His only weakness? He doesn't stand out in any way, shape or form (other than his gargantuan shoulders). And that's exactly what makes him perfect for the Rockets' versatile, flexible offense. He can participate here and there. He can capitalize on available opportunities, but he doesn't need a lot of touches to do so. Now, can Patterson play solid defense against either taller or smaller, quicker opponents? We'll have to see.
Following the draft, it was a busy July for the Rockets. They poked fun at the Chris Bosh sweepstakes and tried to convince us that they had a chance, but alas, they failed to reel in the big fish. But hey, there's no harm in trying. Fortunately, they nailed their number one item of the offseason to-do list by re-signing restricted free agents Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry. Later, they signed free agent center Brad Miller to bolster the team's frontcourt depth. All three signings made perfect sense and added to the growing depth of the roster.
But perhaps the most important move of the offseason was the decision to acquire guard Courtney Lee from the Nets and trade away a once-coveted free agent signing in Trevor Ariza. The move netted the Rockets cash savings and a $6.3 million trade exception, but the money wasn't really the cause for my excitement.
I'm all about fundamental basketball players. I like guys who can control the ball and play in a manner that doesn't require too much help from the other four players on the court. I like players who are smart, who study, who make plays that aren't necessarily practiced or coached. Trevor Ariza isn't one of those players. He needs someone to hold his hand and tell him what to do. He, by all means, is an underachiever who relies on his athleticism far more than he relies on fundamental basketball talent. Those types of players, amidst the highlight reel dunks and occasionally big plays, can be quite a headache for coaches and fans alike.
Ariza could play great team defense. He could rack up a few important steals per game and knock down a three if he was open. But too often we saw him try to do too much. We saw him force the action, force shots, force passes. In all fairness, he was asked to do this due to the absences of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, and he wasn't ready for it. Perhaps he could have been of greater value in a reduced role. We can't forget, however, that Courtney Lee was asked to do the same last season in New Jersey. As far as efficiency is concerned, Lee performed much, much better.
I'm convinced that Lee will fill the role of "supporter" far more effectively than Ariza could have. Lee doesn't appear to have had the idea that, someday, he can be THE guy on a team. He, much like Shane Battier, does his best to help everyone else as much as he helps himself. I'm also convinced Ariza signed with Houston solely to prove himself as a player. Sure, he wanted to win games as much as anyone, but he also wanted to show the world what he could do if asked to shoulder the load. And he failed.
Mentally, Lee fits better. He's a team-first player who filled the role brilliantly as a rookie in Orlando. How many rooks do you see starting in an NBA finals, guarding the opponent's best player? What's not to like about someone like that? Oh, and if you don't think he can bounce like Ariza can, take a look at this.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Compatibility and offensive firepower.
This is a roster that is built with the intent to distribute and work together, fittingly under a coach who excels with such a scheme. Yao Ming has already shown during the preseason that his passing skills have improved, perhaps indicating that the offense will be equally effective with Yao shooting or simply drawing attention in order to free others for shots. Kevin Martin, Aaron Brooks, Shane Battier and Luis Scola can all shoot the basketball, and they've each got a convenient place around the court from which they are most comfortable. Scola has always been effective on the elbow. Battier loves to spot up in the corner, and Brooks and Martin can shoot it from just about anywhere. As far as starting lineups are concerned, the Rockets have an incredibly cohesive bunch. This bodes extremely well for Yao's comeback attempt.
The bench certainly won't let off once the starters need a break. Kyle Lowry is the perfect floor general for a run-and-gun second unit. He gets to the free throw line, sets up others nicely and is quite aware that his jump shot isn't his biggest strength. Chase Budinger and Courtney Lee should be excellent sidekicks on the wing: each can shoot the ball effectively and run the floor. Jordan Hill is another athletic run-and-gunner who can finish inside and collect offensive rebounds off missed jumpers; Chuck Hayes is an excellent offensive rebounder himself and can guard any opposing post presence; and Jared Jeffries fits nicely as a defensive-minded player who won't take shots away from the others. Jermaine Taylor, should he make the team, has proven to be another capable weapon on offense, and if there's any center who can move the ball nicely and play within a loose, free-flowing system, it's veteran center Brad Miller.
It's all an excellent balance of leadership, experience, youth, athleticism, intelligence and basic talent. And while the team had plenty of these characteristics last year, the return of Yao and the improvement of the frontcourt should drastically aid in rebuilding the Rockets' half-court attack, a crucial element to winning in the playoffs.
By the way, to combat Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski's claim that the Rockets can't compete because of Yao's minute limitations, I think it's very clear that the decision to limit Yao to 24 minutes per game is a regular season approach. Once the playoffs role around (if you can't already tell, I'm quite confident that a team who went 42-40 in what proved to be one clusterf--k of a season can make the playoffs with added experience, a full offseason of preparation and an improved roster. Yao happens to be the added bonus to all of that), Yao will certainly see increased minutes should they be necessary. The whole point of this plan is to keep Yao healthy until May. If he gets injured in the playoffs, then that's the breaks.
Too often has the adage of "stars win in the NBA" panned out. Suddenly, nobody thinks that a starless team can compete. And for a starless team, the Rockets are very, very talented. Depth is nothing to be ashamed about, especially in a situation where Yao will need plenty of others to step up.
Let's make one thing clear, as well: nothing about this roster or rotation is permanent. Once the second half of the season approaches, we'll have a better idea of what actions will need to be taken to make a West title run. Thankfully, the Rockets have enough assets and depth to be picky.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Defense and stability.
I think Yao's presence will improve the Rockets' defense drastically. That is, for twenty-four minutes at a time, and, to start the season, for one out of every two back-to-backs. When Yao isn't on the floor, the Rockets have a major gap in the paint. Brad Miller isn't going to scare anyone from driving to the hoop, and it's about time we stop labeling Jordan Hill as a shotblocker. Chuck Hayes proved that he needs a taller presence beside him in order for the Rockets to prevent opponents from driving at will, and while Lee will certainly be a better on-ball defender for Houston than Trevor Ariza was, the perimeter defense is still shaky, as Brooks and Martin have rarely shown the ability to cut off opposing wings from getting to the middle of the paint.
As it has been for who knows how long, health is the primary concern this year. I don't consider Martin to be injury prone like most, as nothing he has suffered has been a chronic issue, but with the way he attacks the basket and gets fouled, you never know what could happen. Same goes for Kyle Lowry. A team predicated on hustle will always put themselves in danger of twisting or turning or spraining something.
And then there is Yao Ming. He needs to stay healthy to make a run in the playoffs. It's as simple as that. I don't want people to be thrown off by the lack of words in the weakness paragraph as compared to the strengths paragraph, because Yao's health outweighs all of that. The Rockets can truly be a great team if Yao is on the court and playing at a reasonably high level. They can similarly find themselves victim to another first-round exit if he isn't there.
Lastly, as Morey has constantly pointed out himself, as beautiful as the roster looks on paper (I'd put it in a vase and water it on Sundays), everything needs to translate to the court. It's never as easy as it sounds.
The Rockets certainly have more strengths than weaknesses, but the giant aforementioned weakness can no doubt have the largest impact on the ballclub.
4. What are the goals for this team?
I think the Rockets can get to the Western Conference Finals. Too many things have to fall into their favor, but if they happen to stumble upon some good luck for once, they can certainly get there.
As always, the primary goal is to win. The Rockets would like to develop their young players, build up more assets and place themselves in position to win in the playoffs, but amidst all of those goals, they will still be trying to win each game. That doesn't mean they're trying for 82-0. The big picture approach matters more to us than to them. Each game day, they'll suit up and do their best to win the game. And if they lose, their goal suddenly becomes to win the next game. We tend to lose sight of that sometimes, simple as it sounds.
5. Do the Rockets need a star player to win an NBA championship?
Yes, they do. Star players get teams through the playoffs. Not alone, of course, but with great teams surrounding them. It's asking a lot, but, then again, we're talking about an NBA championship. It's nearly impossible to do. It's something that 29 teams per year fail to do.
As often as I have spoken against acquiring Carmelo Anthony, if the Rockets can make a good deal for him in February (should he not be traded to New York or New Jersey first), then, by all means, they should pull the trigger. My issue would be giving up too much without thinking about the Rockets' options in the future. Should they use their assets now on Carmelo and lose in the second round, what would be the point? The NBA Blogging Machine - aka Matt Moore - made my point for me on Twitter: there's a chance that Carmelo Anthony may not be worth the trade. Guarantees do, in fact, exist. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, etc. I don't place Anthony on that list. Not yet.
Again, let's be honest with ourselves. Let's have realistic expectations. Telling ourselves, "CHAMPIONSHIP OR BUST!" isn't fair to us or to the team. Last season, I think we all set some very reasonable expectations, and look what happened: the Rockets surprised us. It made for a fun, surprisingly competitive season amidst some not-so-fun events. Let's not jump to the highest step of the stairs just yet. But we can certainly raise our expectations from last season.
Getting to the second or third round with this team would be great. Actually, it would certainly exceed expectations, if only because the general consensus is that Houston will not be healthy come playoff time. Let's shoot for that, and if the Rockets surprise us, then, hey, even better.
Predicted record: 51-31. If last year's team won 42 games, this year's team HAS to win 50. Oh, and I can't predict seeds. It's too tough.