Clutch lists his 10 reasons the Houston Rockets go into 2010-11 in better shape
THURSDAY, APRIL 22, 2010 8:16 AM CST
Copyright 2010 ClutchFans.net
Shocked, depressed and, frankly, angry.
That was how Rockets faithful felt when word hit the street of how devastating Yao Ming's foot injury was. It was the realization that the season, in any playoff-contending way, was over before it began. The Christmas morning-like suspense of the offseason also evaporated, giving fans perfect knowledge that Ron Artest would not be back.
It all seemed more than a bit doom and gloom in Clutch City.
However, Houston fans aren't idiots.
Once they walked out of the July ashes and realized certain things couldn't be controlled, they saw opportunity and potential in this Rockets season that could set up a possibly great 2010-11 season.
Taking that view, this year went better than I could have possibly imagined. Here are my reasons for the season -- the top 10 ways the Houston Rockets were a smash success in 2009-10.
Yao: On Schedule
"Houston, I'm come," said Yao on Draft Day 2002. The words seem fitting once again.
We've gotten this far with no knees displaced, ligaments torn or new bones fractured.
That may seem basic, but when you're dealing with last summer's whispers that this injury and surgery could force Yao to retire, you are grateful for the news of no news. Yao took the boot off for shooting exercises in late January. Now, he has ditched the protective boot altogether and is running on a specialized treadmill at about 70% of his body weight.
He's not expected to return to playing on a basketball court for another 3 months, but he's right on schedule.
All hopes of contending are still pinned on Yao's health, but the Rockets are going to bring him back slowly -- very slowly. So far, so good.
9 The Llull Tide Sergio Llull may be upping the timeline.
The 6-foot-3 point guard, taken by the Rockets with the 34th pick (acquired from Denver for cash) in last year's draft, has been making great strides playing overseas.
"We are very pleased with Sergio's development," said Rockets Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Sam Hinkie. "His performance in the European Championships last summer proved to be a chance to display his game on a big stage. His contributions for a premiere club like Real Madrid during the season were a welcome surprise to many."
Llull has become a critical piece of Real Madrid's roster, playing a Kyle Lowry-type role as the first guard off the bench. He averaged 9.5 points and hit nearly 42% from downtown in 18 games of EuroLeague action -- and he has hit some big baskets. Against Montepaschi Siena, Llull hit a triple at the buzzer to advance Real Madrid to the quarterfinals (Video of Llull's shot from stands).
"A 22-year old playing a significant role in both ACB and EuroLeague games is a good signal for any prospect," added Hinkie.
Llull is not your Ricky Rubio style point guard -- he's much more of a combo guard. However, he plays with a heady, under-control style, likes to pass and doesn't turn the ball over. His speed and defense right now are probably NBA-ready and his spot-up shooting is right there as well.
However, Llull is under contract with Real Madrid for another season and don't expect him to join the Rockets in summer league this offseason -- he will be preparing with the national team for the FIBA World Championships this August. His stock is rising regardless.
8 The Rockets Get a Minor League Affiliate
While a few teams, like the Lakers, Spurs and Thunder, own NBDL teams outright and control every facet of the club, most NBA teams share a D-League affiliate with other NBA squads, causing conflicts over who gets playing time and creating reluctance to send down players at all. The Springfield Armor, for example, are shared by the Knicks, Nets and Sixers.
Almost 10 months ago, the Rockets entered into a unique partnership -- the first of its kind in the NBA -- with an NBDL team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The Rockets took over control of all aspects of the basketball operations side of the Vipers, leaving the business operations to be handled by local ownership.
As a result, the Rockets were able to run a true minor league affiliate. They installed their own coach, mirrored the offensive sets of the Rick Adelman major leaguers and were able to give playing time to the young players they wanted to groom.
It was a huge success -- so much so that Matt Moore of NBA Fanhouse called this year's Vipers season the best ever in the NBDL, in large part due to the partnership with the Rockets.
The move upgraded the Rockets' capacity to develop talent and will almost assuredly be copied by several NBA teams moving forward.
7 Ariza Found His Way
It was pretty dicey there for a while.
Trevor Ariza, starting the season out at the two-guard next to Shane Battier, was brutal in a lead role and by about game 30, many Rockets fans watching the disaster probably wanted to drive off a cliff, preferably with him riding shotgun. Through the first 50 games, Ariza was taking a high volume of shots at a hair over 38% from the floor and just 31.8% from long range. To add to the madness, he was hoisting 6 treys a night.
Bringing in Kevin Martin from Sacramento allowed Ariza to slide to the three spot, and the improvement was immediate. In his final 21 games, Ariza took 4 fewer shots per game and was a more efficient player, averaging 13.1 points, 5.9 boards and 4.4 assists while shooting 43% from the field and 38.1% from long range. You saw less of Ariza going one-on-one and trying to make things happen off the dribble, which is where his weakness lies.
The Rockets gave the lead role opportunity to Ariza and it sputtered, but Rockets general manager Daryl Morey had said all along that they already knew that Ariza, at his contract cost, would be a valuable role player next to stars (in this case, Yao). He had proven that much already in Los Angeles.
If this year's final stretch is any indicator, that analysis will be spot on.
6 Let's Play the Lottery
The one thing I was actually disappointed in from the Rockets: They weren't disappointing enough.
As the best team that didn't make the playoffs, the Rockets fell into the 14th spot in the lottery. The overwhelming odds are that they will pick 14th in the draft, though they have a very slim shot of winning a top 3 pick.
This draft is looking good. With a potential NBA lockout looming in 2011, a lot of college prospects are throwing their names into this draft pool. At #14, probably 10 spots higher than they would have been without injuries, the Rockets have the chance to get their hands on a player that they otherwise wouldn't have been able to acquire.
My gut says the Rockets will trade this pick, but stash or dash, this piece of draft real estate is an asset that will help the Rockets next season.
5 Second Round Gem
Budinger could be a good fit for the Rockets in both uptempo and slowdown sets
It's hard to believe that not only did so many teams pass on drafting Chase Budinger, but so did the Rockets.
The Rockets made a draft day deal with the Pistons to get Chase Budinger, taken at #44, and there was no delay -- from the first practice on, the Rockets felt they had a rotation-worthy player. As a rookie, the 6-foot-7 wing scored 8.9 points on 44.1% from the floor and 36.9% from downtown -- impressive numbers. But he seemed to get better as the season wore on and in his final 12 games he was really getting comfortable: 13.3 points on 50.8% shooting and over 43% from distance.
The Rockets wanted Rudy Fernandez in the 2007 NBA Draft -- they may have gotten him at a fraction of the price two years later. The Rockets hope to marry their old style (halfcourt offense) with their new one (run and gun) in 2010-11, and Budinger's combination of speed/sick hops to go with accuracy from distance makes him the perfect hybrid. It's for that reason my guess is that, despite his booming trade value, he's the one Rocket not named Yao Ming that is least likely to be traded.
4 Brooks Flirting with Stardom
Many of the players that get touted for the "Most Improved Player" Award are usually ones who see increased minutes and opportunity. More minutes, more numbers. Aaron Brooks definitely saw his minutes go up this year (25.0 to 35.6), but if you inspect a little closer, you'll see why he's going to be the winner of the award.
His improvement wasn't just a product of boosted playing time.
His long range accuracy increased (36.6% to 39.8%). His shooting percentage inside the arc improved (42.8% to 45.4%). His scoring nearly doubled (11.2 to 19.6).
Brooks is growing up before our eyes and you can see the confidence in him has risen. Aaron is not your ideal point guard, averaging a paltry 5.3 assists on a team that became all about offense, but his explosive quickness and speed combined with his scoring ability (and now increased efficiency) have him on the cusp of stardom in this league.
The day after the Rockets trade with the Knicks, the New York Post proclaimed Jordan Hill to be a "bust". Some of the phrases used to describe him -- "out of shape", "poor hands", "low basketball IQ" and "reputation as a partier".
Let's just say Hill crashed the party alright.
Take a fresh start and sprinkle in a little playing time, and Hill posted numbers of 6.4 points and 5 boards in just over 16 minutes of action. His rebounding rate is already there with the big boys and he showed a nice turnaround hook around the basket that could become a go-to move.
Jordan has some work to do -- he needs to add some muscle and bulk up his offensive game as well, but with his 6-foot-10 frame and activity level, there is gold in them thar Hill. The Rockets acquired a lottery pick on the cheap and in just 2 months of action in Houston, his value has spiked up. Think about it: If your goal was to create a drug that was undeniably addictive to NBA executives, there would be 5 must-add ingredients: Size, Speed, Athleticism, Youth and Low Cost.
Hill has all five and, unlike the Knicks, the Rockets put that on display.
2 Position Hole Filled Tracy McGrady cemented the shooting guard position for the Rockets for years, but his decline, for whatever reason you choose to believe, happened rapidly. From the tail end of the Rockets' 22-game winning streak in 2008 up to when he was jettisoned to the Big Apple, T-Mac shot 38% from the floor and under 30% from three. The past two seasons the Rockets have almost exclusively started forwards at both the two and three.
Let's face it -- this team's glaring need was a true two.
They got that this season.
The blockbuster Rockets trade at the deadline reeled in Kevin Martin and the Rockets go into 2010-11 with far fewer questions here. Martin did not shoot the three-ball very well in his half-season with Houston (just 31%), but he scored over 21 points a game on 43.5% shooting and got to the line almost 8 times per contest. Defensively he is challenged, but offensively he's a dream fit around Yao Ming -- terrific shooting, solid passing, quick decision-making and an uncanny ability to draw fouls.
The trade also meant that in the span of a year, the Rockets went from a starting point guard, shooting guard and small forward with an average age of 31 years old to a younger, sleeker starting perimeter trio with an average age of 25.
He's not the perfect puzzle piece, but Al Jefferson could find himself in an eerily similar situation to Kevin Martin
Rockets brass, led by Morey, has shown an ability to turn nothing into something.
They drafted a diminutive point guard late in the first round, at a time when they were begging for size, and watched Aaron Brooks' value soar to the point where you wouldn't consider trading him for Glen Davis, Josh McRoberts and Tiago Splitter combined. They swapped three NBA corpses for a combined haul of Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, Jordan Hill and potentially lucrative draft pick considerations. They planted cash seeds in NBA Draft soil and out bloomed Chase Budinger and Carl Landry, who was flipped for a Top 10 NBA scorer in the prime of his career in Kevin Martin.
Now you're telling me that same management team actually has real trade assets? None of these pieces were available to Houston last season: Jordan Hill, a lottery pick, the rights to flip first round picks with the Knicks in 2011, a 2012 Knicks first round pick, Chase Budinger, the expiring contract of Jared Jeffries and Sergio Llull.
Add Shane Battier (expiring contract and desired by contending teams) and Aaron Brooks (rising star at a bargain price for one more year) to a considerations list and look out -- it's not a matter of "if" the Rockets acquire a bigger name star but "when".
The "who" is another story altogether. Free agent Chris Bosh and potential free agent Amar'e Stoudemire will get the most attention, but the Rockets are actually better positioned to acquire a player already under contract to a team looking to get out from underneath the financial burden, as they did with Martin. While not the ideal fit in Houston, Timberwolves power forward Al Jefferson could find himself in that exact position. It's a stretch right now, but depending on the direction Boston heads after these playoffs, the declining Kevin Garnett may as well.
Whoever they target, you can just about guarantee the Rockets will make a big trade before the February 2011 deadline. My money is on this offseason -- the Rockets must get out of the gate strong in a Conference that required 50 wins to make the playoffs this season and they need help on the interior more early in the season than later, when one would presume Yao has returned to full strength.
They'll make that move because they now have the pieces to do it, and the biggest success story of the year is how beautifully they set themselves up for it.