Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon Photo Credit: Icon SMI
The Houston Rockets’ season ended in heartbreaking fashion, felled once again by those vile Jazz of Utah. After knocking the Rockets out for a second consecutive season, one of the best rivalries in basketball has been reborn – one that started with The Dream versus Stock and The Mailman (1994, 1995, 1997 and 1998 playoffs). But Houston made the biggest offseason splash this side of Philadelphia with the acquisition of controversial forward Ron Artest, and they’re hoping his addition will push Houston past Utah and deep into the postseason.
You won’t find a better blog chronicling those playoff dreams than The Dream Shake, named in honor of everyone’s favorite Rocket. The Dream Shake is curated by David Clark and Lee Grammier, two rabid Rockets fans who live and die with their team and know as much about them as anybody in the blogosphere.
ETB is proud to present ten questions and ten answers with Mr. Lee Grammier.
Empty the Bench: Tracy McGrady: vent or defend him. Is T-Mac just a loser?
Lee Grammier: Tracy is a very capable player, one of the greatest talents the NBA has ever seen. And I truly mean that, his skill as a basketball player is up there with the best of all time. Why hasn’t he made it out of the first round? In Orlando his team sucked, they were there solely on his back, you can’t pin that on him. In Houston, we’ve run up against a Dallas team that we should have beaten and Utah twice, a team the Rockets have not matched up well with. Is Tracy a loser for not making it out of the first round? I say no. His playoff stats are better than his regular season stats and that says a lot about him. Is his career legacy at stake if he doesn’t get out of the first round this year? Yes. [Ed. Note: That sounds familiar… ]
ETB: Who would you rather keep: Tracy McGrady or Shane Battier? Salary — and who else it could be used on — is a factor.
Grammier: With the addition of Artest, the answer is to keep Tracy. Without Artest, I’d lean towards keeping Shane. Seems crazy, but the real reason is the “salary is a factor” part. If I can spend $20 million on someone else, or $10 million on two someones, I think it’s almost a no brainer to do that. With Artest the Rockets have three legitimate stars, and luckily we don’t have to get rid of any of them if we do not want to.
ETB: What does Rick Adelman do for the Rockets that Jeff Van Gundy didn’t? Given your druthers, who would you rather have coaching the Rockets?
Grammier: He taught them offense. I have mad man love for JVG but he was not in any way an offensive mastermind. The knock on Adelman was always that his defense was somewhat lacking. So what does Adelman do? Tell them not to change a thing on defense, keep up the intensity. To go along with that he taught them how to efficiently play offense. It wasn’t always pretty, and until 2008 came around, it was pretty ugly, but the defense was there while they worked through the offensive kinks. Once the offense started rolling, the Rockets won 12 in a row. Then disaster struck and Yao went down. I’m still hoping we see a full NBA season without a major injury for the Rockets. If that happens, look out league!
Talking Yao’s health, Rafer’s shooting, and Hakeem Olajuwon memories after the jump…
ETB: Yao Ming has topped out at 57 games played over the last three seasons. Are you still on board the Yao bandwagon? Are these freak injuries or will this guy just never stay healthy?
Grammier: Good God yes. Yao is the best center in the league, and while I really like Dwight Howard, the two aren’t even comparable. Yao gets a bad rap of being soft. Anyone that has actually seen healthy Yao knows better. Dunking over KG last year really took every bit of that stigma off of him, for me at least. His offensive skills are the best from a big man since Hakeem was in the league (Bullying your way into the lane with your shoulder is not a “skill” Shaq). While his defense is merely very good, and not quite to great, Yao has improved defensively every year he has been in the league. I think that defense is more hampered by the lack of actual centers in the league and Yao being forced to guard what is effectively a second PF. His one on one defense is solid, but I think his help defense is vastly underrated.
I also believe that Sportscenter showing every time Yao gets “dunked on” makes people believe he’s not a good defender. It’s the dumbing down of the NBA fan and it’s truly frustrating. Yes, he’s gotten over late, but show me more than once where Yao got dunked on when he wasn’t just coming over late trying to help a teammate out. Also show me the guy that’s dunked on Yao more than Yao has blocked that same guy’s shot.
ETB: Rafer Alston is about as mercurial as starting point guards come. He’ll drop 12 dimes the night after a 1-assist game, and he’ll get hot for stretches from the field before laying an egg. Can a guy this erratic and with shooting percentages this poor (38.6% FGs, 72.5% FTs career) be a legit starting point?
Grammier: It really depends on what your definition of “legit” is. For me, it means any point guard that less than half the teams wouldn’t trade their starter straight up for. I think last year, despite the vitriol that Dave and I tossed out there at him, he was definitely in that upper half. Now, do I think he has top-ten potential? Hell no. But the real question is: Can he do what the Rockets need him to do on 85% of the nights, and 90% of the playoffs? I’m not completely convinced at this point. It’s absolutely within his capabilities though.
He will have to keep himself within his own game, and adding Artest is a huge piece towards allowing him to do that. No longer will he feel like he ever has to be the second scorer and most of the time he won’t need to be the third or fourth. When healthy the Rockets have four legitimate NBA scorers in Yao, McGrady, Artest and Scola. Scola’s second NBA season will go a long way as well. The number one change I feel he needs to make, that won’t be forced on him by the natural progression of other players, is to not make the stupid pass more than once per game. Rafer has been notorious for following up one terrible pass with 2 more within the same quarter; it has been a borderline epidemic. If he can eliminate that first bad pass from getting into his head, he could be right on the cusp of that top ten this year.
ETB: Obviously, you guys are some big Olajuwon fans. Let’s hear a couple favorite Hakeem memories — huge blocks, baskets or playoff performances.
Grammier: Obviously the two championships play a huge part in my memory of Hakeem. Without them I don’t think people would have realized just how good he was. Seriously, that first team had Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, a second year Robert Horry and Otis Thorpe in the starting lineup. As much as I love those guys, and they fit Rudy T and Hakeem’s game, let’s not pretend that’s a murder’s row of fellow stars.
My favorite Hakeem Moments outside of the championships:
3) Blocking Kevin Johnson on the fast break from behind – Hakeem chased him down and destroyed him. People tried to bring up Johnson dunking on Hakeem when he clearly caught him out of position. I like to toss back in their face that Hakeem chased down a point guard and blocked his shot on a fast break, something about 50 times more impressive.
2) Dunking over Ewing to go 15-0 – Hakeem pushed off his back, I know, but his dunk over Ewing was a thing of beauty. The push off gave him an extra foot or so on the vertical, it was extremely impressive athletically.
1) Every Dream Shake – Hakeem took footwork to a new level with the Dream Shake. It had 15-20 different variations, and as David Robinson saw, they could come at you four or five different ways at a time. His shot was unblockable and he did not travel. Anyone that really believes he did needs to go watch the tape.
ETB: Do you see any big men outside of Houston that remind you of Olajuwon? If not, what did he bring to the game that the big men of today don’t?
Grammier: And no, there have been three Centers in the history of the NBA, and honestly, it’s only been three, and any other argument is just silly, that can claim to have equal to better skills than Hakeem. Those three, in no particular order, are Wilt, Kareem and Russell. And here’s the thing, it would only be two, but people forget that Russell was only 6-8 or so and dominated like he was 7-2. People also forget that even with most pairs of shoes on Hakeem wasn’t more than 6-10, so you can’t use that argument for Russell over him, but I’ll let him be up here for the sheer skill and athleticism. You have to have to be a superstar to be a 6-8 center, even in that day and age.
The best centers in the league today are 1) Yao 2) Dwight Howard 3) Chris Kaman 4) Shaq 5) No one else. Of that group only Yao has any skills even on the same page (today) with Hakeem, and all of those are on the offensive end. No one even comes close to paralleling his defensive positioning or full arsenal of offensive moves in today’s game from the Center perspective. You ever see any of those guys break a guy down with his dribble like a guard? Hakeem did that once a game it seemed. Did you ever seen any player in history, other than Kareem, have a shot that was unblockable? He also has his own move in the Dream Shake, the best nickname in NBA history in The Dream and is a genuinely good guy that helps out his community, sometimes even to his own detriment. Yao’s commitment to community is actually pretty reminiscent of The Dream’s, so I’ll give him a lot of props there.
ETB: The Rockets have a knack for finding relatively unknown players that step up big. Who was the unsung or unrecognized hero of Houston last season? (Shane Battier doesn’t count)
Grammier: I’d love to put Luis Scola here, but that would be undermining the intelligence of basketball fans. Scola has been an international force for years. And since Battier doesn’t count (even though he should have been the DPOY), I’ll go with Carl Landry. He was a second-round pickup that, unless you were a Big 10 fan or a devout NCAA fan, you probably didn’t know a lot about. He helped form the Luis Landry PF tandem and really shined during the streak. His tenacity and finishing ability were spectacular. All this for about $1 million of salary and a little draft day ingenuity by Daryl Morey (The Ninja of GMs). His knee injury during the season was particularly troubling. With Landry and Rafer not at full health and Yao already out, the first round loss was inevitable. Landry signed only a one year deal and didn’t play a ton of minutes last year because of injury and having Scola in front of him. His contract situation is a mess. Here’s hoping he’s back at about three years and $9 million.
ETB: We’re trying to get a lot of opinions on this: Who is the most underrated player in the NBA today? Feel free to mention any others that come to mind.
Grammier: On the Rockets Luis Scola is the most underrated, but I fully expect that to change next year. His defense improved every game. It was a huge adjustment for him from the International game, but he did his best to solve for the errors he had in defensive judgment. His offensive skills are outstanding. Once he learns to really trust himself in the NBA, he’s going to be a breakout player. I expect the Rockets to score 100 plus with: Yao at 25, Tracy at 23, Artest at 17-19 and Scola at 15-16 a game. Scola has a deadly 15-17 foot jumper and when he realizes that dunking is okay, is a really good finisher. His tenaciousness is second to none on a team with Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes. I love that he gets under other teams’ skin a little and his passing is severely underrated. All in all, expect a big year from him.
In the league I think the most underrated player, that I care about, is David West. I know he had a big year last year and he made the All Star team, but people really didn’t see him for all he is. Last year he had a season on par with Tim Duncan. If you don’t believe me, check the stats:
And he can even shoot free throws! West had a huge NCAA tourney and I’m still not sure why he slipped in the draft, but the Hornets got ridiculously lucky with him at 18 in 2003 (Sweetney and Collison went before him for goodness sake). He and Chris Paul are my favorite non-Rockets in the league, so you better believe I’m traveling to New Orleans this year to see a Rockets vs. Hornets game.
Luis Scola, Andrei Kirilenko Photo Credit: Icon SMI
ETB: A lot can change between now and opening day, but if you had to pick the 2008-09 NBA Champ right now, who would it be and why?
Cause I said so, and that always worked for my Mom, so I’m going to try it here
2. New Orleans Hornets:
Because they should have been there last year and are now playoff experienced
3. Los Angeles Lakers:
Still a great team, but losing Turiaf is going to hurt
4. San Antonio Spurs:
Are they on the every other year tear still?
5. Boston Celtics:
I don’t think they really got worse in the off season, but they did lose a few parts and probably lost a bit of their edge
Recommended Reading at The Dream Shake:
– Predicting the 2009 Season in August
– Yao and China Eliminated in Eighth Place
– Ron Artest: Why This Guy?
– Tracy McGrady: Initech Employee
– Shane Battier is the DPOY, Here’s Proof
– NBA Resolution for 2008
– The Rockets and Married… With Children
More ETB’s Scribes of the NBA Interview Series:
– J.E. Skeets of Yahoo!’s Ball Don’t Lie
– David Friedman of 20 Second Timeout
– Ron Hitley of Hornets 24/7
– Ryne “Odenized” Nelson of SLAMonline
– Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty and FanHouse
– Brett Hainline of Queen City Hoops
– Dave Deckard of Blazer’s Edge
– Kurt of Forum Blue and Gold
–Brian Powell of Awful Announcing
– Lee Grammier of The Dream Shake
– Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead
– Scott Carefoot of Raptor Blog
– Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Part 1
– Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Part 2
– Matt Watson of AOL FanHouse and Detroit Bad Boys
– Natalie Sitto of Need4Sheed.com