Analyzing the Competition
While everything may have seemingly gone right for the Philadelphia 76ers last season, the very oppostite happened to the 2005/06 Houston Rockets. After Year 1 of the Yao/T-Mac union ended in a difficult 7 game first-round series loss to the Dallas Mavericks in 2004/05, big things were expected from this crew. The Rockets thought they plugged their point guard and power forward roles with Rafaer Alston and Stromile Swift, and were expecting even more from their dymanic duo. Instead, the bottom shockingly fell out. McGrady missed 35 early and late season games with back problems, and Yao missed 25 mid-season games with a foot injury. Swift and Alston did not fit in as expected, and the Rockets were seemingly never playing at full capacity. A slow start doomed the Rockets to a bad finish in the bottom of the Southwest Division, as the team failed to even win one game against a divisional opponent. The bright side was that Yao finally showed his full potential in the last month of the season, giving hope for optimism this year.
Additions: Shane Battier (Trade-Memphis), Bonzi Wells (FA-Sacramento), Vassilis Spanoulis (FA-Greece), Kirk Snyder (Trade-New Orleans)
Subtractions: Stromile Swift (Trade-Memphis), Rudy Gay (Trade-Memphis), David Wesley (FA-Cleveland)
Houston failed to get a point guard to challenge Alston, naturally striking out on Mike James, a player they traded for Alston a mere season ago. However, the rest of the offseason was fairly productive for now. Battier gives them a key role player and defender they desperately needed, albeit at a potential great cost. The late addition of Wells adds a key third scoring option to start or come off the bench, and the acquisitions of Snyder and Spanoulis were solid low-risk signings.
Still, it's easy to wonder whether this team is a legitimate contender. Yao's second-half emergence certainly showed that he is potentially the best center in basketball, but it all happened without McGrady in the lineup. What happens to Yao when T-Mac comes back? And what if T-Mac's back problems continue to bother him? Already, we've seen a shift in McGrady's game, as he's attempted more three-pointers and fewer free throws in the last couple seasons. Will McGrady ever be the same player that he was with Orlando? Finally, with all the talent those two posses, will Rafer Alston ever be able to run Jeff Van Gundy's half-court offense effectively. Alston seems like an odd player to plug in that spot, and while the same could be said for Miami's Jason Williams, Alston did struggle last season.
However, I think there is so much reason for optimism this season for the Rockets. Trading away Rudy Gay may eventually prove to be a collosal blunder, but Battier is exactly what this Rockets team needs. He will shift between the 3 and the 4, providing strong defense and timely three-point shooting, like a glorfied offensive version of Bruce Bowen. Wells, provided his head is in the right place, gives the Rockets a potential dynamite 6th man. Considering the disappointment of this year's offseason, I think Wells will be driven to play at his highest level.
It's entirely possible that Wells and Battier start alongside McGrady in a Jordan-era Chicago Bulls setup. Van Gundy may choose to funnel the offense through McGrady instead of going with a traditional point guard. If that happens, look for Houston to be a real threat next season. McGrady is a good enough passer to utalize Yao effectively, and Battier and Wells will make defenders pay for doubling the big fella. If that doesn't happen, the Rockets need Alston to mirror Jason Williams of the Heat in order to get to the next level.
Another interesting thing to watch is the power forward situation. The Rockets desperately need that Udonis Haslem-type player to do all the little things alongside Yao. Chuck Hayes may be undersized at 6 foot 6, but he was a rebounding machine last year and has the potential to be that guy for Houston. If he can step up his game and take over the starting job from incumbent Juwan Howard, I think this Rockets team has all the elements to compete out West.
If everyone stays healthy, I believe this team will be a force to be reckoned with out West.
Projected Record: 54-28
Rockets Blast previewed the Rockets season for NBA Blog Previews and had this to say re: T-Mac's health.
TMAC says he feels zero pain in his back and is poised and ready to return to an MVP-level of play. His off-season workout routine dropped 15 pounds off his body and strengthened his core muscle groups to better withstand the rigors of an 82 game schedule.Like Jason Gurney at Lowpost.net, I'm confused as to why McGrady needed to lose 15 pounds, but it seems like he's back healthy again. A healthy T-Mac is one of the league's best players, so the Rockets better hope he is back strong.
Think I screwed this one up? Let me know. How many wins do you think Houston will have this year?
More on the Bullets after tomorrow's preseason opener. Let's see if that preseason optimism will resonate in the Wizards' first preseason game.