COACH: Rick Adelman | 2007-08: 55-27
Houston Rockets

Artest can take the Rockets past the First Round.
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images
Ron Artest cometh. There was a time – not long ago – when those three words had fans scurrying for the hills. At least those sitting courtside. Oh, how times change. Ask just about any GM and certainly any NBA player, and they'd most definitely welcome Ron-Ron with open arms, especially considering what little the Rockets gave up. (Yes, we know what Yao Ming said at first. Remember, he made nice-nice.)

So the Yao-Tracy McGrady combo added a much-needed third wheel to navigate through the brutal Western Conference. Tired of first-round flats, the Rockets added a legitimate All-Star talent in a deal reminiscent of the Pau Gasol swindle. Though a deadly duo, Yao and T-Mac couldn't deliver more than a quick cup of playoff coffee. Sure, Artest has only been out of the First Round once, but would you bet against these three, if healthy, getting bounced before the calander flips to May?

"I'm sure Houston wants to get out of the first round, but I already know that's not what they want in the long term," Artest told Jason Friedman of Rockets.com. "I know for a fact that they want to win big, come out on top and win a championship here. First round, everybody is thinking about that, but the first round is not really in the Houston Rockets' or the city of Houston's vocabulary.

"We're thinking beyond. As much as the fans are starving, the organization is starving for another successful season, I'm starving too. Everybody is trying to find a way to eat."

Hungry yet? Artest satisfies any appetite with a jambalaya mix of toughness, versatility and lockdown defense that not only eases the burden on the team's complementary pieces, but helps them focus more on their strengths. Rafer Alston doesn't have to force up shots, which help that shooting percentage get above 40. Shane Battier, one of the league's premier "glue" guys, can do a little bit of this and a little of that without disrupting the flow. Luis Scola offers muscle to go along with a dose of international flair.

The Rockets can spread the floor with shooters – T-Mac, Artest, Alston and Battier – around Yao, and bring in another couple of long-range assassins in Brent Barry and Luther Head off the pine. Rick Adelman suddenly has a wealth of matchup options to counterpunch the other West heavyweights.

Before we start fitting the Rockets for championship rings, let's not pretend this deal isn't without risk. Artest tends to get moody and drift. His outlook on life and the NBA doesn't always sync up from one day to the next. He publicly second-guessed himself for not opting out of his contract before the start of free agency. The Drama King flipped a commitment to Sacramento into a trade demand just like that.

But for now, Artest seems to have found basketball nirvana in Clutch City. Being in the last year of a contract often leads to good behavior. The Rockets can pray. Even though it's been more than a decade since Houston sniffed the second round, this newest triumvirate is drawing comparisons to the Boston Three Party. And we haven't forgotten what the KG-Allen-Pierce marriage produced in June.

"A lot of players, some of my friends, were like, ‘Houston is a problem now,'" Artest said. "Like that old saying goes: ‘Houston, we have a problem.' Now, other teams in the league, they have a problem.

"Right now, I'm playing with two All-Stars, and I've gotten better. I'm better now than I was five years ago, even than when I got Defensive Player of the Year. Everybody's in their prime. This is my best opportunity to put a ring on my finger and help Houston get another championship."
-- Art Garcia

Secure your partial plan today. Options include half-season plans, 14-game plans and six-game plans.

Scola
The obvious candidates for this category are Yao, McGrady or Artest. It's easy to make a case for Battier or Alston, a pair of under-the-radar soldiers being counted on to deliver. But we're taking a wild card on this one and going with Scola.

Coming off a solid rookie campaign (10.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and more impressive run through Beijing, Scola may be primed to pull a "James Posey" should the Rockets soar come playoff time. He's full of confidence. He's also not trying to put any extra pressure on his wide shoulders.

"I try not to. I just try to work hard," Scola shared with Rockets.com. "Work, work, work really hard and whatever has to be, will be. Sometimes it's hard not to raise your expectations. But the season is long and the season is hard, and the fact that I did whatever I did last year doesn't mean that it's going to be the same, or better. It means that I've got to work for it again one more time. So I just try not to raise the expectations too much and just work hard and get whatever I deserve."

Scola is doing his best to keep the expectations in check. The same can't be said for the rest of those Rockets. Visions of the Larry O'Brien Trophy are dancing in their heads. The bet here is the Argentine can dance.
-- Art Garcia

THE STAT
2 Two Rockets coaches (Tom Nissalke, Don Chaney) have won Coach of the Year honors.
If I was Coach Rick Adelman I would lobby for a faith healer to be put on the payroll. No team has lost more games to injury by key players than Houston over the last few years.
If, and it's a big if, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming can stay healthy they will be a major player in the West. Combined, they make one of the best inside/outside combinations in the league and make it tough for opposing coaches to come up with a solid defensive game plan.
Rafer Alston can be a steady and sometimes spectacular point guard if he stays within the framework of what Adelman wants done. But when he turns on his Rucker League mode he is a detriment to the team.
They have a couple of other very good role players in Shane Battier, Luis Scola and Steve Franics that make this a very good basketball team.
The wild card here, and everyone in the league is waiting to see, is how Ron Artest fits in. He's extremely competitive, an exceptional defender, a solid rebounder and can score with any small forward in the league. But he's been a disruption on every team he's played on, especially if he feels slighted and being third on the team as far as offensive options and star status might not sit well with him.
Watch for Artest to go after Alston if he feels like he's not getting the ball enough. But then again, winning sometimes cures all.
-- NBA Scout
Last year was the third straight season that injuries have limited Yao Ming to fewer than 60 games. The human skeleton just isn't designed to support a body the size and weight of Yao's - it seems clear that he'll be at risk for similar nagging injuries for the rest of his career.

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Record: 59-23, 2nd in Western Conf.
Playoffs: Lost in Conf. Finals to L.A. Lakers, 4-2
Scoring Leader: Y. Ming, 25.8 PPG
Rebounding Leader: Y. Ming, 11.1 RPG
Assist Leader: R. Alston, 7.4 APG

Simulated Season Details
PLAYER/2007-08 STATS PPG RPG APG
PG Rafer Alston 13.1 3.5 5.3
SG Tracy McGrady 21.6 5.1 5.9
SF Ron Artest 20.5 5.8 3.5
PF Luis Scola 10.3 6.4 1.3
C Yao Ming 22.0 10.8 2.3

G Brent Barry 7.1 1.8 1.7
F Shane Battier 9.3 5.1 1.9
F Chuck Hayes 3.0 5.4 1.2
G Luther Head 7.6 1.8 1.9
F Carl Landry 8.1 4.9 0.5
F Ron Artest Trade
G Brent Barry Free agent
F Joey Dorsey Trade
G D.J. Strawberry Trade
G Von Wafer Free agent
G Bobby Jackson Trade
F Steve Novak Trade
PPG Yao Ming 22.0
RPG Yao Ming 10.8
APG Tracy McGrady 5.9
SPG Rafer Alston 1.32
BPG Yao Ming 2.02
Points Scored 96.7 (22nd)
Points Allowed 92.0 (4th)
Field-Goal Percentage .448 (20th)
Opponents' FG% .433 (2nd)
Rebounding Diff. +3.97 (2nd)
TV: FSN Houston, KNWS TV51
Radio: 610 AM
Web: Official site
Local Coverage: Houston Chronicle