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Friday October 22, 2010 12:14 PM

Going Out On A Limb

In honor of Yao's return, 11 fearless predictions for the upcoming Rockets' season

West Medlin

HOUSTON - In some ways, watching regular season games is a simpler experience than viewing preseason contests. The immediate impact of the game (i.e. change in standings, playoff outlook) tends to overshadow some of the minutiae that gets closer attention in the preseason. Chuck Hayes’ free throw shooting release point just won’t seem as interesting as it did a few days ago.

Part of the preseason is about the attempt to answer questions, now, that can only be answered after the regular season starts: Is my team a contender? Will we make the playoffs? How many Toyota Center hot dogs can I actually eat in one sitting?

And while it's impossible to divine these great mysteries at this moment, that won't stop me from climbing out on a limb, reading the tea leaves and hazarding a few guesses here and there. It’s fun to talk about your favorite team. If you’re a fan of the Rockets, you probably have some kind of prediction on what will happen this year. I know I do. In fact, I now throw caution to the wind, risking end-of-season humiliation, and officially announce those predictions on the record. The following are my fearless forecasts and regular season award winners for the Rockets’ 2010-11 season.

Regular Season Wins: 52

Last year’s team played with no superstar, suffered injuries to multiple players, made significant roster changes at the trade deadline and still managed to win 42 games. This year the Rockets have their most talented roster in over a decade and the return of their franchise center. Yes, a 10-game jump in win total is significant. But this team is significantly better than last year’s team. Yao, Scola, Battier, Martin, and Brooks form an extremely dangerous starting five that can score in bunches from multiple positions. Second-year small forward Chase Budinger and recently-acquired Courtney Lee provide depth at the wing position both offensively and defensively. Finally, Brad Miller and Jordan Hill offer size to a frontcourt that was vertically challenged a year ago. The team has depth. The team has talent. I’m looking forward to a lot of regular season wins.

The ‘Sheed Award - Most Technical Fouls in a Season: Brad Miller

I don’t care that Aaron Brooks led the team last season with 9 technical fouls, tied for 14 th in the league. And I don’t care that Brooks will likely play more minutes than Miller, creating more technical foul opportunities. Miller has to be the frontrunner here. Any man who willingly engages Shaquille O’ Neal in any sort of physical confrontation must be characterized as falling somewhere in between “Ivan Drago tough” and “Mel Gibson crazy.” That sounds like fantastic ‘Sheed potential. Also, Brooks won’t have to be banging against the biggest and strongest players in the league on a nightly basis. That’s Miller’s job. And in my opinion, he’s allowed to complain about it from time to time is he wants to. Refs, you’re on notice.

Regular Season Offensive MVP: Aaron Brooks

This season will produce one of the most offensively balanced Rockets team of recent memory. The four starters aside from Shane Battier are all very capable of beating their defender in one-on-one situations. However, Battier also has an important role in contributing offensively with his three-point shooting, and its effect of spreading opposing defenses. With that said, Aaron Brooks will prove to be the player most valuable to this offense. With Yao’s minutes limited, the responsibility will be on his shoulders to ensure that the offense runs smoothly. Brooks’ individual scoring ability is unquestioned. Defenders just cannot stay in front of him. However, the preseason has shown that Brooks is beginning to look more comfortable as an initiator on offense as well. Many of his drives have been followed by dishes to open teammates, not just jumpshots or finishes at the rim. Brooks’ continued evolution toward becoming a well-rounded point guard should earn him Offensive MVP honors this year.

Regular Season Defensive MVP: Chuck Hayes

This won’t just be a two-man race as it was last year between Chuck Hayes and Shane Battier, before Battier wore down at the end of the season. Courtney Lee brings a willingness and intensity to the backcourt defense. And last season’s significant drop in defensive efficiency illustrates Yao’s importance to the team’s defensive success. However, Yao is still working to fully recover from his injuries and will begin the season with a 24 minute cap per game. And with Battier and Lee both in the fold, the importance of each player, defensively, slightly dips. Therefore, Hayes will prove to be the most indispensible on defense. Put simply, Hayes is the Rockets’ best post defender and when you add in the fact that his primary responsibility will often be to slow down the opposing team’s hottest frontcourt player, regardless of size, strength, or style and his defensive value becomes clear.

Yao’s Final Year Averages: 15 ppg, 7 rbg

While Yao’s predicted averages of 15 points and 7 rebounds a game would be a dip from his pre-injury totals, keep in mind that Yao is still not fully recovered. Also, remember that the Rockets won’t necessarily have to rely on him to score the same way he has in the past given the improved offensive firepower on the team. Most importantly, the Rockets don’t care what he averages early on or even over the course of the season. Their only priority is to make sure that Yao is playing his best at the end of the year.

Best Facial Hair: TBD

As stated on Rockets.com in previous posts, the perpetual questions regarding the status of Rick Adelman’s non-existent 1990’s moustache remain unanswered. Consequently, the Rockets are struggling in this category. Seasons ago, Yao displayed decent upper-lip wispiness. Last year, Budinger sported solid goatee commitment. This year however, the prospects are slim. Brad Miller is clearly coasting with his standard cut beard. And the facial hair tameness of Jordan Hill, Aaron Brooks, and Courtney Lee do a disservice to the devastating potential of a quality moustache or beard. Rollie Fingers famously adopted his villain-inspired handlebar moustache in 1972 and the Oakland A’s won three consecutive championships. The results speak for themselves. From Goose Gossage and Don Mattingly to Hulk Hogan and Baron Davis, major sports have always enjoyed generation-defining facial-haired athletes. Let’s make sure the next one is wearing a Rockets uniform.

Points Per Game Leader: Kevin Martin

Aaron Brooks might be the player most capable of major point production on any given night. However, as stated above, this season the Rockets need him to expand his game beyond scoring. Kevin Martin’s ability to score efficiently within in the flow of the offense means he will be getting his regardless of what the rest of the team is doing.

New Kid On The Block Award - Best Newcomer: Courtney Lee

I want to say Ish Smith because of the initially low expectations compared to his performance in the preseason. It’s a feel good story and the kid can certainly play. However, Courtney Lee looks like he is simply going to be too valuable to this team. Lee’s well-rounded game allows him to come off the bench and address a variety of problems that may arise while the starters are on the court. If one of the opposing team’s guards is getting hot, Coach Adelman can throw Lee at him to make life a little harder. If Adelman wants to go small-ball and pick up the pace, Adelman could potentially substitute Lee in for Battier and create a speed advantage.

Mario Elie aka “Junkyard Dog” Award – Most Underrated Rocket: Luis Scola

He’s not tall, fast or flashy. I‘ve never actually seen him dunk a basketball, and his patented scoop shot is more rec league than NBA. It’s easy to understand why some may not consider Luis Scola a hugely valuable asset to this team. However, that would be a mistake. The only thing Scola does well is everything. The guy scores, rebounds, plays hard and fits seamlessly into whatever role the Rockets ask of him. So what if his game isn’t very highlight reel friendly? I’m ok with that. He can be our little secret.

Most-Improved Rocket: Chase Budinger

The offseason trade that exchanged Trevor Ariza for Courtney Lee created an opportunity for Budinger to slide into the backup small forward role behind Battier. The Rockets probably don’t do this deal unless they have confidence that Budinger can produce if given more minutes. Budinger’s strength is on offense and I expect his offensive game to take a leap forward this year. He has the shot and athletic ability, and showed flashes last season of his potential to become a dynamic scorer. This season we will begin to see him put it all together.

Random Act of Boldness: Chase Budinger will score at least 30 points in at least one game.

Highlight it, tab it, and mark it down because it is happening.

And there you have it. The result of a seven month regular season that has not yet begun condensed and summarized into a 1,500 word article. Let’s talk in April. Just consider Tuesday a mere formality.


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