Last season, the Houston Rockets won an astounding 22 consecutive games, even though they lost star center Yao Ming half-way through the run. Despite the amazing streak, the Rockets looked burned out in their first round series against the Utah Jazz, in which they lost in six games. This year, though, the Rockets have beefed up by trading for defensive specialist Ron Artest. Houston hopes that his presence is the key to getting the team past the first round for the first time since 1997 when Hakeem Olajuwon was still roaming the paint. The return of a healthy Yao Ming has fans giddy over the upcoming season, but this team is still very frail, at least until they can prove otherwise. If the Rockets do manage to stay relatively healthy, they will make it to the Playoffs and get past the first round. Once they get past that barrier, they could be a real force in the title conversation.
Offense: Houston’s offense seemingly runs through one player; Tracy McGrady. McGrady is the team’s top playmaker and unlike his play with previous teams, on the Rockets, he makes the players around him better. With Yao Ming, the Rockets have a dominant offensive force in the post who, if fouled, will kill the opposition from the free-throw line. With Ron Artest, the Rockets now have another player who can take over a game offensively, especially considering the injury-riddled past of both McGrady and Yao. Rafer Alston grew into a very reliable playmaker for the Rockets last season, and was a terrific role-player. “Skip To My Lou” has a good outside shot, which will be put to the test this season as he will get many open looks due to the new trio in the rotation. The Rockets will have an offense that can score from any position and will be able to bruise their way toward the basket for easy points.
Defense: The Houston Rockets were one of the top defensive squads in the league last year, and this year they should only be better. There are strong defenders at each position which gives the Rockets a suffocating defense that chokes the life out of opposing offenses. With Yao Ming healthy, the Rockets have a big man who prevents easy layups and is a great help-defender for the benefit of his teammates. Beside Yao is the post is Luis Scola, a solid man-to-man defender as well as a great help-defender. Tracy McGrady has become a more reliable defender since coming to Houston and doesn’t take as many risks as he used to. The player that was most effective for Houston’s defense last year, though, was Shane Battier. Battier was always seen guarding the opposition’s top-scoring perimeter player and at times he would completely shut down the guy. With Ron Artest and Shane Battier, the Rockets have two of, if not THE two best perimeter defenders in the game, and that probably scares the living hell out of most of the teams around the league.
Strengths: The Rockets play a beat-you-down style of defense that is nerve-wracking to opponents, but fun to watch as a fan. Most importantly, it gets them wins. The Rockets are great at both ends of the floor and that could easily make them the team to beat, if they’re healthy…..
Weaknesses: The Rockets could be in the NBA Finals this year, but as just stated, this depends on their health. Tracy McGrady played in 66 games last year, Yao Ming played in 55 games last year, and for the Kings, Ron Artest played in just 57 games. For the Rockets, all three of these players need to be healthy if they want to contend for the title, otherwise, another first round exit is around the corner, or perhaps the Playoffs will be missed altogether.
Five Players to Watch:
Tracy McGrady - The one big detraction when viewing Tracy McGrady’s career is the fact that he has never been able to lead a team past the first round of the Playoffs. He has performed very well in the postseason, but either due to bad luck, or some other force, his great play has not produced a much success for his teams. With an unbelievably talented roster at his disposal, there is really no reason why T-Mac would not make his first trip to the second round of the Playoffs this season. Unless, of course, everyone is injured.
Yao Ming - Tracy McGrady might be the leader of the Rockets, but Yao Ming is the franchise player and the most important piece to the team’s future success. When he is healthy and actually playing, Yao always seems to be near the top of the list when discussing MVP candidates. Yao has a great touch around the basket and is a solid defender in the post, but until he can stay healthy for most of a season, he isn’t as valuable as he should be. The Rockets can not afford for Yao to keep getting injured, and if he does, this team could be doomed for failure.
Ron Artest - Ron Artest is one of the biggest head cases in the NBA as his off the court, as well as on the court, problems have been a detriment almost everywhere he has played. When he focuses, however, on the floor Ron Artest is one of the game’s best players. He is versatile offensively, and many have argued that he is the best defender in the entire league. Artest will likely be the number three option in Houston, but if Yao or McGrady go down, he has the ability to be the star player for his team. If Artest stays healthy, and keeps his nose clean, he could be the catalyst that gets this team out of the first round and perhaps into the Finals. If not, well, it might just be another wasted year.
Shane Battier - Along with Artest, Shane Battier is one of the best defenders in the game, and both players are on the same team. Battier will probably be coming off the bench this season, but he will still get his minutes. Whether he or Artest defends the opposing team’s best player won’t matter, because either one of them will get the job done. Battier is a fantastic role-player on offense, and he could have an even bigger role this year now that he won’t always have to defend the best of the best on a consistent basis. The main point for bringing up Battier, though, is that the thought of having he and Artest together on the perimeter is both scary and enticing at the same time.
Carl Landry - After watching Carlos Boozer knock his tooth out, and see him make a game winning defensive stop by blocking a shot all in the same Playoff game, I knew that Carl Landry was a player to look out for in the future. With an amusing smile and constant energy, Landry provides the tough spark off the bench that every team needs. If Landry keeps up his great play from the postseason, he will be splitting minutes with Luis Scola at the power forward position. Even if his time is limited, Landry will be an important part of the team’s rotation, and could provide solid clutch play if the Rockets make it back to the Playoffs.
Title Hopes: Adding Ron Artest to an already elite squad makes them a juggernaut on the defensive end. If the three stars can stay relatively healthy, the Rockets should make it out of the first round, and if they stay healthy all year, could make it to the Finals. The health of this team is still a major concern, so it is still unlikely for the team to get too far into the Playoffs, and if the big three misses enough time, they could miss the Playoffs entirely. Health is the deciding factor for the success of the Houston Rockets.
Prediction: 2nd Place, Southwest Division