I loved the Rockets last season. Despite having Tracy McGrady for less than half the season at less than half his former effectiveness, the team won 53 games on the strength of its elite defense and its very deep bench. You could count on them playing hard every night (okay, almost every night) and you knew opponents did not look forward to facing them.
Daryl Morey has constructed this team brilliantly – these guys gave the eventual champion Lakers a scare even after Yao Ming went down in the playoffs. Of course, they couldn’t topple the Lakers, but the fact that they brought the series to 7 games is an achievement not to be sneezed at. Going into the 2008-2009 season, nobody would have thought Aaron Brooks, Chuck Hayes, Carl Landry, Kyle Lowry, and Von Wafer were going to be big factors for a playoff team, but they were. This is why, when looking ahead to 2009-2010, I’m not going to sleep on new faces Jermaine Taylor, David Andersen, Chase Budinger, and Pops Mensah-Bonsu.
Taylor, a rookie out of the University of Central Florida, is meant to be a replacement for Von Wafer – somebody who can score in a hurry. The Rockets lack scoring punch, especially with the loss of Ron Artest, so here’s hoping the man who averaged 23.7 points per game in his senior year at UCF will live up to expectations.
Andersen, the league’s newest Aussie center, is meant to be a replacement for the injured Yao Ming. Even though there’s no way he can fill Yao’s enormous shoes, he will likely start for the Rockets. He’s 29 years old and is a veteran in the European basketball world, playing professionally since he was just 17. His game? Well, I’ve yet to see him play, but he supposedly has a very nice jump shot and should be a solid, if unspectacular NBA big man.
Budinger, another rookie, is a guy who you’ve probably seen at Arizona, where his stock dropped from being a sure-fire lottery pick to eventually being picked in the middle of the second round. You might have even seen him get his face stepped on. He’s an intriguing guy, because his athletic ability and his three-point touch suggest he has NBA tools at his disposal. My take: best-case J.R. Smith, but more likely Gerald Green. As with all things we discuss in the summer, time will tell on him.
Mensah-Bonsu, just recently signed because they needed to finalize the details regarding his insurance while playing for the British national team, is the most familiar of the bunch to me because he’s actually played in the NBA. I got a chance to see him up close last year as a member of the Toronto Raptors and have to say that Houston fans will likely fall in love with him the same way we did in Toronto. He doesn’t have much of an offensive game to speak of (although he claims to be working on his jump shot), but he contributes by being a rebounding machine and providing game-changing energy when he steps onto the court. He provides highlight plays, too, and we’ll miss him here in Toronto, but if he wants to have a consistent role on this power forward-heavy Rockets team he’s going to need to improve his offensive efficiency. The guy had a TS% of 42% with the Raptors last season, which is awful for a big man. Hell, he only made 75% of his DUNKS as a Raptor. It’s good that he can get to the free throw line, but as a fan of his I’m hoping his offensive numbers significantly improve next year.
Ariza was brought in at mid-level money in order to replace Ron Artest. In a vacuum, the swap makes a lot of sense – he is probably a better defender than Artest now and he’s only 24 years old. He also lacks Artest’s bad habits on the offensive end – where Artest is overconfident and shot-happy, Ariza is restrained and deferent to his teammates. In last year’s playoffs, Ariza even developed the three-point shot he had previously lacked. At an average salary, the Rockets got good value here. The problem is that Artest, even with his lack of efficiency, was valuable to the Rockets as a shot creator. When I look at the Rockets’ lineup, the only shot-creators I see besides the still injured McGrady are Aaron Brooks and maybe Jermaine Taylor on the perimeter and Luis Scola in the post. Ariza will no doubt be solid for Houston, but life might be a bit easier for them on the offensive end if they had a starting 3 who could get his own shot.
There lies the problem for Houston – they have a ton of good role players, including Ariza, but without T-Mac and Yao they lack a star who can score against good defense. They might still be an elite defensive team if David Andersen can do a decent enough job in the middle, and if McGrady comes back and plays effectively (or is traded for players who do), they might be a factor in the playoffs again. If not, though, you’ll likely see a tough group of guys who play entertaining basketball and take advantage of teams that underestimate them. That’s reason enough to pay attention to these guys next year, but it means we might have to wait another year until they’re really relevant again. My final word to Rockets fans: trust this franchise, but manage your expectations for 2009-2010.