Rockets, Kings have great expectations, many questions on eve of China Games
High Hopes

By John Hareas

SHANGHAI, China (Oct. 13, 2004) -- Year 1 of the Jeff Gundy era in Houston was one of growth and optimism for the Rockets: 45 regular-season wins, the fifth best defensive team in the NBA and the franchise’s first playoff appearance in five years. So, how did Van Gundy and Rockets’ management approach Year 2? The team welcomed eight new players.

Tracy McGrady arrives at Shanghai Pu Dong International Airport in Shanghai, China.
Andrew D. Bernstein
NBAE/Getty Images
When the Rockets take the floor at Shanghai Stadium on Thursday night against the Sacramento Kings to tip off the NBA China Games, only two starters – Yao Ming and Jim Jackson --- remain from the team that lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the first round of the 2004 NBA Playoffs. Headlining the new-look Rockets is two-time NBA scoring champion and three-time NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady, who was acquired in a blockbuster seven-player offseason deal, which also involved Houston fan favorite Steve Francis.

“We were fortunate to get Tracy in a trade,” said Van Gundy at a Tuesday press conference at Shanghai Stadium. “He’s one of the special talents in the NBA. We feel that Yao and Tracy are unselfish players who will share the ball, not only with each other but with their teammates and are the types of men our city and organization can be very, very proud of.”

Thursday’s game will mark only the second time these two All-Stars will be in the same lineup together as the curiosity factor continues to peak. Their debut on Saturday night provided a brief glimpse of things to come as both players scored 10 points apiece but only played a combined 35 minutes as both sat out the entire second half against the Miami Heat in preparation for the first ever NBA games in China.

With the city of Shanghai abuzz in anticipation over their favorite son Yao playing at home for the first time as a Rocket, Van Gundy plans on increased minutes for the former Shanghai Shark.

"Obviously, I want to play him because he's in his hometown, but I don't want to overplay him given that it's only the second exhibition game and we have a long season ahead of us," Van Gundy said after he outlined a game plan of 22 to 28 minutes of action for Yao.

Chris Webber's status is still up in the air for Sacramento.
David Shen
NBAE/Getty Images
Overlooked in the McGrady acquisition is the fact that the Rockets will start a new point guard, a job being contested between Charlie Ward, an old Van Gundy Knick favorite, Tyronn Lue and veteran Bob Sura, who had surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back and isn’t expected to return until mid December. Juwan Howard, acquired in the seven-player offseason trade with Orlando, appears to have the inside track at the power forward position. The Rockets’ bench received a boost when four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo arrived via a trade with Chicago and will spell Yao at center.

When the 2004-05 season tips off on Tuesday, November 2, it will mark the first time in six years that Vlade Divac won’t be jumping center for the Kings, a team that will also be without longtime starting shooting guard Doug Christie who is sidelined for the next few weeks while recovering from foot tissue inflammation in his left foot as rookie Kevin Martin is being counted on to fill the gap upon his return. Newly acquired backup center Greg Ostertag is also out recovering from a fractured right hand.

The biggest x-factor facing the Kings as they look to rise to Western Conference elite status is the availability of their All-Star power forward Chris Webber, who missed 59 games last season while rehabbing his injured left knee. His absence in the first exhibition game of the season on Sunday night against the Golden State Warriors didn’t exactly alleviate any concerns about his long-term availability for the season, a potential frightening prospect for the Kings.

“He’s obviously still a dominating force in this league,” said teammate Brad Miller. “We need everybody to really step up and be healthy all year. He’s hanging in there. He wants to make sure he doesn’t push it too hard right now, especially in the first week of training camp. I expect him to be up to par for the first week of the season.”

Kings fans everywhere are certainly hoping for a healthy diagnosis and Thursday’s game may be the first strong indicator of one.