Season preview: Houston Rockets
On paper, the Rockets are good enough to contend for the NBA championship
Two big concerns: health and whether Ron Artest will be a positive force
The point guard position, led by Rafer Alston, is the Rockets' weak link
SI.com will analyze each of the NBA's 30 teams as regular-season tip-off approaches. For a complete list of team-by-team breakdowns, click here. The information in the "Go figure" category below is provided by Roland Beech of 82games.com.
Rockets at a glance
Last season: 55-27; lost in first round of playoffs to Jazz
Notable additions: Ron Artest (trade with Kings), Brent Barry (FA), Joey Dorsey (R)
Notable losses: Bobby Jackson (trade with Kings), Steve Novak (trade with Clippers)
Coach: Rick Adelman (55-27 in one season with Rockets; 807-508 overall in 17 NBA seasons)
Reasons for hope
1. Yao gets it. Yao Ming emerged as the Rockets' leader in deed and words over the last year. On the floor, he again proved a one-stop shop of statistical delights: 22.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 50.7 percent shooting in a career-high 37.2 minutes per game last season. Off the floor, he played team policeman, dropping a not-so-subtle hint to Artest through the media this summer that his past antics wouldn't be welcome, and adding that he was concerned "about the new attitude to the team." Yao's willingness to stand for the team has been slow to develop -- in large part because he hasn't played more than 57 games in any of the last three seasons -- but it comes at an opportune time, with Tracy McGrady looking like a nightly question mark (at least early in the season while he works back from offseason knee and shoulder surgeries) and Artest looming as a nightly who-knows-what.
2. Dr. Jekyll. Artest is one of the game's most "idiosyncratic" personalities, to put it nicely. He also is uniquely talented. In addition to his well-known ball-hawking defensive skills, Artest is a gifted offensive player who can take the ball to the basket and shoot respectably from long range. And though reports of his selfishness abounded from his time in Sacramento, Artest can be a willing passer when the feeling suits him. As a leading man, Artest is an accident waiting to happen. As a clear second or third option, like he'll be in Houston, he's a generous insurance policy for McGrady.
3. A strong defense should be even better. Four of the six top-ranked teams in field-goal-percentage defense last season reached the conference finals. The two to miss? Dallas and Houston. The Rockets didn't have quite enough offense to get past the Jazz in the first round. But they had enough defense to push a healthier opponent to a full seven games, on the heels of relying on that defense to win 55 regular-season games (including a stretch of 22 in a row) despite the frequent absences of Yao and McGrady. Adding Artest, a former Defensive Player of the Year, certainly won't hurt those efforts this season, nor would a healthy Yao for a full 82.
Reasons for concern
1. Health issues. The Rockets ran off 10 victories in their 22-game streak without Yao, and they were within one good quarter of toppling the Jazz in the first round despite a hobbled McGrady, an absent Yao and an ailing Rafer Alston. So it's not a stretch to think that the only thing stopping Houston from a deep playoff run is good health. But that's all but asking the impossible for a team that lost a total of 127 games last season to injuries, including 43 combined between Yao and McGrady. In fact, the Rockets' two stars played only 40 games together last season.
The Rockets didn't even wait for the first preseason game to open their annual M*A*S*H unit. McGrady started training camp hampered by an arthritic shoulder and a balky knee, and Shane Battier was expected to miss most of the exhibition season with inflammation in his left foot. At least Yao arrived in Houston claiming to be 100 percent.
2. Mr. Hyde. The Rockets are taking a risk with Artest, who in previous stops has clashed with teammates, disrupted offenses with poor shot selection and been impossible to count on consistently. In theory, playing for Adelman, with whom he had a good rapport during their half season together in Sacramento, should help ease concerns, as should playing on a winner. But, as Yao suggested in his initial response to the Artest trade, the mercurial forward will have to prove that he's with the program in Houston.
3. Inconsistency at point guard. Alston was instrumental during the long winning streak last season (he averaged 15.7 points and 6.6 assists in those 22 games) and even won some votes for the Most Improved Player award. But he still shot below 40 percent from the field for the third consecutive season and remains limited as a playmaker. And behind Alston, the Rockets' options are Steve Francis (recovering from knee surgery) and combo guards Aaron Brooks, Luther Head and Barry.
Keep an eye on ...
Luis Scola. After a slow start as a rookie last season, the Argentine forward's production improved each month from December through April. His post-All-Star-break numbers (13.6 points and 8.4 rebounds in 30 games) could become the norm as he continues to get more comfortable with the Rockets.
Scola (42) and Battier (39) ranked eighth and 11th, respectively, in offensive fouls taken last season. Scola cracked the top 10 despite averaging only 24.7 minutes a game.
With good health, the Rockets can reach the NBA Finals. With their usual assortment of ailments, they might not reach the playoffs in what promises to be another tightly packed Western Conference playoff race. On paper, adding Artest not only will expand the Rockets' offensive options but also soften the blow if McGrady's and Battier's injuries linger through the regular season. But Yao is the biggest key, because injuries are the only limiting factor on his game.
Sports Illustrated's NBA preview issue will be on newsstands Wednesday, Oct. 22.