Ball Don't Lie - NBA

As the NBA preseason marches on, Ball Don't Lie looks at all 30 teams, outlining off-season transactions, projecting win totals, spinning tracks, and much, much more. It's a fun, hot mess. Today, the Houston Rockets.

Last Season: 55-27; lost in the first round of playoffs to Jazz

Key Players Added: Ron Artest (trade, Kings), Brent Barry (free agent), Da Crispy Von Wafer (free agent), Joey Dorsey (draft-trade combo), Darryl Eugene Strawberry (trade)

Key Players Lost: Bobby Jackson (trade, Kings), Steve Novak (BIG TRADE, Clippers)

Kelly Dwyer's Endless Grey Ribbon: This team really makes you want to bound around the room, gleefully, pumping fists and giddy at its prospects. For the junkies, this is the team.

And it better be, because this has to be "the year." Has to. If the Rockets make a long run and fall just short, it won’t be a wasted season, but getting to the pinnacle will get tougher and tougher and tougher as the years move along.

Because, while you still might think of Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, and Ron Artest as potential-laden semi-stars who are still getting their respective acts together, their ages tell a different story. Yao’s 28. Tracy’s 29, and Ron-Ron turns 29 in a month. Shane Battier is 30. 30! That means they’re in their prime. That means that, while we’re not going to rule anything out in 2009-10 or beyond, things would really go a lot smoother if they all decided to get something done in 2008-09.

Assuming they’re in control of such things, of course. Injuries have to be accounted for. I’ve yet to read John Hollinger’s predictions of just how many maladies will befall this beautiful bunch and how many games he thinks they’ll miss, but you have to guess at quite a few. And worse, the injuries these guys usually rack up aren’t the, "two weeks and we’ll see"-types of hammy pulls or strains. They’re stress fractures. Other arthritic nasty bits. Sometimes, one of them gets in fights with fans.

Yao Ming missed only two games combined in his first three seasons, but he’s averaged 54 games a year in the three since. We’ll throw out the lockout-shortened “1998”-99 season and a rookie year rife with the occasional DNP-CD, but that only helps Tracy McGrady’s case: T-Mac has averaged 71 games a year in the nine seasons since 1999, and he’s never played 80 games in a season. Ron Artest picks fights with coaches.

And again, the sad part isn’t that reasonable expectations have these guys missing games. That’s not the point. The sad part is that a reasonable expectation has one of these guys getting hurt in late February and missing the rest of the season. Not coming back with a flourish in March, but hitting the shelf and needing the summer to rest. Also, Ron Artest throws cameras around.

The good part? There’s a good, and probably more likely chance, that all three can make it to spring relatively unscathed. It has to take a random and fluke-ish press of the foot to send that stress fracture crack back up Yao’s dogs, and though it’s very possible, it’s not an inevitability.

That’s important. Zydrunas Ilgauskas has been playing with that same probability factor since the 2001-02 season, and yet nothing has gone wrong. Compare it to a fault line; because there’s a reasonable fear that everything will fall apart, but the coin flip could land on heads every time out for the rest of Yao’s career, and he could end up averaging 80 games a year again.

We’re not saying that this team’s depth can overcome any significant injuries, though it did a pretty fine job last season, and their roster is a pleasure to look over. Carl Landry. Chuck Hayes. Shane Battier filling in the holes. Brent Barry shooting and Aaron Brooks scoring and Luther Head shooting (if not scoring) and Steve Francis is still on this team! If you need a guard to haul in the rebound and go coast-to-coast and think about throwing an alley-oop pass before chickening out and pulling the ball out and slowing down the offense long enough to call for a screen and shoot a 20-footer after dribbling for 22 seconds, Steve’s your man!

Meanwhile, should the health sustain, Yao and Tracy and Artest should never be better. Yao’s my choice for the MVP award, not because he’ll be the best player in the NBA this year, but because he’ll be close, he could have a healthy season that leads the Rox to 64 wins, and MVP voters always vote for the best story over the best player. Yao will be brilliant this year, and underrated for most of it. Look at this guy’s stats over the years, because for all his hype off the court, he really has been underrated significantly.

Tracy’s a tougher story. Adding a player that sort of approximates what he does (don’t chortle, because Artest fancies himself a point forward, and at times, he’s a pretty damn good one) could either negate his influence or enhance it, and that distinction is partially up to Rick Adelman and his weird elbow-extended offense to work things out. Tracy has to be a leader, though. He cannot float. If he floats, the Rockets drown.

I’ll say this, if Adelman can develop spacing and get Tracy and Artest to nail cutters from the pinch-post, or destroy defenses with quick post-ups and triple-threat dalliances, we could have a Coach of the Year award going to Houston as well.

Lots of "could haves," but that’s just what the Rockets are. And will be, even if they win 22 of their first 25 games. This team won’t answer a darn thing, to the fair-weather journalists who only know that T-Mac hasn’t been out of the first round yet, or to those of us that are paying attention, until May. At least.

This is a championship-level team, easily. Here’s hoping they rise to that level.

Expected Record: 57-25


Nonchalant Yao:

Real Talk, Blog Talk (aka excerpts from other blogger team previews):

The Dream Shake: "JVG installed a [defensive] philosophy with this team and the greatest coaching move Rick Adelman could have made was to reinforce that philosophy. There are a couple of teams equal to the Rockets on the defensive end, but none of them are better, that’s not conjecture, that’s a fact. When you go down the lane, you won’t enjoy it, when you shoot a 3 pointer, someone will be in your face, and when you try to take your man one on one, someone will come around with the help defense. It’s the best part of our game, and it’s generally infallible no matter how poorly we play on the offensive end in a given game. We rarely get outplayed by a good offense and that is a testament to what JVG put in and to how good a coach Adelman is to not try and fix what wasn’t broken."

Sparty & Friends: "What is it that this team doesn’t have? I guess the answer is a great point guard. Skip is a great point guard on the streetball court but in the NBA he is just a pretty good point guard. They could have upgraded with a great backup point guard by making some sort of trade from their spare parts or a pick in the draft but they didn’t. That leaves them with Aaron Brooks at the point for about 10 to 15 minutes a game. Or does it? As you might have noticed, I listed five guys under expected bench contributors above yet none of them were Aaron Brooks. Houston could decide to go with no real point guard for the other minutes as they did in the playoffs last year. Basically, they move T-Mac to point guard and have Artest put on his scorer’s hat while Battier comes off the bench to play defense instead of Artest. It’s not really that crazy of an idea. They did it during the playoffs last year but it hurt them because they didn’t have Artest."

Recliner GM: "If you told me that this team would have no significant injuries and no problems with Ron Artest this upcoming season, I would absolutely, without a doubt, pick them to win the title. However, I don’t have enough confidence that that will happen. Their two best players have a long injury history, and their 3rd best player has a history of being legitimately crazy. But, you have to love their toughness, defense and depth, and if they enter the playoffs at full strength, no one will want to play them."

Rockets Imitate Deke:

Associated Wax: Little Feat, Feats Don't Fail Me Now

Michael Bay's Twitter Season Projection:

michael_bay: Pluto should still be a planet, and the Rockets will make the second round of the playoffs. Facts!
about 4 hours ago from web

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