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2010-2011 Houston Rockets Season Preview: On the Precipice of Contention or Irrelevance

What would constitute success this season for the Houston Rockets?  I had not given this question much thought until a reader inquired of my opinion.

As I’ve maintained for some time, the team is in a rather precarious position.  It would come as no surprise were they to capture the #2 seed, yet at the same time, they could just as easily return to the lottery.

On the basis of my preseason rubricI graded the 2009-2010 campaign as a resounding success.  Through its resolve in maintaining competitiveness without Yao and with the midseason trade, the team at least gave itself a glimmer of hope for future contention.

Loyalists of this page are familiar with my evaluatory philosophy: I don’t grade success off the strength of arbitrarily determined win totals or conference seedings.  My lens is fashioned upon the ultimate prize.  Did what transpired this season push this team closer to a title?  To that end, perhaps counterintuitively, a 32 win finish seeing substantial development from younger prospects is preferrable to a 43 win campaign off the strength of aging vets. In isolation from extrinsic factors, win totals in and of themselves hold no inherent value.

The Method

To determine our evaluatory process, we must build backwards from our end goal.  As has been established historically and accepted within our body of collective wisdom, championship teams are classified into two personnel models: a) the ‘star’ model and b) the ‘Detroit’ model, the latter coined in homage to the two Detroit Pistons title teams (the two-peat and 2004 title).

As currently composed, this manifestation of the Rockets does not fit within either personnel model.  Our objective is to identify the factors necessary to forge this team into either cast.  Satisfaction of these factors, or goals, rather than arbitrary win totals, is what will constitute success for the 2010-2011 Houston Rockets.

Where We Stand

After a half-decade of futility adhering to the ‘star’-based model, the Rockets now find themselves without a ‘star’ (or, more appropriately, the hope of someone recovering to ‘star’ form), and worse, in a dry market bereft of the commodity.  While the roster is rich in young talent, the team boasts no blue-chip high growth prospects, and thus, barring some unforeseen development–I’ll name the blog after Morey if we got Chris Paul–management must resign itself to building through the ‘Detroit’ model.

A team lacking one lone man who can carry it upon his back must overwhelm its opponents with waves of talent, chemistry, and robust philosophy.  On the two latter elements, the Rockets’ stuff would seem to suffice.  But do they have the talent?

The degree of potency of the Detroit lineup is not quite truly appreciated. (We’ll exclude the Thomas-Dumars Pistons for purposes of this assessment due to the age barrier.)  Their’s was a lineup replete with All-Stars at every position. Unless Chase Budinger morphs into Tom Chambers overnight, Wallace-Prince-Wallace-Hamilton-Billups is a lineup undoubtedly superior to that of Scola-Battier-Yao-Martin-Brooks.

The Factors

What must occur for the Rockets to bridge the gap?

1.  Of primary concern is the health of the giant.  With the cap-killing extensions and acquisition of Scola, Lowry, Miller, the Rockets have rid themselves of an exit strategy and placed all proverbial eggs within the Yao basket.  If the 7’6 center cannot adequately recover, these writings lose relevance – Yao cannot be traded nor would his retirement/relinquishment emancipate salary obligations sufficient for significant acquisitions under the cap.

2.  The team must regain its defensive identity.  Daryl Morey has opined that both a top 10 defense and offense are necessary statistical prerequisites for title contention.  The team will most likely never return to its previous perch atop the rankings–the current personnel, with guard Kevin Martin in the stead of Ron Artest, is not conducive to such prowess–but they can become acceptable, a far cry from last season’s output.

The three factors necessary for defensive stringency are a) a robust team philosophy (and corresponding adherence) b) cohesiveness through familiarity and c) interior defense.

Through injury and personnel turnover, the Rockets were lacking on the two latter counts last season.  With the return of Yao–one of the best goalees in basketball–and the addition of legitimate size in Brad Miller, the team should recover some of its interior defense, dependent on Yao’s health/mobility.

The team has an entrenched philosophy, but observers have noted that the further this franchise is chronologically removed from the Van Gundy era, the less that regime’s predominant “culture” is retained.  These young acquisitions will gain team familiarity with time, but only Yao Ming, Shane Battier, and Chuck Hayes had the notion that defense held preponderance over sleep and food ingrained within their psyches.  Whether this team can restore some of that stuff is a troubling concern.

The good news–and I am of the minority opinion here–is that I do think Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks can suffice defensively as a championship backcourt.  Perimeter defense is simply a function of effort and interior help.

3.  Some value must be procured from the 2011 Knicks pick: I wrote last season that one of the governing determinants of last season’s success would be abstracting value from Tracy McGrady’s corpse, either through his recovery to 2008 form or through return in his trade.

Similarly, for this team to inch closer to true contender status, they must convert upon the first Knicks pick, either through trade or via a fortuitous lottery ranking.  Holding onto the pick is a gamble which I feel Daryl Morey will not deem worthy of undertaking.  If the Knicks’ pick ends up in the mid-teens, (and some other significant trade is not made through utilization of the other assets), I will grade this season as not successful.

Simply put, this club, as currently composed, does not have the talent to contend.  The trio of Jordan Hill, Patrick Patterson, and Chase Budinger hold promise for development, but none wield franchise-altering potential.

Some upgrade, somewhere, will be needed for the Yao Ming Rockets to challenge for the throne.  With their impressive depth, and a Yao resurgence, I do not think the Detroit model is too far off.  An Iguodala acquisition would strengthen their core unit offensively while retaining the defense lost from supplanting Battier.  While they would not be favored over the Lakers, such a team, I feel, could at least pose as a notable challenger.

The bottom line is that this team must upgrade its talent base to seriously contend.  Yao could regain his former dominance, the defense could be plugged, but if even winning 50 games, the team will not have positioned itself for true contention without obtaining additional firepower to compete with the elite.

Potpourri

  • Guards Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin may constitute the most difficult backcourt in basketball to defend. How will the presence of Yao Ming impact their production?
  • Between forwards Patrick Patterson and Jordan Hill, upon whom do the Rockets place more value?  The latter holds more potential with his impressive measurements and athleticism, but Patterson is the safer choice for a quality career.
  • Of similar analogizing, the team improved itself this summer with the swap of Trevor Ariza and Courtney Lee.  Ariza made the Rockets’ lineup more potentially dynamic, but the steady Lee is a better fit for a team which prided itself upon a conservative approach.  With Yao Ming returning to plug the middle, management may no longer have placed value upon Trevor’s fastbreak inducing gambles, desiring players to stay home as they had in the past.
  • One absurd notion I’ve seen propagated in the media was that the Ariza trade was a salary dump and an admission of mistake.  Morey’s attempts at acquiring Carmelo Anthony (a maneuver which would require the TPE) should debunk this assumption and Lee’s play–and Kyle Lowry-esque oncourt impact–should speak for itself.  Trading A for B, when you actually prefer B and B comes at a cheaper price, doesn’t and shouldn’t necessarily mean you regret signing A.
  • Forward Chase Budinger is the wild-card and I’m of the opinion that the Arizona standout is primed for a breakout campaign.  He’s tailor-made for the offense with discipline and composure beyond his years, but can he supply enough defense to justify removing Shane Battier from the lineup?  For what it’s worth, until he’s eventually traded or retires, I don’t think Shane will ever be sent to the bench: he’s the lettuce that makes this team work and fuels its overachievement.

Final Thoughts

The Houston Rockets are at a crossroads, a phrase used in reference to this team for far too many years.  They escaped a plunge into the abyss of irrelevance just last season through the deadline deal – a trade that gave them life and breath for future hope, in concert with their on-court overachievement.  Can they now take that next step towards greater relevance?

The team finds itself standing at a precipice, perhaps a mere trade away from glory, yet a botched recovery removed from eternal mediocrity.  They could finish second or send guard Aaron Brooks back to New York for the draft lottery.

Wins are not a determinative measure of success.  In assessing the Houston Rockets’ progress through the 2010-2011 season, the objective observer must inwardly inquire, “did this team position itself for contention in the proximate future?”

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

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