Portland Trail Blazers 96, Houston Rockets 87: No surprises…but a pleasant surprise

No, the sky isn’t falling. In the Houston Rockets’ 96-87 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in last night’s season opener, things went just as anyone should have expected.

The Rockets scratched and clawed for 48 minutes, even making things interesting at one point late, but ultimately fell to a superior foe. This is the same effort you can expect from this group with consistent results. They will beat up on bad teams and lose to the good teams when overwhelmed by the talent differential. There will be nights when they look completely overmatched inside, as they did tonight, but they will continue to fight. You can bank on this team to not ever mail it in.

To me, the most interesting storyline came late in the 4th. The Rockets had cut the lead to single digits with ample time remaining on the clock and were beginning to pose a serious threat to steal the game. It was at this point when conventional wisdom flew out the window.

While Chase Budinger played a big role in the comeback, with a chance to win the game one would expect Shane Battier or at the least, Trevor Ariza, to be reinserted for the duty of guarding Brandon Roy. I mean, this is Brandon freaking Roy, it’s the 4th quarter, and you can actually still win this thing!

So what did Rick Adelman do? Much to my delight, he kept Chase in the game, kept him guarding Brandon Roy, and kept Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry together in the backcourt. I absolutely loved that. One might argue that Rick wanted to stay with the hot lineup, but there’s no way you can tell me he would have seriously kept Chase Budinger on Brandon Roy had his prime motivation been to win the game.

What that 3 minute sequence did was prove that Rick Adelman is taking a greater, macro approach to this season. This year isn’t about meaningless wins and losses but rather planning for the future and seeing what we have in each of these players. That tends to be forgotten. Kudos to Rick Adelman.

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Kyle Lowry: Upside?

I’ve said before that Kyle Lowry is my favorite player on the Houston Rockets.

I really, really like Kyle Lowry.

Much ado is made of the Luis Scola trade or finding Landry in the second round, but in my opinion, the Lowry trade was the most impressive acquisition of the Daryl Morey era and really microcosmic of Morey’s overall philosophy in management of the team.

He held off on dumping a presumed negative asset in Rafer Alston until the market for point guards was bone dry and a desperate buyer in the Orlando Magic presented itself. If it wasn’t enough that he was able to reel in a 23 year old prospect who was actually an immediate upgrade over Alston, the real genius of the trade was that Brian Cook is only a one year commitment.

So essentially, Morey just split Rafer Alston’s burdensome $4.5million contract into a better player and the difference in salary. In a nutshell, Morey landed the far superior player in the trade without taking on any future salary obligations. That rarely happens.

What is so frustrating is that if Lowry could just shoot, even at only age 23, I think he would immediately have to be considered a ‘top 15′ point guard in this league. The problem is that his lack of an outside shot is such a glaring weakness that it precludes any serious discussion of a starting role and severely limits his ceiling. The kid already has everything else.

He attacks the basket and draws fouls as well as anyone, he runs the offense with the sure-handedness usually only exhbited by veterans, and he has the tools to be elite defensively. That last trait is particularly significant. How many guys at that position can actually defend at an elite level and not completely suck at everything else?

There were reports in the summer that Lowry had been working diligently on his shooting. That does not seem to have paid off. What is strange is that his form is fine. This is not a case of a bad shooter (ala Rafer Alston) chucking his way to a predictably low percentage. On the contrary, watching Lowry, I get the sense of a guy who just does not want to shoot out of a belief that there are higher percentage options off the pass/drive.

This is a true point guard mentality but unfortunately, this mindset neglects the fact that the offense would be better served if the defense had to honor Lowry’s shot as a legitimate threat.

As perimeter shooting is probably the skill most easily developed, entering only his 4th year, Lowry has time. But for now, especially on a team with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, the inability to shoot is such a huge weakness that I don’t think Lowry is starter material. And that’s really a damn shame. He’s so good already at everything else that if only he were a competent shooter, he could be a modern day Mark Jackson – never an All-Star but a guy you could pencil in as a rock solid starter for the next decade and feel great about your chances.

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Yao/McGrady – Year Six

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.

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Free agency has not been kind to the Houston Rockets

With all the discussion these past few days with regards to the prudence in offering Trevor Ariza the full MLE, the doomsayers’ reminiscence of Stromile Swift led me to thinking. There are particular episodes which are most often cited, but viewing the team’s transactional history as a whole even more greatly underscores how cruel free agency has been to the Houston Rockets.

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