STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Somehow the Rockets managed to win 42 games last year, despite missing Yao Ming for the entire season, losing Shane Battier for 15 games to a knee injury, getting virtually nothing of value from Tracy McGrady and key free-agent acquisition Trevor Ariza shooting just 39 percent from the field. The emergence of Aaron Brooks as one of the better scoring point guards in the league, the consistent play of Luis Scola and solid contributions from Battier and the since departed Carl Landry were enough to form a league-average team, albeit one that missed the Western Conference playoffs. This season there's slightly more upside as Yao should be back (though he'll be limited to 24 mpg to preserve his health), Brooks and Kyle Lowry are a strong point-guard tandem, SG Kevin Martin (acquired for Landry) is an excellent offensive player for the rare stretches when he remains healthy, and Battier and Scola return. Moreover, the team added veteran big man, Brad Miller, who knows coach Rick Adelman's system well from his days in Sacramento. Miller's also one of the best passing big men in the league, something that should help Brooks and Martin see more open looks from deep. The bottom line: the Rockets have quality players at virtually every position and decent depth with recently acquired Courtney Lee backing up Martin and defensive stalwart Chuck Hayes spelling Yao and Miller down low. Moreover, the team has some promising younger players like Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and rookie Patrick Patterson, though none projects as a major difference maker at this point.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Assuming he's healthy, Yao will see up to 24 minutes per game at center, leaving the other half largely for Miller, though Chuck Hayes will see 5-15 minutes per game there as well, and possibly more if/when Yao or Miller miss significant time. Scola will be the team's starting power forward, logging between 30 and 35 minutes per night. Hayes will spell him occasionally, but Hill and the rookie Patterson will also compete for minutes at the four, with either capable of getting a 10-20 minute role. Battier will see 30-35 mpg at the three, with Budinger backing him up at 15-20 mpg. Jared Jeffries could also be in the mix at the three for defensive purposes. Martin has typically averaged 35-40 minutes per game, but given his slight frame and injury history, look for that number to drop between 30 and 35, with Brooks playing some shooting guard when Kyle Lowry's on the floor. Lee will also back up Martin and could see 15-20 mpg initially with more to come when Martin inevitably gets hurt. Brooks should see close to 30 mpg at the point and another 5-7 at the two, while Lowry will see 20 mpg backing up Brooks at the one.
Yao Ming: One of the elite offensive big men in the game, Yao will be limited to 24 minutes per contest and even so is a major injury risk after undergoing yet another foot surgery last year. Yao has looked good in scrimmages and projects to be healthy for the start of the season, however. Even in limited time, Yao can score 15 ppg, pull down 6-8 boards and block a shot. Moreover, his excellent percentages from the floor, and especially the line for a big man, will be assets to anyone's fantasy lineup. Considering that he'll be available late due to the risk and minutes cap, he could be a nice value pick.
Brad Miller: One of the best passing big-men in the game, the 34-year old Miller will back up Yao and provide help on the glass and in the post. Like Yao, Miller is also an excellent free-throw shooter for a big man, and he'll even hit the occasionally three-point shot (37 last year). Of course, Miller's days as a significant fantasy producer are probably behind him as he's more of a complementary player these days, doesn't shoot a great percentage from the floor and won't help very much in blocks.
Chuck Hayes: An undersized center who will play excellent defense and help out on the boards. But he won't help anyone's fantasy team.
Luis Scola: An extremely durable, gritty player with a great motor, Scola stepped in with Yao Ming out last year and produced - 16.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.1 apg, 51.4 percent from the floor, 77.9 from the line and nearly a steal per game. Consider that his ceiling as Yao is now back - at least for now - and Brad Miller will also bring his passing skills to the low-post. Scola's played 82 games in each of the past three years, a rare feat in today's NBA.
Jordan Hill: After coming over from the Knicks midseason, Hill showed occasional flashes in limited action, and his role could grow this season if he can hold off rookie Patrick Patterson for minutes backing up Luis Scola at the four.
Patrick Patterson: The 6-9, 240-pound Patterson is NBA-ready physically, has great athleticism, can block shots and crash the boards. He also has unusual range on his jumper for a big man, and his work ethic has drawn praise from NBA scouts. Patterson's post game is still a bit raw, but he could carve out a role before too long as Luis Scola's primary backup at the four if he can beat out Jordan Hill.
Shane Battier: Durability's been an issue for Battier the last two years, with 67 and 60 games played, respectively. And while it might have been injury related, (or merely the absence of Yao Ming), Battier's shooting percentages both from the floor and the line dropped off as well. Nonetheless, Battier should see close to 30 mpg this year and is one of the rare players who can average close to a steal, a three-pointer and a block per game. Still, he's only worth a look in deeper leagues as he just doesn't score enough these days.
Chase Budinger: Budinger can score, particularly from long range - he made 93 three-pointers last year despite averaging just 20 mpg. The key for him is Shane Battier's and Kevin Martin's health, and also whether coach Rick Adelman wants to emphasize offense or defense from extended stretches. As it stands, there just aren't too many mintues for Budinger, but should Battier or Martin go down, Budinger could find himself with a bigger role. The acquisition of Courtney Lee complicates the situation, but Budinger can play himself into some minutes as he's potentially one of the league's top long-range gunners.
Jared Jeffries: A defensive specialist at this point whose expiring contract could have some value in trade.
Kevin Martin: If Yao Ming were a guard, he'd be Kevin Martin. Like Yao, Martin is an efficient scorer who gets to the line and knocks down his free throws at an excellent clip. And like Yao, Martin simply can't stay on the court, playing just 46, 51 and 61 games, respectively, the last three years. And while Martin's shooting percentages have declined the last two years, keep in mind, that's in a 97-game injury-riddled sample. A healthy Martin is good for a steal per game, 1.5 threes and a nice boost in scoring and free-throw percentage. But even in the unlikely event he remains on the court, expect Martin's minutes to decline a bit, and also for him to share long-range scoring duties with Aaron Brooks and to a lesser extent Courtney Lee and Chase Budinger.
Courtney Lee: Lee had an up and down season last year before being dealt to the Rockets this summer, a move that drops his stock considerably now that he's slated to back up Kevin Martin. Lee can knock down the three, and he's a good free-throw shooter, so he'd have some value should Martin go down.
Aaron Brooks: Brooks stepped up to fill the void left by Yao Ming's injury and Tracy McGrady's absence, emerging as the Rockets' floor leader and one of the team's top scoring threats. We don't necessarily expect him to score over 19 points per game again – not if the Rockets are at anything approaching full strength. But even as the team transitions back to a more balanced attack with the return of Yao Ming to the lineup and Kevin Martin in town for a full season, Rick Adelman will be glad to know his lead guard has the quickness to get to the lane against just about anybody, and the outside shot (.398 from three-point range) to keep defenses from sagging off and preventing his drives. Assuming Yao is healthy – never a safe assumption – Brooks could see an increase in his three-point opportunities because both Yao and backup Brad Miller are highly skilled at passing out of the double-team and finding open shooters on the perimeter. Brooks' 209 three-pointers made led the NBA a year ago, and his 43.2 percent shooting was excellent for a perimeter player hoisting up so many threes. That said, Brooks isn't a great source of assists (5.8 apg) for a starting point guard, and his 0.8 spg were below average as well.
Kyle Lowry: Lowry's an efficient, pass-first floor general who makes good decisions and understands the game. He should have a significant role in the rotation from the outset, but unless Aaron Brooks were to go down, Lowry's upside is limited.
Yao Ming: His injury history and mpg limit will scare a lot of people off, but even in 24 mpg, Yao can do wonders for your FT percentage (85-plus from a center is like 90-plus for a guard) as he'll still get to the line a good deal. Moreover, he'll likely average close to 15 ppg and a blocked shot. He makes an ideal No. 2 center in most leagues, and his price tag shouldn't be too steep.
Aaron Brooks: Brooks was fantastic a year ago, but he'll likely be asked to score less if Martin and Yao stay healthy. Moreover, his career-high FG percentage is at risk for regression, and Brooks won't provide enough in steals or assists to offset these potential drop-offs.
Article first appeared on 9/28/10