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Competition Discussion: Houston Rockets

The season is still a few weeks away, but most of the rosters are set, barring the requisite Michael Jordan comeback rumor (just kidding, but only a little).  We have an idea where our team stands, but we can't really know unless we discuss everyone else.  In that spirit, I'm going to throw up a "competition discussion" thread for each of the other 29 teams over the next month or so.  We'll go in alphabetical order from A to Z.  Today's team: Houston.

Last year's record: 55-27

In: Ron Artest, Brent Barry, Joey Dorsey, D.J. Strawberry
Out: Bobby Jackson, Steve Novak, Donte Greene

Projected starting lineup: Rafer Alston, Tracy McGrady, Ron Artest, Luis Scola, Yao Ming

Key themes:

  • How does Ron Artest fit in on the court?  For that matter, how does he fit in off the court?
  • Can Yao and McGrady stay healthy?  If so, can they share the ball with Ron-Ron?
  • What do the Rockets do with Artest?  Do they play him a lot at the 4 or bench Battier and play Ron-Ron at the 3?
  • Their surrounding guys were all awesome last year.  Can they maintain that level of production?
  • Can you win with Rafer Alston as your starting point guard?
  • We know they'll be great defensively, but how do they improve offensively?

I said it at the time of the trade, and I'm going to say it again.  While I applaud the move to get Ron Artest, considering the price and the team's situation, I don't see how it'll push the Rockets over the top.

That doesn't mean they won't be good, regardless of injuries.  Like the Wizards, the Rockets often look like they're playing better when someone gets injured, but that's because nobody gives enough credit to the guys around Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.  Luis Scola and Carl Landry formed a solid power forward duo, Shane Battier and Rafer Alston do a lot more than their numbers indicate and Bobby Jackson and Dikembe Mutumbo were also very good, though they aren't around this time around.  They, and not Tracy McGrady, were the keys to that 22-game winning streak.  That and an easy schedule, at least.

Despite all that, I struggle to see how Ron Artest does too much to solve their weaknesses.  Defensively, he's awesome, but so is Shane Battier, and they play the same position.  Ron-Ron was very effective with the Kings offensively last year playing power forward, but he wasn't as good defensively.  Somebody effective, either Battier, Scola/Landry or Artest, is not going to play enough.

Offensively, some are saying Artest will make life easier for McGrady, but I don't really buy that.  Artest isn't an amazingly efficient scorer, and while it may free up McGrady to pass more, it isn't like Artest is going to be the beneficiary of too many of those passes with his style of play.  Plus, how is Yao going to fit into this whole mess?  Yao had a down year adjusting to Rick Adelman's style, how does he react when Artest doesn't space the floor for him?  

I will say that Houston's better built for playoff success because they can trot out a crunch-time lineup of Barry/McGrady/Battier/Artest/Yao that can compete with anyone.  Surround McGrady with two shooters, use Artest when things go wrong and turn Yao into the defensive anchor.  Nobody's scoring on that group when it matters and you have McGrady and Artest to create some offense.

In the regular season, though, I see Houston's season playing out like last year.  They'll struggle out of the gate getting used to each other, then someone will get hurt and everyone's role will become clear.  Either McGrady gets hurt and Yao emerges, or Yao gets hurt and the team becomes stronger defensively.  The only difference is they might win a round in the playoffs this time around with the San Antonio/Phoenix/Dallas trio weakening.  

Prediction: 55-27, 2nd in Southwest, T3rd in West

Previously (predictions are me/Jake/Truth)...