HOUSTON ROCKETS PREVIEW 2011-12
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
With Yao Ming retiring and the trade for Pau Gasol falling through, the Rockets are once again a team of above-average parts, but no superstar. Moreover, many of those parts (Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic) know they would have been sent packing last week but for the league's veto of the deal, something that can't be easy on the team's developing chemistry. Nonetheless, Martin is the team's offensive leader, with his ability to score from long range, slash to the basket and knock down free throws, Scola is a consistent, if unspectacular low-post presence and point guard Kyle Lowry emerged as a competent floor general and long-range shooter once he took over the full-time job from Aaron Brooks last year. Their biggest hole is at center where Yao's departure leaves a gaping hole. With the Rockets trying and failing to land both Gasols and Nene, the job falls to some combination of Jordan Hill, Hasheem Thabeet and Patrick Patterson - unless the Rockets sign a Sam Dalembert type via free agency. Barring that, Hill probably has the best shot as Patterson's dealing with an injury and Thabeet is simply too raw.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Lowry should see 30-35 mpg at the point with Dragic backing him up for 15, assuming he beats out Jonny Flynn for the reserve role. Martin should see 35 mpg at the two, and Chase Budinger should see 25-30 mpg at the three. Courtney Lee and, to a lesser extent, Terrence Williams will back up the two and three spots, with rookie Marcus Morris also an option at small forward. Scola should log big mintues (35) at the four spot with Patterson seeing some run there once he's healthy. Hill (25 mpg), Patterson (20) and Thabeet (5-10) should split time at center, with Scola also chipping in occasionally and moving Hill or Patterson to the four.
Jordan Hill: At 6-10, 235 and with good athleticism, Hill's capable of handling the center position, though he's probably a more natural power forward. Hill's not a polished player at this point, but he's a decent free-throw shooter for a big man, he can score and rebound, and he might get the first crack at the starting job if he can hold his own defensively. There's also a chance the Rockets could sign a veteran big man, especially if Hill is inadequate defensively.
Patrick Patterson: The 6-9, 240-pound Patterson showed signs during his rookie year, blocking shots, rebounding and shooting well from the floor. He's set to be in the front court mix both as an undersized center and natural power forward, as soon as he's fully recovered from offseason ankle surgery.
Hasheem Thabeet: Despite his excellent size (7-3, 263) and athleticism, the 2009 No. 2 overall pick is still a project. There's little doubt about his shot-blocking ability, but Thabeet is so raw offensively, it's hard to find minutes for him. Of course, if he turns the corner there, his upside is Dikembe Mutombo.
Luis Scola: With Yao Ming missing all but five games, Scola stepped up to anchor the Rockets' frontcourt. The 31-year-old big man averaged a career-high 18.3 points per game while posting his usual efficient rates from the floor (50.4) and charity stripe (73.8). He once again remained steady on the glass, grabbing 8.2 rebounds per night. As with past seasons, Scola's one glaring weakness was on the defensive end of the court. With averages of 0.7 steals and 0.6 blocks, he doesn't provide much help in either category. The Rockets have promising young big men Patrick Patterson, Hasheem Thabeet and rookie Marcus Morris to work into the rotation, but Scola figures to still see his normal 30 minutes per game. With Yao now retired and none of the Rockets' younger frontcourt options ready to take on a feature role, Scola should once again be the team's primary low-post scoring threat. At 31, he doesn't have the upside of other players available, but Scola has proven to be a reliable fantasy option.
Chase Budinger: Budinger played his way into the Rockets' starting small forward gig last year, combining underrated athleticism and scoring ability with a sound three-point shot. Things might change with a new head coach, Kevin McHale, in town – there's a chance that McHale could take a long look at Courtney Lee or Terrence Williams as the team's primary small forward – but both of those guys are behind Budinger at the moment. Through 22 games as the Rockets' starting three, Budinger averaged 13.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.5 three-pointers, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks and 1.1 turnovers in 32 minutes per game. Expect some growth this year if he maintains his starting job.
Marcus Morris: The 14th overall pick in this year's draft, Morris is a capable scorer with a fluid jump shot who could contribute at the NBA level out of the gate - at least on the offensive end. Morris needs to add more strength and improve his defense to get consistent minutes, however. For now, we'd expect Chase Budinger to see most of the team's minutes at the three, but Budinger's hardly an established player, so the door is open for Morris to get more run.
Terrence Williams: Williams is a terrific athlete who's produced in spurts when given minutes. But his poor shooting and tendency to turn the ball over have cost him any sustained opportunity. The Rockets lack an established small forward, so theoretically Williams could get a chance to play more this year, but Chase Budinger's coming off a promising season, Courtney Lee and rookie Marcus Morris could also be in the mix.
Chandler Parsons: The 38th overall pick in last year's draft, Chandler is a big man with some shooting and scoring ability. He'll vie for a reserve role at small forward behind Chase Budinger and Marcus Morris.
Kyle Lowry: Lowry has been teasing us with his potential for years, but only in limited opportunities as a backup to Mike Conley Jr., Aaron Brooks and others. When Brooks sprained his ankle last November, Lowry finally got the opportunity to run a team on a full-time basis. And he made the most of it, playing well enough to make Brooks expendable; 2010's most-improved player was dealt to Phoenix for a draft pick in February. Lowry closed out his first season as a full-time starter with impressive averages of 13.5 points, 6.7 assists, 4.1 boards and 1.4 steals in just over 34 minutes per game, and shot a respectable .426 from the floor and .376 from three. He'll go into training camp as the top name on Kevin McHale's point guard depth chart. One area of concern – Lowry's three-point percentage last season was more than 100 points higher than the previous year, and well above his career average of .317. If he regresses to the numbers we've seen for most of his career, his value would take a significant hit.
Kevin Martin: The oft-injured Martin defied fate last season and played in 80 games, averaging 23.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.2 three-pointers, 1.0 steals, and 2.3 turnovers in 33 minutes per game. Coach Rick Adelman may have found the trick to keeping Martin healthy by reducing his playing time. Where Martin had averaged over 35 minutes per game each of his previous four seasons, Adelman chose to play him fewer minutes but gave him even more possessions on offense. Martin’s ability to get to the line (8.4 free throw attempts per game) and hit his shots there effectively (89 percent) makes him a reliable scorer and valuable fantasy asset. The fact that he doesn’t rely solely on the jump shot means Martin can be productive game-in and game-out. New coach Kevin McHale will change things up in Houston, but Martin is expected again to be the focal point of the team’s offense.
Goran Dragic: Dragic is a true point guard who can also knock down the three. He even had a triple-double while filling in for an injured Kyle Lowry down the stretch last year. He's going to compete with Jonny Flynn to be Lowry's backup, but is the type of player who could immediately step in and average seven-plus assists were Lowry to get hurt.
Courtney Lee: Lee is a scoring swingman who can shoot the three and knock down his free throws. He's also a good source of steals when he gets sufficient minutes. He'll likely back up Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger at shooting guard and small forward, respectively, but there's a chance he could overtake Budinger for a starting role.
Jonny Flynn: The sixth overall pick in 2009, Flynn never seemed to fit well in Minnesota, and then a hip injury derailed him for part of his second season. He'll try to carve out a role in Houston, though Kyle Lowry is established as the starter, and Goran Dragic is a competent backup. Expect Flynn to battle with Dragic for reserve minutes, though either could be on the block at some point this season.
Jeremy Lin: The 6-2, 180-pound point guard was claimed off waivers in December from the Warriors. With Lowry, Dragic and Flynn ahead of him, he's a long shot ot have a significant role.
Chase Budinger: Budinger's a sharp-shooting three who has the athleticism to get to the basket and finish. He's also got a nice touch from three-point range and knocks down his free throws at a high rate. With Yao Ming, Aaron Brooks and Shane Battier gone, Budinger should get a chance to be a significant part of the Rockets' offense. And if Kevin Martin ever were to go down, Budinger could even emerge as the team's leading scorer.
Kyle Lowry: Lowry's a competent floor general, and there's no reason to think he'll fall apart should he retain his full complement of minutes. But Lowry had never been a great shooter from long range before last year, and should he regress in that department, the offensively challenged Rockets might turn to competent backup Goran Dragic, especially now they have a new head coach.