By Darren Yuvan
Despite taking the LA Lakers to the brink of elimination in their second round playoff series in what was the most exciting Houston postseason since 1997, the Rockets nonetheless find themselves in an all-too-familiar position: sitting at home watching someone else battle on in the championship quest.
With their two superstars finishing the season on the injury shelf and two other key members of their squad set to become free agents, the Rockets face several big questions going forward that will truly tell the tale of if this team has maxed out it’s potential, or if this year was only a precursor to better things to come.
Dealing with the oft-injured Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady should be at the top of the Rockets’ offseason to-do list. Both are entering their final contract years and neither has shown the durability needed for an extended playoff run. And while I’ve already made my feelings on McGrady known, moving Yao, even with his injury concerns, is simply not an option. He’s simply too much of an offensive load and adjustment-forcer, even when he’s not scoring, for the Rockets to consider trading him.
And while his immense size prevents him from being a good pick-and-roll defender, and he doesn’t rack up huge numbers of blocks, his mere presence in the paint, much like in his offensive game, forces other teams into adjustments they wouldn’t normally have to make. The Rockets are at their best defensively when their stellar perimeter defenders can funnel driving opponents to the middle, where Yao awaits, possibly for a block, possibly for an alter, or even just intimidating opponents into a miss with his size alone. Ask MVP Lebron James how effective Houston’s defense can be when successfully utilizing this strategy.
The Rockets are also an incredibly undersized squad without Yao, and with Dikembe Mutombo’s career over, the Rockets have already shown they don’t have the size in the paint sans Yao to compete with the NBA elite. Despite all this, the fact still remains that Yao means nothing to this team if he can’t stay on the court, and while Yao’s issues with his lower extremities may end up always causing him problems, the Rockets have to find ways to keep him healthy season-long and into the playoffs. Yao himself has taken a huge step in helping the Rockets by finally taking the summer off from playing for the Chinese National Team, only the second time in 12 years Yao has elected to sit out.
The other step is the responsibility of the Rockets organization. They have to find Yao a capable backup whom they can trust to give solid minutes on a night-in, night-out basis in order to keep Yao fresh and to help to eliminate the heavy wear and tear a man of Yao’s size endures lumbering up and down the court 3 hours a night.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, they have no draft picks this year. Their first-round pick belongs to Sacramento from the Ron Artest deal, and their second-round pick is San Antonio’s, sent cross-state two seasons ago for the rights to Luis Scola. And with several of their own free agents to deal with and limited cash, their only option for some relief for Yao will be by trade.
More thoughts on the Houston Rockets’ offseason outlook after the break…
Houston has one giant bargaining chip in McGrady, and while his uncertain recovery from microfracture surgery and $23 million dollar salary will be a serious hindrance to any T-Mac trade talk, his expiring contract and the potential for a return to form may be too tempting for some teams to pass up.
If the Rockets can find a way to package McGrady in a two- or three-team trade and can obtain a quality backup center in return, or even put themselves in position to draft one, they should immediately pull the trigger. Keeping Yao healthy and getting taller and longer in the front court are the Rockets’ two biggest hurdles to competing for a title, and they can both be handled in one swoop if the Rockets play their cards right.
Next, the Rockets have to face the upcoming unrestricted free agency of two of their key contributors, Ron Artest and Von Wafer. Artest has already said he wants to be back and GM Daryl Morey has gone public saying he wants Artest back.
Whether the two sides can come to an agreement is another story, but a resign does seem likely and it’s definitely one the Rockets should pursue. Despite his erratic shooting and occasional tendency to stop ball movement (a la Tracy McGrady), Ron-Ron’s passion, fire, energy, defense, leadership and yes, even contributions to team chemistry make him a huge asset to a Rockets team that seemed to lack a little bit of toughness, that “take-no-prisoners” attitude, before Artest’s arrival.
Ron Artest Photo Credit: Icon SMI
The Rockets should do their damnedest to resign reserve guard Von Wafer as well; he also says he wants to come back. Wafer provided a consistent scoring option off the bench all season long and brought some much-needed athleticism from the wing position. And while the kid will never be a confused for Shane Battier on the defensive side, he can only improve with another year of experience and playing with such a solid group of defenders. The only obstacle to Wafer’s return will be money, as the Rockets won’t be able to offer him as much as some other teams on the open market.
The Rockets have a solid core group that features a fantastic blend of youth and experience. Youngsters like Aaron Brooks, Kyle Lowry, and Carl Landry now have another year under their belts, and the sky would seem to be the limit. Veterans like Yao, Scola, Battier, and Artest provide the leadership and hold it all together. This team doesn’t have the look of one who’s already seen its greatest heights.
By getting Yao some relief and giving him a better opportunity to stay healthy, continuing to develop their impressive stable of young talent, and also ridding themselves of the $23 million elephant in the room, the Rockets can ensure themselves this season’s fun was the just the beginning.
Born in Pittsburgh and currently residing in New York City, Darren is a part-time writer, part-time night club disc jockey (vinyl only, please), full-time cog in the corporate machine, both a card-carrying member of Raider Nation and the owner of several Terrible Towels, and has also had a slightly unhealthy man-crush on Hakeem Olajuwon since 1986.