Houston has a problem

Houston has a problem
By Steve Kerr, Yahoo Sports
January 6, 2006

Steve Kerr
Yahoo Sports
Of all the struggling teams in the NBA this year, perhaps none has been more disappointing than the Houston Rockets.

Coming off a strong finish to last season – which concluded in a first-round playoff series loss to Dallas that very easily could have gone their way – the Rockets had high hopes entering this season. With Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady returning after a full season together, this was supposed to be the year that Houston broke through and advanced deep into the playoffs. But a third of the way through the season, the Rockets are stuck in last place in the Southwest Division and staring at an almost impossible climb to even reach the postseason.

The Rockets have been hit hard with injuries, with Yao being just the latest casualty: Yao is sidelined with an infection of his toe that will keep him out until at least February, McGrady has missed eight games with a back injury (and Houston has lost all of them) and Bob Sura has yet to play a game this season due to back and knee injuries.

But the Rockets' problems go beyond health issues. Houston's roster is not built to fit Jeff Van Gundy's coaching style.

Every good coach has a style that he's comfortable with and a vision of how to win basketball games. Don Nelson wanted to outrun opponents. Gregg Popovich wants to wear them out. George Karl tries to force turnovers and run.

Van Gundy is a grinder. He wants his team to outwork, outprepare and outdefend. He believes that winning – especially in the playoffs – comes down to grinding out games. His Knicks teams reflected that philosophy: they were tough, prepared and physical. And with players like Greg Anthony, Charles Oakley, Patrick Ewing and Chris Childs, that style worked well. The Knicks were one of the best teams in the NBA during Van Gundy's tenure.

Van Gundy said last year that his two superstars in Houston – Yao and TMac – are "docile by nature" and that he needed to "surround them with pit bulls." Sura and Mike James were the pit bulls last season, and they arrived in midseason just in time to turn the Rockets' fortunes around. But with Sura out and James traded to Toronto, this year's squad seems lifeless. Van Gundy even called them "boring." (I'm assuming he meant their play, not their personalities.)

This year, the Rockets don't have the necessary personnel to fit Van Gundy's preferred grinding style of play. The point guards can't pressure the ball, they don't have a big power forward to take fouls and help Yao on the boards, and they don't have the energy as a group to consistently play at a high level. The Rockets rely on slowing the pace and hoping McGrady takes over on offense. And as good as he is, he can't do it every night.

One of two things has to happen: either the Rockets make sweeping changes and bring in some pit bulls to defend, or Van Gundy has to open up his offense and let his team run. And I'm not sure either is going to happen.

In 10 years of coaching, Van Gundy's teams have always played a game defined by great defense. But because of the nature of the style, his teams have always been near the bottom of the league in field goal percentage. (His best shooting club was the '97 Knicks, which finished 19th in the NBA, and on average his teams have finished 24th in field goal percentage.)

It's not because he hasn't had good shooters; rather, it's because of the lack of flow to the game. His teams rarely get into the open court. They play a conservative style defined by not giving up any easy hoops, which translates into a slow, half-court game. It's tough to make shots in games like that because players rarely find themselves open. That's why Van Gundy's teams are always near the top of the league in field goal percentage defense. The game he coaches has very little offensive freedom for either side. It's hand-to-hand combat. Asking Van Gundy to change that style would be like asking Mike D'Antoni to slow things down in Phoenix. It's not going to happen.

But making personnel changes in midseason also is very difficult, particularly when you don't have much payroll flexibility, which is the case for the Rockets. Houston's two big offseason moves have not paid off: the Rockets signed Stromile Swift to add athleticism on the frontline, but he's been inconsistent and hasn't fit well. And the trade of James for Rafer Alston has backfired. Houston misses James' scoring, defense and energy, and Alston has been hurt and ineffective. To expect the Rockets to make a move now to alter their fortunes is unrealistic.

To be fair, the injuries have hit the Rockets so hard that no matter what they would have done, they were going to struggle. But this is a club that needs to make sure that as it goes forward, the personnel surrounding Yao and McGrady is conducive to the style of play that their coach teaches.

Yao and TMac are great players, and with the right mix around them, there's no reason Houston can't compete for a championship. But right now, this is not the right mix.

Steve Kerr is Yahoo! Sports' NBA analyst. Send Steve a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Saturday, Jan 7, 2006 8:20 pm, EST

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