Upon hearing the news regarding Yao Ming, my initial intent was to create a post-mortem assessment of the ‘Yao-McGrady experiment’. This was based on the assumption that the Houston Rockets would opt for rebuilding. Unbeknownst to us at this juncture, this may still very well be the plan. However, with the core surviving intact through the summer, and the prospect of retaining Tracy McGrady appearing more likely, such an evaluation would be entirely premature.
The outward irony in the title is immediately evident as year 6 of Yao/McGrady will actually be about everyone except Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. But the greater overlooked irony is that, by virtue of their glaring absence, this is really the first season that is truly about these two. Every year, based on our mistaken presumptions regarding their health, the focus of our hopes, justifiably or not, has been on the abilities/weaknesses of everyone else. This year, having finally assembled possibly the best supporting cast in basketball, the fact that Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming’s bodies have completely failed them truly is the elephant in the room.
My assumption regarding the Houston Rockets:
While I am skeptical whether he can ever regain his former status, my starting assumption here is that Yao Ming will return strong from injury in 2010. Without that controlling assumption, there is simply too much uncertainty to conduct any type of analytical preview for this season. All of the proverbial ***** would hit the fan. Without this assumption, the only reliable constants are the team name, those horrendous uniforms, and the mascot.
I can’t endure an entire season of following a sports team without some guiding principle of what I feel it should be trying to accomplish for that year. This presents quite the predicament in what is undoubtedly the oddest season I can remember. Unlike the past 5 years, as well as the Olajuwon era, there isn’t even a remote possibility for title contention. Yet unlike the Steve Francis era, we have no high potential growth prospects nor even any self-conceived path of upward trajectory. Frankly speaking, we collectively willed ourselves through the painful ‘Francis years’ with the naive belief that what we were watching would later bear fruit.
This current season epitomizes the sports equivalent of ‘Limbo.’ We’re essentially awaiting some later triggering event, whether it be a blockbuster trade, or the return of Yao, and we have no real room for tangible collective improvement. So I must ask myself, “what exactly am I looking for this season?” Wins and losses are not a proper measuring stick for this team, and depending upon your perspective, the former could even be detrimental in the grand scheme (though I do not necessarily feel that way.)
The guiding principle will be to envision the team with Yao Ming. Each independent factor will be assessed only in relation to its role on a Yao-centric team. Developments exclusive of these limits will be considered extraneous to any evaluation.
David Anderson – The conventional opinion will be to assess his abilities to dependably rebound and defend and I expect him to receive a great deal of criticism from this board in these areas. This is of no interest to me. I want to see how he does against the smaller quicker teams such as Toronto. Why? Because that is when he will be needed most upon Yao’s return. Our biggest weakness is that we crumble when smaller teams take Yao Ming out of the game. I don’t care if Tim Duncan hangs 40 and 15 on David. I want to see how he fares against Bargnani and the like. Simply put, is he good enough to give us something on those nights when Yao is unable to give us anything? Can he be a viable enough alternative to Yao to keep us competitive against any style of play?
Scola and Landry – Defense. Both have pretty much maxed out their capabilities offensively. Their weakness is defense. Far too often, we have to rely on Chuck Hayes for long spurts when an opposing power forward goes off. This takes a predictable toll on our offense. This team’s chances would be much improved in 2010-2011 if Scola and Landry made strides defensively allowing us to keep their offense on the floor at all times.
Trevor Ariza – Trevor is salt in the wounds. Signing Trevor Ariza was like securing the elusive antidote after the patient had already died. This was the guy who would have kept Jerry Stackhouse off the block and beaten Matt Harpring to those crucial loose rebounds. Its bittersweet because this was the athletic, tall swingman this team desperately needed for so long and now it may be too late. I don’t care if he doesn’t improve his offense, nor do I expect it. All I hope for is a duplication of his postseason production: efficient shooting, stifling defense, and high energy play. Don’t look to see if he can handle the ball. Look to see if he can pump fake the 3 off the Yao kickout and slash to the basket or cut in through the backdoor (unlike Shane) when McGrady is doubled up top. Is he dependable enough defensively to trade Shane if a tempting offer presents itself? I am not advocating that we trade Battier as he is the heart and soul of this team, but from a managerial perspective, you hope that Ariza is so good that he makes Battier redundant, presenting further flexibility to shape the roster.
Shane Battier – He has pretty much tapped out his abilities so there isn’t much to expect here. I would just warn everyone to not be too alarmed if his defense noticeably slips this season. Shane Battier’s style of strategic positioning defense is much more difficult without a shot-blocker in the paint. If he is getting burnt, it doesn’t mean he is washed up. Things will be fine when Yao returns.
Kyle Lowry – This one is interesting. He has pretty much maxed out his potential – unless he develops a jumpshot. Then all bets are off. He’s my favorite player on this team, but unless he either learns to shoot or a true shooting guard is acquired, I don’t see him starting at point in a Yao-centric offense, especially next to McGrady. However, he is a great asset off the bench and hopefully a fixture on this team for many years.
Taylor and Budinger – It would be huge if Taylor showed some Flip Murray-esque ability to score off the dribble in spurts. This team is in desperate need of players who can score on their own. He has a Cuttino Mobley vibe to him but I don’t want to give in to hyperbole. As for Budinger, you just hope he shows he can be a rotation player. Paradoxically, while Budinger is probably the better player of the two, at least seemingly so far, Taylor has the talent trait of which we are in dire need. I expect Chase to be better, but I will be watching Taylor a lot more closely.
Joey Dorsey – What is at stake here is that he is the only blemish to date on Daryl Morey’s drafting record.
The Two Most Important Considerations – Tracy and Brooks:
These are the two specimens which the microscope will be most greatly focused upon. Most of you seem to care primarily about Aaron’s playmaking and point guard skills. That is not what I will be observing at all. If he finally learns to run the offense, that will be gravy, but the most important aspect to this season is Aaron Brooks’ improvement as a scorer. Simply put, he has to become a legitimate 18-20 point scorer. If that doesn’t happen, there will probably have to be some sort of further transaction down the line.
Here’s why: When Yao Ming returns, and if Tracy McGrady is retained, this team will still be in need of additional firepower. They have been in search of the elusive ‘third star’ for 6 years now, and that need will be even more greatly heightened in Yao and McGrady’s declined physical conditions. If the plan is to bring back McGrady, then Aaron Brooks needs to make the jump to consistent scoring option for this team to realistically contend in 2010-2011. At an ideal, best case scenario, you will see McGrady recovering to his 2007 form and compensating for Aaron’s weaknesses with his superior playmaking skills. In turn, Brooks can thrive off the defensive attention thrown at McGrady and the relinquishment of actual point guard duties. In theory, I think these two players’ skillsets complement each other beautifully while their strengths compensate for their respective weaknesses. They could really flourish together in the backcourt, but they each have to take the next step. That means staying healthy and staying focused for McGrady and developing as a pure scorer for Aaron Brooks.
Aaron has all the tools but still has quite a long way to go. For one, he is still wildly inconsistent as evidenced by his atrocious shooting percentage. This can be excused as last season was virtually his first year in the league. More importantly, he needs to improve his ability to finish in the lane. That he has a good feel for the mid range jumpshot puts him ahead of the curve for a young player, but his difficulty scoring in traffic is the single biggest obstacle preventing him from getting to the next level. He’s not in Rafer Alston’s league in terms of futility, but he is far too often stuffed at the rim. Brooks really needs to study Tony Parker’s use of the floater and how it enables him to shoot farther away from the goal and avoid the shot-blocker.
Then of course, we come to McGrady. The feasibility of acquiring a max free agent (without depleting our core) has already been thoroughly debunked. Almost everyone can agree that the most preferable option would be to trade McGrady for a younger star so that the team can ‘re-tool’ while staying in contention upon Yao’s return. Unfortunately, there do not seem to be too many trade options available and it seems likelier that McGrady will return long term. In any event, what I am watching for with T-Mac is just getting something out of his salary slot, whether that be production from him or new pieces through a trade. The goal should be to have full confidence in the backcourt heading into 2010-2011 on the basis of what was done/observed this year. If Yao Ming is back, we can’t waste the precious few years he has remaining.
If we are fortunate enough to find a good deal for McGrady, then that obviously will set off a domino effect the nature of which, due to its unpredictability, there is no point in discussing at this time. Barring a trade, the single most important facet of this team to examine will be the interaction and level of play of Aaron Brooks and Tracy McGrady. Will their production suffice for contention upon Yao’s return? Can Tracy McGrady be a full-time point guard? Can Aaron Brooks be a full-blown dependable go-to scoring threat? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, there will have to be later trades to restructure the backcourt. In their diminished state, this team can no longer contend with McGrady and Yao as its two major scoring options. The conundrum is that a major trade destroys the depth and chemistry which the team has worked so hard to accumulate. That is why Aaron Brooks’ development as a scorer should be the key focus of this season.
I think there is a popular romantic desire here to see the team band together and make a push to the playoffs on the strength of grit, determination, and chemistry. While that would make for a great storyline, and the culture of confidence could certainly carry over, I don’t think wins and losses should be the measuring stick for this season. We already have some of the best chemistry in the league and arguably the best supporting cast. We fully know the extent of their capabilities. For the last 5 years, we thought we had the stars but never had the role players. Now we finally have the perfect group of role players. The key to this season will be in determining whether we can somehow preserve this core while still mustering up enough scoring punch to contend when Yao returns. We saw in the playoffs how far our system and chemistry can take us but also that we are still in desperate need of legitimate scoring options. You can pencil in a probable MLE-class acquisition next summer as well as some other minor tinkering. If you can’t realistically envision this current group with those additions, plus Yao, as a legitimate title contender, then the team will have to make some sort of major deal somewhere along the line. Discerning this future projection will be the key theme of the 2009-2010 season.