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|Yao's ability to stay healthy is one of the keys for the Rockets this season.|
Regardless of their other achievements and failures, the one thing that stood out about Houston's season was a magical stretch in February and March when the Rockets pieced together 22 consecutive victories -- the second longest winning streak in league history. Making it more amazing was the final 10 wins in the streak came after center Yao Ming went out for the season with a broken foot, leaving the Rockets without their top offensive threat.
That Houston pulled it off without their meal ticket was testament to their defense, teamwork and depth. Dikembe Mutombo filled in as the starting center, rookie second-round pick Carl Landry played phenomenally well off the bench, and rookie forward Luis Scola came into his own in that stretch; as a result, the Rockets as a whole lost surprisingly little at the offensive end.
W-L: 55-27 (Pythagorean W-L: 57-25)
Offensive Efficiency: 103.9 (17th)
Defensive Efficiency: 98.9 (2nd)
Pace Factor: 92.9 (21st)
Highest PER: Yao Ming (22.61)
On the other hand, that they won 22 straight games and still didn't finish with the West's top seed is testament to what a poor start they had. Houston began the year a hugely disappointing 15-17, and even when the win streak began the Rockets were 24-20 and sitting in 10th place in the West.
A difficult schedule was part of the reason for the slow start, but not all of it. Offseason pickups Steve Francis and Mike James were dreadful, and rotation regular Bonzi Wells wasn't much better; it took some time for Houston to work through their roster and find better options and get rookies Landry, Scola and Aaron Brooks up to speed.
For the year, Houston was the league's No. 2 team in defensive efficiency, and in most any other year they would have been No. 1 -- Boston was simply off-the-charts good. The Rockets were the best in one facet, though, leading the NBA in 2-point field-goal defense and opponent true shooting percentage. That they were anywhere close to the top was a pleasant surprise to many. The Rockets had swapped out coaches in the offseason, and the expectation was the transition from Jeff Van Gundy to Rick Adelman would help the offense but hurt the defense. In reality, the Rockets ended up about the same in both categories.
Houston was able to cut off 2-pointers without surrendering too many longballs, either -- opponents averaged just .180 3-point attempts per field-goal attempt, narrowly missing out on the league's best mark (Dallas, at .178, was first). As a result, the Rockets were able to beat out Boston by the tiniest sliver in opponent TS%.
Alas, they weren't the top defense overall because they weren't as good as Boston at preventing shots. Houston was only in the middle of the pack in forcing turnovers and slightly above average in defensive rebounding, whereas Boston was among the best in both categories.
Offensively, nothing remarkable stood out about Houston on a team level -- they were well above average on the offensive glass but otherwise mediocre across the board. An off year by Tracy McGrady and Yao's absence for half the season undoubtedly contributed to those problems.
In fact, the problem would have been much worse if not for the Rockets' largely unheralded supporting cast. Yao, McGrady, defensive ace Shane Battier and point guard Rafer Alston got the headlines, but by year-end the reserves were hugely effective (see chart), especially after a midseason trade sent James and Wells to New Orleans for Bobby Jackson.
So while they appeared to be a Yao-McGrady-and-not-much-else roster, they actually had one of the league's deepest teams. That, in turn, explains why the "Rockets are dead" mentality that gripped many commentators after Yao went out was a fallacy -- Houston had plenty of other weapons.But in the playoffs, two of Houston's Achilles' heels cropped up at the worst possible time -- point guards and durability. Alston missed the first two games with a hamstring injury, leaving the Rockets with Jackson trying to impersonate a point guard. Meanwhile, McGrady ran out of gas down the stretch of Game 2 trying to carry an offense that already was missing Yao, Alston and Landry. Houston lost the first two games at home, eventually falling to Utah for a second straight year.
|What roster moves did the Rockets make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider|
What makes it even more effective is the knowledge the bigs have their back. The return of Yao puts a 7-foot-6 goalie at the rim on the rare occasions when Battier or Artest is beaten off the dribble, while reserves like Hayes, Mutombo (if he re-signs), Dorsey and Landry each are fantastic defenders.
And of course, the Rockets can also shift everybody down a spot and play Artest and Battier on the wings at the same time, either when McGrady is resting (or injured) or with him as the point guard. That approach seems especially plausible against teams like Dallas or Denver that have multiple wing scorers on the floor simultaneously.
And yet he's essential, as his absence in the first two games of the Utah series showed, because the Rockets don't have much backing him up. The best hope for a replacement is Brooks, but he's more of a shooting guard in a point guard's body; he's also generously listed at 6-0, 160, making him ripe for abuse by bigger guards. Otherwise, Houston's best option may be to play big and slow with McGrady as the de facto point guard and either Barry or Artest playing the wing with Battier.
Of course, the best option would be a trade, and Houston does have some assets to pull together a deal. One imagines they'll be watching the point guard market closely this winter.
But while Artest gets the attention, McGrady and Yao may prove more crucial. Each has missed huge chunks of time with injuries the past few years, and the Rockets' chances of making a deep playoff run depend on having both of them available in the spring. Additionally, McGrady's numbers fell off sharply last season, and there's a worry that the back problems that have plagued him for much of his career are beginning to materially impact his production.
Adding Artest and Barry to a 55-win team, and possibly adding more games from Yao as well, one would seem to think Houston would be set to win 60 or more. They very well could, but there are negative indicators too. Most obviously, the bench players are unlikely to perform as well as they did a year ago, particularly Landry. Second, there's the very real risk of continued performance declines by McGrady and a dropoff by Alston.
All told, they have as good a chance of winning the conference as anyone, but given Artest's volatile history and the injury proneness of Yao and McGrady, there's too much risk to comfortably predict the Rockets to land ahead of the Lakers and Jazz.