With early training camp buzz pointing to a shift in focus from run and gun offensive firepower to a more “Van Gundian” recommitment to defensive intensity, it is clear that the Houston Rockets enter the 2010-11 season with a sense of determination.
Gone (for now) is the dream of a legacy-defining offseason. Rumors of Chris Bosh’s interest in the Rockets were always tenuous at best, but there is no denying the chase of Bosh held a higher significance, a necessary step in order to establish Houston as a major player in the free agent market. Fans were perhaps entirely too optimistic about this offseason, although few could blame them for getting caught up in the spectacle that was the much-hyped, much-maligned 2010 NBA Free Agency period.
Still, Houston collectively couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed about the way the summer transpired. Despite the team’s coup d’etat of New York Knick assets at last season’s trade deadline, Rockets GM Daryl Morey, for the moment, has been unable to pull another rabbit out of his hat and parlay Donnie Walsh’s lunch money into a Rolls Royce.
However, in light of the perceived failure to add a dominant offensive force to the roster, there remains an optimism – albeit a much more subdued one – that this Rockets team is good enough in collective quantity to make up for what it lacks in individual quality.
After the dust settled, the smoke cleared and Lebron and Bosh agreed to serve as mercenaries for Dwyane Wade’s Heat, Morey didn’t spend two weeks moping around in seclusion playing Coldplay songs on an acoustic guitar like some jilted lover.
He went to work.
Simply moving forward, the Rockets did what they could, locking up Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry, adding the significantly less exciting but still serviceable Brad Miller, drafting another “glue guy” in Patrick Patterson, unloading the seven-foot Australian Bob Sura (or David Andersen as he is sometimes called) and jettisoning the talented but immature Trevor Ariza for the defensive-minded Courtney Lee.
All these moves point to one simple, overgeneralized, but undeniable logical fact: chemistry on both sides of the court is the blueprint for success in the NBA.
“Synergy” is a cliché all too often tossed around in board meetings, but part of the Morey-infused philosophy is the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The Rockets face a lot of the same limitations from the previous year; whether they be Kevin Martin‘s defensive abilities (or lack thereof), Aaron Brooks‘ court vision, the relative lack of experience on the bench, or Chuck Hayes‘ frustrating inability to grow four inches taller. Add in Yao Ming’s calculated and cautious integration back into the team and it appears likely this team will be searching for an identity early and often during the November and December months.
48 wins, 3rd Southwest Division
Safe Prediction #1
Shane Battier bleeds on the court at least once.
Safe Prediction #2
Nobody will miss Trevor Ariza.
Bold Prediction #1
Yao Ming stays relatively healthy
Bold Prediction #2
Brad Miller will drop a triple double.
At The Helm
Coach Rick Adelman faces the daunting task of trying to put this jigsaw puzzle together without the luxury of being able to see the picture on the puzzle box.
Adelman is charged with the dilemma of having to sort through a roster loaded with eventual contributors brimming with potential. In one sense there are no super-egos on this team at the moment, so there is not a Carmelo Anthony or Bosh that demands a certain amount of touches, but that also creates a problem of just who will be the offensive focus on a given night. Adelman’s match-up and substitution decisions will probably be the most consistently criticized and over-analyzed part of the 2010-11 Rockets season.
In trying to assess just how the team will perform, one can look back on past results. Adelman has never been pegged as a mastermind on the defensive side of the ball. “Rick Adelman: committed to defense” will certainly not be the title of his autobiography, but there are some precedents in place that prove he has some credentials.
The best example of this would be his 2002-03 Sacramento Kings, a squad consisting of a strong offensive-minded big (Chris Webber), a sharp-shooting wing (Peja Stojakovic), two point guards with different styles that ran the team more as equals (Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson) and young, blossoming players on the bench (Hedo Turkoglu and Gerald Wallace).
Adelman’s Kings were often praised for their offensive efficiency. After all, they finished 6th in the league in offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions) that year, and were #1 in the league in pace (possessions created). However, what might be surprising to some is that the Kings finished 2nd in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) in the NBA that season (source: basketball-reference.com).
Adelman’s mastery is in assessing player strengths and weaknesses and he knows how to disperse minutes to maximize efficiency on both ends of the floor. How well he’ll be able to do that this year will depend on the consistent production he gets out of veterans like Hayes and Battier.
Back To What They Do Best
Clearly these Rockets are not comparable in terms of offensive success to the more established ’03 Kings, but if this new incarnation is able to return to their stellar defensive ways, they certainly have the potential to surprise the league again, as they did when they started 16-11 out of the gate last season before settling down and ultimately falling short of the playoffs.
So with some tempered expectations, there is still a hope for this team that they can achieve some level of greatness, perhaps if that only means the 8th seed in the Western Conference. The Rockets will focus on what they do best, fundamentals and attention to detail. The back-handed compliment “The Rockets do more with less” is indicative of how they are perceived around the league, as a team with less talent. Make no mistake: the Rockets do have talent. Scola, Brooks, and Martin will certainly be able to produce points.
The Rockets continue to accumulate basketball players who put in the necessary work to achieve success, rather than talent-laded prima donnas expecting to be handed starting roles.
The Key Factors
Yao Ming is the ultimate X-factor and certainly there will be a lot of head-scratching moments this year when Yao is taken out of a game even when he is performing well. The limitations, a 24-minute cap on Yao’s minutes and the decision to sit him during back-to-backs, are going to change the complexion of the team immensely, just like last season when at certain times the tempo of the game changed dramatically when the bench squad came in.
Kyle Lowry is key and must get healthy. If he continues to deal with injury problems, that could jeopardize the bench brigade’s commitment to hauling ass down the court. Ishmael Smith proved in camp and preseason play that he has great court vision and quickness, but clearly would not be as polished as Lowry when it comes to commanding the 2nd unit in the half court offense.
As mentioned before, Yao Ming’s role will be the most pressing question when assessing this team, but there are going to be questions concerning nearly every player on the roster. Can Aaron Brooks keep up his shooting from last season? Will Scola feel any lingering effects from his busy year? Can Jordan Hill get his fundamentals in order and put together some consistent performances? Can Kevin Martin be a 4th quarter finisher? Should Chase Budinger get a starting role? Where do Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes fit in with the new youth movement? How will Courtney Lee fit in?
One thing we don’t have to worry about appears to be Brad Miller (and hopefully gone are the days of him rocking the headband). For an aging seven-footer with the hops of a rhinoceros, Miller was a sneaky good pickup for the team; what he lacks in physical talent he makes up for with knowledge of Adelman’s read-and-react offense. His offensive skill-set alone makes him a huge upgrade over the egregious Andersen.
With Yao Ming healthy and a few new pieces, it doesn’t seem outrageous to expect the Rockets to be 4-5 games better than last year. 48 wins seems about right.
No doubt this year will be a continued learning experience, but we already know from prior seasons that the Rockets embody mental toughness and a drive to win that on some nights, as we have so frequently witnessed, leads them to taking down a powerhouse. The juxtaposition between “team talent” and “team chemistry” will be on full display when the Miami Heat come to town December 29th, but before we get too ahead of ourselves, the reigning NBA champs will provide Houston with a spirited opening challenge tonight.
Get your popcorn ready.