(Previously: Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Golden State).
The season is still a ways 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 couple months or so. We'll go in alphabetical order from A to Z. Today's team: Houston. Jump to the comments to discuss the Rockets and make a prediction on their record.
Last year's record: 53-29 (Pythagorean record: 53-29)
Playoffs: Beat Portland 4-2 in first round, lost to LA Lakers 4-3 in second round
Offensive Rating: 108.4 14th)
Defensive Rating: 104 (4th)
Pace: 90.2 possessions/game (19th)
In: Trevor Ariza, David Anderson, Jermaine Taylor, Chase Budinger, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Rashad McCants
Out: Yao Ming (injury), Ron Artest, Von Wafer
Projected starting lineup: Aaron Brooks, Tracy McGrady/Shane Battier, Trevor Ariza, Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes
- When does Tracy McGrady come back from injury? How good will he be? How will he fit in with this roster?
- Yao Ming's likely out for all of 2009/10. Who replaces him in the lineup? Who are the players that will help fill his on-court voids?
- How will Trevor Ariza play now that he's not expected to merely be a spot-up shooter?
- With Yao and T-Mac out and Ron Artest gone, where does Houston go to get offense?
- This has traditionally been a half-court, grind-it-out club. Does that change at all now that the big fella is injured?
- Aaron Brooks played extremely well in the playoffs, but how much will he continue to progress this season?
- Can Luis Scola, the most reliable low-post option left on the team, be as solid with increased usage?
- Obviously, the Rockets will gun for the playoffs, but they also don't have a ton of long-term salary on the books at this point. What direction will the franchise go as a whole?
The Rockets may be the one team that can rival the Wizards as the most injured team of the last few years. Like the Wizards before last season, the Rockets mostly hummed along without missing a beat even with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady out.
This season, however, will be Houston's toughest test on that front. Yao's probably out for all of 2009/10, and McGrady's status is pretty up in the air as well. Like the Wizards last season, the Rockets will likely have to figure out a way to win without multple stars.
Now, there's no doubt in my mind that Houston's probably better equipped to do this than the Wizards were. This is a roster full of solid performers from 3-12 that haven't received nearly enough credit for Houston's success when Yao and McGrady were out. The world finally realized their strength when they split two games with the Lakers in the playoffs (Games 4 and 6) after Yao went down with his foot injury. They're all back except for Ron Artest, who has been replaced by Trevor Ariza, a swap that might turn out even better for Houston.
Indeed, the loss of Artest changes pretty little for the Rockets. Artest was a good player, but his poor shot selection used up too many possessions, even during the playoffs. It's true that the Rockets need someone, anyone who can take a lot of shots, but it also won't be too hard for whoever steps up to do that to match Artest's (in)efficiency. That guy might even be Ariza, who has some pretty good skills, but has mostly been a spot-up guy in LA and Orlando. This might be his chance to prove that he can be a somewhat primary offensive threat.
That said, this is the first time the Rockets' role players will play an extended amount of time without both stars, and you have to wonder how they'll hold up. Which player among Ariza, Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola, Shane Battier, Carl Landry and Kyle Lowry can really be counted on to be a consistent high-usage but still-efficient offensive performer? These guys have skills -- Brooks shredded the Lakers in the playoffs and Scola and Landry have shown some low-post accumen -- but can they do it over the long haul? I don't really see it. Sure, they did it against the Lakers, but that was a two-game sample in which the Lakers had to rapidly adjust to an opponent that played a completely different style without Yao. In short samples, that adjustment can be very difficult even for the best teams.
The other thing I'm a little curious about is how they'll hold up defensively without Yao. No matter what, Houston is going to be a very good defensive team. They have some outstanding individual defenders in Battier, Ariza, Chuck Hayes and Scola, and they've historically maintained their defensive strength with Yao out in the past. At the same time, Yao and his size were the lynchpins of their scheme -- Houston was five points better/100 possessions with Yao on the court. Now, Yao's minutes are going to go to Hayes and Australian import David Anderson. Hayes is a good individual defender, but you can't build a defense around him. Anderson is a complete unknown and might not even play much. Any defensive slippage is going to matter, because you know the offense won't be as good as it was last year.
The wild card is McGrady. Like Gilbert Arenas, McGrady has been training with Tim Grover in an attempt to get his game back. Before he got injured last year, he was pretty awful, posting an abysmal 49.2 TS%. The team got better when he went under the knife and they became more Yao-centric. McGrady was supposed to miss a large part of the season, but now he's talking about being ready to play at the start of the season, which would be an unbelievably quick recovery. If he's back and at least at the level he was at a couple years ago, that's a pretty big boost to Houston. Remember, in 07/08, a large portion of Houston's 22-game winning streak came with Yao injured and T-Mac carrying the team, and the current edition of the Rockets is better than the team McGrady carried that year.
I suspect Houston will probably be in the playoff hunt all year before falling short, but it absolutely wouldn't surprise me to see them make it back in.
Mike's prediction: 37-45, 4th in the Southwest, 10th in the West
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