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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.

in essays
Stephen
Stephen 5pts

Morey is doing something pretty unprecedented in the NBA.
Teams get an elite player(draft,trade,FA) and then try to put together a supporting case.
Morey is putting together the supporting cast first and then hoping like h*** he can get the elite player. He either has to get lucky in the Draft or more likely trade for one. The problem w/trading for one is the player usually has flaw(s) big enough for his old team to agree to trade him. Morey is trying to put together a team strong enough that such flaws can be hidden while the talent is allowed to flourish.

After missing out on the FA market and to date not being able to trade for one of the vet elite players,I suspect Morey is going to focus on some young playmaker who's languishing on his team's bench. That's where Brooks gets traded,to some team w/a playmaking-capable wing on his rookie contract.
And I also believe Morey will go all in at the Draft,trading whatever he has to to get the shot at drafting whoever the team has identified as having the tools to be great.

As to this season, the team needs to make Play-Offs,just to expose the youngsters to Play-Off play and keep the Rockets viable as an attractive destination(and to keep Les spending). I really think they need to advance at least to the second Rd for the season to be a good one.
The bigger picture has the team identifying who they can count on as their continuing core.
Will Hill become a quality big? Can Patterson prove he will eventually be the player they hope he can be and not be a more polished Dorsey?
Can Brooks run the team day in and day out? Will Ish develop into a competent NBA back-up?(Making it easier to trade Brooks/Lowry.)
Is Lee's overall game good enough to make Martin expendable? Or will Martin show he's the SG for the next few seasons?
Can Taylor play in the NBA? If so can he carve a niche as instant offense,or just raise his value as trade fodder?
Can Bud play enough D to get crunch minutes?
To have a truly successful season the Rockets need to have at least 4 of their young players prove they are capable of being regular rotation players on a contending team.

RL
RL 5pts

There is somehow a feeling that if we are not taking a big step toward becoming a contender this season, then this season is a waste. I am not sure that it's the right perspective. Winning a Championship is hard. It takes tons of hard work, a good deal of luck, and a lot of patience for things to line up correctly.

The best position Rockets can be in is to have a very solid team year after year, always make good decisions, and be in the best position to trade or sign for stars when they become available. In other words, I'm happy if we remain competitive (like 1st, 2nd or 3rd round of playoffs) year after year, and is ready/willing to trade for the next big talent. Because once you get to this state, you are only 1 or 2 piece away.

You may think that the above is not the right mentality and we don't want the team to be mediocur; we should have an attitude of "Championship or bust". The problem is that getting a championship takes a combination of so many things to go right.

If you look at how contending teams built their teams in the past decade. Lakers traded Vladi for 13th pick Kobe, who turned out to be the most dominate wing player in the past 10 years, then attracted the most dominate post player of our time. Second time around, they made steal of the decade in getting Gasol. Celtics were treading water for many years, had a super star and some young talent, then took advantage when 2 other stars fortunately became available on the market. Spurs somehow landed the 1st pick and drafted the most fundamental big men of all time, picked the Argentinian out of no where, and groomed the Frenchmen. Detroit went for players that weren't proven winners (B Wallace, Billups, Rip), traded for questionable personality (R Wallace) and become one of the most consistent and winnest team for many years.

Every team did it differently. For every one such success stories and their approach of building such a team, there are many others more who got so close but could not pull it off. Even if you drafted a once-a-generation super star (Cavs), or have several all stars (Magic), championship is still far from a sure thing.

One thing for sure is that we need stars and talent to win. Which path we take to get that talent is probably not important. What's important is to be in a position with best chance of taking advantage of opportunities when they come.

I think that position is to have a good team to be close so we are 1 or 2 major moves away, have assets to be flexible in a trade, and have management with sound judgement and willing to take some risk. We have all that; so at this point for me, it's a waiting game. Wait for good fortune and good opportunity to strike. That's all I think we can ask for.

Matt
Matt 5pts

I think "efficiency model" could work, if the overall talent level is high enough. The key might be coaching though. The majority of NBA coaches go with the same starting 5 and rotations, regardless of opponent. Which isn't a crime, but you would think especially come playoff time they would get smart.

Examples include Lakers/Jackson going with Bynum over Odom vs Rockets, and Blazers/N. Mcmillan not going small until game 4? vs Rockets.

Oren
Oren 5pts

rotaition is allways perfect.
but the players just not healthy.
we need center.
Gasol junior is o.k..
we can try offer trade like yao for Gasol Thabeet and mayo for yao.
or lopez and williams.

rocket
rocket 5pts

I see this team as the #2-6 seed in the West easily even using the big man sparringly, so the team goals for this season should be as follows:

1. Make it to the playoffs with Yao 100% healthy.
1a. Ride him to domination.

Blake
Blake 5pts

Arturo Galletti is doing some numbers on what it takes to win a championship. He uses the controversial Wins Produced model in his calculations.

The way he presents his data, playoff wins are linked to the production of the starting 5 and 6th man. Past that, anyone else playing just hurts the team. This confirms the two templates for teams Rahat posits. Teams with superstars lean heavily on them and have little resources available for quality players elsewhere. The Pistons invested in their starting five and really didn't have much of a bench.

Thomas
Thomas 5pts

I have been reading that blog extensively lately as well. Definitely another great read.

Rh Rivera
Rh Rivera 5pts

i prefer RA. team is more fun to watch. Van Gundy has never won anything either. I care more about watching a fun team that plays hard and makes the postseason regularly than winning a title.

but then again im a houston-born - non-houstonian who loves the rockets, so i imagine being in a city when a team wins a title is fun.

Rocket Fan in Santa Barbara
Rocket Fan in Santa Barbara 5pts

A further question about the "efficiency" model: what is the relationship between a strong bench and championship teams? Common sense would indicate that strong bench would be vital, but I have not really seen any statistical work comparing the relative importance of bench play in producing championship teams. Can a really strong bench--one that allows you to mix and match a wide variety of combinations--help compensate for not having a superstar? What sort of bench did those Detroit championship teams have? I honestly don't know the answer to these questions, but I'm curious. If Yao comes off the bench for the Rockets, it is quite possible that second team will actually be better than the first team.

Patrick Lee (Hong Kong)
Patrick Lee (Hong Kong) 5pts

According to Hollinger, the bench is much less important in the playoffs since teams tend to play their starters a lot more minutes then.

Schtevie
Schtevie 5pts

Two points about the "choice" in following the 'star' model vs. the 'Detroit' model pathway to a championshiop. First, the 'Detroit' model (at least the 2003-04 version) was most certainly a 'star' model. That this was contemporaneously (and currently?) misperceived doesn't change that fact. Detroit had two, really big defensive stars named Wallace: Ben and Rasheed. (See Dan Rosenbaum's work for confirmation.) They had the second best defense in the league (and were fortunate that the Spurs didn't make it to the Finals). That the 'Detroit' model is no longer applicable is that the value of big time defensive stars are no longer misperceived, with the Celtics' fleecing of the Timberwolves for the services of KG being the final nail in that model's coffin.

This doesn't mean that there isn't an alternative model. And perhaps it will be labeled 'Houston', one day. But this is a really tough path to success. Not only do you need to get the better of a large majority of your trades, but you need to pick the pieces up relatively quickly. Without big jumps, mediocrity breeds mediocrity with crappy draft picks.

Finally, as for the "requirement" of success being top 10 performance in both offense and defense, that is actually a relatively low bar to clear. Last year, that implied being 1.6 and 2.6 points per 100 possessions better than the average. Summing to 4.2, you need to do a lot better than that to get to the top of the hill.

Bob Schmidt
Bob Schmidt 5pts

Must there always be a model? If so, no approach that is different can be successful. Teams have always ridden their best "horses" to whatever success that they find, but occasionally a unique approach, such as Detroit showed us, breaks the formerly unbreakable mold. I must contend that the unique collection of talent and depth presently on the Houston roster might just be a team capable of breaking former models.

There is no question that an elite super-star player can win a few games on their own. There is also no question that they are always one second away from a debilitating injury. Can LA win if Kobe has a serious injury? Would Miami be feared if LeBron blows out a knee? Our recent history with Tmac and Yao and their injury problems shows the danger of depending on such a high concentration of talent in two or three bodies.

I want to see what our present roster can produce using a team philosophy not seen in recent years. If we do as well as I think that we can, we will be in the mix until the end. If we make it to the end, anything can happen in a long season as individual bodies sustain the wear and tear we all know will occur. Every season is a crap shoot, but this year we have the talent to hang in there.... to the end......

jmwilliamson
jmwilliamson 5pts

There is a reason lots of us love Van Gundy - dude is hilarious. But I couldn't make it through another season of him as head coach. Defense is boring.

Kevin
Kevin 5pts

I don't know about you, but I really want Van Gundy back. Adelman's offense kills defense. I am so sick of hearing Adelman talk about what the team needs to do defensively after every loss. Van Gundy slows down the offense giving the players stamina for defense and naturally allowing less points to be scored. There is a reason lots of Knicks fans as well as Rockets fans love Van Gundy. Adelman may very well run the best offense in the league, but it doesn't matter, since we can't stop anybody. Those uber-talented Kings teams just tried to outscore everybody. Vlade was the closest thing to a defensive player on those teams. Obviously Van Gundy isn't walking through that door, but maybe there is a reason, other than Phil Jackson, that Rick Adelman is ringless.

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