Team Preview: Houston Rockets
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
You’d think that a team with two bona fide superstars could make it past the first round of the Playoffs one of these years, but the Rockets have been plagued by various problems ranging from the poor health of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady to a lack of depth and poor roster construction. In particular, the team struggled against the quicker and more physical Utah Jazz in last year’s Playoffs.
To remedy that, the Rockets shuffled their roster, signing athletic guard Steve Francis, trading Juwan Howard to the Timberwolves for scoring point guard Mike James, trading Vassilis Spanoulis for power forward Luis Scola and drafting speedy point guard Aaron Brooks out of Oregon. They also canned their coach of four years, Jeff Van Gundy, whose gritty, slow-it-down style served them well enough in the regular season, but didn’t translate into playoff wins. Rick Adelman (formerly of the Trail Blazers and, more recently, the Kings) replaces him and should bring a dynamic, up-tempo attack. Whether Adelman’s system translates into more regular season or playoff wins remains to be seen, but it will almost certainly boost the statistical (and fantasy) production of the Rockets’ key rotation members.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Two things are known for sure: That Yao Ming will log close to 35 minutes per game at the center position, and Tracy McGrady, if he can keep his back spasms in check, will log the same at shooting guard. After that, Shane Battier, whose defense, three-point shooting and general court awareness have made him a coach’s favorite since college, is likely to see 30-35 minutes at small forward. Beyond Battier, there should be competition for most of the other jobs. If the Rockets are able to re-sign Dikembe Mutombo, he’ll once again log 10-12 minutes per game as the backup center; otherwise, Jackie Butler could fill that role. Chuck Hayes, a banger who plays solid defense despite being undersized, but offers little else, will likely start at power forward initially and see 20 minutes per game. Newly acquired Luis Scola from Argentina will push Hayes for minutes (and a starting job) and give the Rockets a more offensive-oriented option at the 4. Bonzi Wells, who thrived under Adelman in Sacramento, will back up both McGrady and Battier at the swing spots, though he’ll have to hold off Francis and three-point shooting ace Luther Head. The point guard position is even less settled with last year’s starter Rafer Alston, Mike James and Brooks all looking for playing time. There’s no way to project the point-guard/backup shooting guard minutes until things shake out in camp and Alston’s legal situation resolves.
* Yao Ming - HOU [C]: After three seasons of 80-plus games to start his career, Yao’s missed significant time during the last two with broken bones in his foot and leg. When healthy, there’s little doubt that Yao’s developed into one of the league’s elite big men – he averaged a career-high 25 points per game last year to go along with 9.4 rebounds and nearly two assists and two blocks. But where Yao really stands out is at the free-throw line – he shot 86 percent last season and is a career 82 percent shooter from the charity stripe. Very few center-eligible players come close to that, and given that Yao attempted 8.6 free throws per game, his prowess there is a huge lift to your fantasy team. Yao enters 2007-08 completely healthy and should be a first-round pick in most formats.
Jackie Butler – HOU [PF,C]: Acquired from the Spurs as part of the Luis Scola trade, Butler could see a few minutes per game backing up Yao Ming, assuming that Dikembe Mutombo, to whom the Rockets have made an offer, doesn’t sign.
Chuck Hayes - HOU [PF]: At 6-6, 238, Hayes is undersized for a power forward and lacks the athleticism to block shots. But he plays good defense in the low post and blocks out well enough to bring in rebounds. Hayes doesn’t have much of an offensive game, so he’ll be around to do the dirty work for 20 minutes per game.
* Shane Battier - HOU [SF]: Battier is one of the league’s best role players, able to guard the opposition’s best scorer, create turnovers with his ability to steal and block shots and spread the floor on offense by knocking down the three. With so many scorers on the team, Battier will never be the first or even second option, but he’ll log big minutes, fill the box score nightly and be an excellent depth guy for your fantasy roster.
* Luis Scola - HOU [SF,PF]: Acquired from the Spurs this summer, the 6-9 Scola, who was the Spanish League MVP last season and one of the stars of Argentina’s gold medal-winning national team, is a versatile offensive player and can the mid-range jumper or score in the post. He’s also a good ball-handler for his size and an excellent passer. He’ll give the Rockets more offensive flexibility and could conceivably push Chuck Hayes out of a job.
* Tracy McGrady - HOU [SG]: One of the premier talents in the league for over the better part of a decade, McGrady’s accumulated mileage and years being the only option on bad teams has taken its toll. McGrady’s has missed significant time during three of the last four seasons, and though he seemed to get his back spasms largely under control during the second half of last season, it’s the type of condition that can recur unpredictably. On the bright side, McGrady still managed 71 games of nearly 25 points per, with a career-high 6.4 assists. He also contributes significantly in steals, threes and rebounds and even blocks from the guard spot.
Luther Head - HOU [PG,SG]: It’s hard to see where Head will play this year because the Rockets are so much deeper at both guard spots. At the two, McGrady and Wells will likely log most of the minutes, and Steve Francis and Mike James could also man that slot. At the point, Alston, James and Brooks are around, and Head was never a pure point guard anyway. Still, whether he’s on the Rockets or winds up elsewhere, Head has one skill that’s always in demand: He can flat out stroke the three. Head knocked down 177 threes a year ago on 44.1 percent shooting from behind the arc.
* Steve Francis - HOU [PG,SG]: How the mighty have fallen. Once a nightly triple-double threat who averaged more than seven rebounds a game from the guard spot, Francis isn’t aging well as his jaw-dropping athleticism fades and exposes an inconsistent outside shot and poor decision making. Even the current incarnation of Francis is more explosive than most players in the league, and there’s always the possibility that he’ll thrive in Rick Adelman’s more up-tempo system. Just don’t count on it.
Rafer Alston - HOU [PG]: At press time, Alston had been charged with felony assault due to allegations stemming from a nightclub altercation. If that’s true, then, of course, all bets are off. If this incident turns out to be less than initially reported, Alston is in line to be the team’s starting point guard (assuming he’s not dealt), though newly arrived Mike James would likely cut into his role. Last season, Alston logged 37 minutes per game and did a nice job knocking down the open three (192 made at 36 percent). However, his assists fell to just 5.4 apg per game as the offense ran through Tracy McGrady more often than not. Alston is also a good source of steals, should he log 25-plus minutes again for the Rockets or anyone else.
Aaron Brooks – HOU [PG,SG]: The Rockets’ first-round draft pick, Brooks is a lightning-quick point guard who‘s almost impossible to stay in front of. He developed his shot since starting college so much so that he competed in the college three-point shootout. He’ll begin the season backing up Rafer Alston and Mike James (and possibly even John Lucas III), but if the Rockets move Alston and/or Lucas, he could see some minutes off the bench as the season goes on.