By Christopher Liss
RotoWire Managing Editor
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
What a strange season for the Rockets. New head coach Rick Adelman opened up the offense without abandoning the team's Jeff Van Gundy-installed defensive foundation, and the team won 22-games in a row, almost half of them without its best player, Yao Ming
, who went down with a broken left foot. The team's other former superstar, Tracy McGrady
, also battled injuries, this time his left knee and shoulder, though thankfully not his balky back, and managed just 66 games as a result. Without Yao, and with McGrady operating at less than 100 percent, the Rockets as usual bowed out in the first round of the playoffs.
Consequently, the team was at a crossroads this offseason, facing the choice of folding up the Yao-McGrady experiment or doubling down for one last shot at playoff success. In late July, the Rockets pushed their remaining chips to the center of the table, acquiring troubled but immensely skilled combo forward Ron Artest
. With Artest and Shane Battier
, the team now has two of the top defensive players in the league, both of whom can shoot the three, to go along with its two stars. Throw in point guard Rafer Alston
, one of the keys to the team's historic winning streak and crafy power forward Luis Scola
, and we're looking at one of the most talented teams 1-6 in the NBA - assuming they can stay on the court. Like McGrady and Yao, Artest has been a fixture on the NBA injury list throughout his career.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Assuming everyone were healthy, and again, that's a long shot, here's how the minutes should shake out: Rafer Alston
should log close to 35 minutes per game at the point. McGrady's minutes will likely go down to about 35 as well now that the team has more quality options, and he'll see almost all of those at the two. At the forward spots, the Rockets have two choices - to go small with Shane Battier
and Ron Artest
, or bigger with Artest and Luis Scola
with Battier coming off the bench. For our purposes, it doesn't much matter who starts, but rather who's getting the minutes, so let's say Artest will see 35, Battier will see around 33, and Scola will see closer to 28. At center, Yao will also see about 35 minutes per game, with Scola grabbing a few extra minutes spelling him when the team goes small, and Dikembe Mutombo
seeing a few if he re-signs. Luther Head
should see 10-15 minutes per game backing up Alston and McGrady at both guard spots, and Brent Barry
will likely log 10-15 minutes as the team's designated long-range bomber. Chuck Hayes
will back up Scola at the four, and Carl Landry
, assuming the team can re-sign him, will also compete for minutes there and backing up Yao. Aaron Brooks
provides depth at point guard, but barring an Alston injury, his prospects for significant playing time are slim. Mike Harris
will pick up spare minutes at every position except center and point guard.
Yao has apparently recovered from the stress fracture in his foot, but it's not the first time he's had a serious foot/leg injury, and you have to wonder if the pounding from his gigantic frame is getting to be too much - he hasn't played more than 57 games in a season since 2004-05. When Yao is healthy, he's one of the most productive offensive players in the game with excellent shooting and free-throw percentages and well over 20 points per game. When you consider how poorly most centers shoot from the line, and how often Yao gets there, Yao is arguably the best free-throw percentage player you can draft. Yao is also excellent on the glass with 10-11 boards per game, and when you throw in 2.0 bpg, we're taking about an elite fantasy option - provided he can stay reasonably healthy.
The Rockets are looking to re-sign Mutombo to back up Yao down low. For all we know, he could be pushing 50, and he won't see many minutes even if he does play.
After four seasons toiling on mediocre teams, Artest is back playing for a contender in Houston. Artest has had excellent success on contending teams (NBA Defensive Player of the Year award with the ’04 Pacers), but his instability has also hurt them (the Malice at the Palace). That sums up the risk/reward in dealing with Artest, even on a fantasy front. Artest is one of the most physical small forward in the NBA, able to overpower many of his opponents down low for easy buckets (career-high 20.5 ppg) and rebounds (5.8 rpg). He also uses his strength and quickness on defense, where he’s always among the league leaders in steals (2.3 spg). On the down side, Artest is an injury risk (missed at least 25 games three times in the past four years) and could lose some shot attempts playing next to big scorers like Yao Ming
and Tracy McGrady
. Artest has impact-player potential, but with the instability that he brings to any situation, he always carries extra risk.
Scola brings toughness and energy to the power forward position along with creative moves and a nice touch around the basket. He's not particularly strong and lacks an imposing physical presence, but he'll mix it up with anyone. Scola's a crafty player and a good passer, and he'll average almost a steal a game - which is rare for a big man. Expect him to see just under 30 minutes per game at power forward and occasionally at center.
One of the best perimeter defenders in the league, Battier is asked to guard the Kobes and LeBrons of the NBA on a regular basis. For that reason, we don't see him losing too many minutes even if the acquisition of Ron Artest
forces him to the bench at the start of games. Battier will contribute across the board, including in the rare blocks, steals and 3-point shooting categories. But don't expect big numbers in any single area.
The Rockets are still hoping to re-sign Landy and add him to their front court mix. Landry is a high-energy player who can score from in close and even back up Yao Ming
in the pivot on occasion. Landry would have to fight for minutes with Luis Scola
and Chuck Hayes
Hayes is around to do the dirty work. He'll play defense on fours and fives, hustle after loose balls and pull down rebounds. He's not going to contribute offensively, though and will fight for minutes behind Luis Scola
and Yao Ming
Harris is a hustle player who can guard shooting guards and even power forwards. He offers the Rockets some defensive versatility and depth off the bench.
McGrady's still capable of 20/5/5 with some steals and threes, but his percentages have taken a dive the last couple years, and he's not a good bet to play 70-plus games. McGrady's still capable of big games, as he showed in last year's playoffs, but he relies too much on long-range shooting, and has lost some quickness and explosiveness over the years.
The presence of Ron Artest
will probably help rather than hurt - giving McGrady a few less minutes per game and also making it easier on the whole team defensively. McGrady might still have another solid couple seasons left, but time is not on his side at this point.
Alston was one of the keys to the Rockets' historic 22-game winning streak, and he enters training camp without competition for the starting point guard job. Alston is a good ball handler, and he can knock down the three, but he doesn't get as many assists as other point guards because Tracy McGrady
very often initiates the offense. Alston's shooting percentage is typically poor because of all the threes he takes and also because he rarely shoots from inside the paint. His free-throw shooting - typically in the low 70s is also poor for a point guard.
With Brent Barry
in the fold, Head's role as combo guard/three-point specialist likely takes a hit this year.
The Rockets brought in Barry for his long-range shooting, and he'll knock down threes and hit his rare free-throw attempts. Expect Barry to see most of his 15 minutes or so per game at the two, though he might occasionally bring up the ball.
The lightning quick Brooks can provide some long-range shooting and instant offense, but his skill set won't be needed much with Luther Head
and Brent Barry
on board. Brooks won't see significant minutes barring a Rafer Alston
injury, and even then, it's unclear how the Rockets would address the point-guard situation.
Strawberry could see occasional minutes as a defensive specialist.
Scola will battle for minutes with Ron Artest
, Carl Landry
and Chuck Hayes
, but that assumes a few things that are by no means certain. First off, Landry has yet to sign and could wind up playing overseas. Secondly, backup center Dikembe Mutombo
has yet to sign and could retire, leaving Scola as the primary backup in the pivot. Third, Yao Ming
and Ron Artest
have had major trouble staying healthy the last few years, and more minutes would open up for Scola if either goes down. Scola is now in his second year in the NBA, so presumably he's more comfortable with the style of play. He's a highly skilled big man who's not afraid of the big stage - he was part of Argentina's gold medal-winning 2004 Olympic team.
Sure, Alston will get you some assists and steals, but his assist numbers are modest for a point guard, and his shooting percentage from the floor and the line are terrible (low 70s from the charity stripe for a center is acceptable, but from a point guard, it's well below average). Let someone else pay for the modest counting totals and guaranteed minutes.
Article first appeared on 9/23/08