T-Mac holds key to Rockets' liftoff
Injuries to Tracy McGrady and others have kept Houston from building continuity
McGrady's physical issues have been frustrating for him -- and his teammates
More topics: Michael Redd's big setback; struggling first-year coaches
Ask a handful of NBA scouts about Houston's Tracy McGrady and you will still hear phrases like "more skilled than Kobe" and "as smooth a shot as Ray Allen." But you will also hear the same old qualifiers -- questions about McGrady's heart and effort level.
Privately, some of his teammates have expressed frustration that McGrady hasn't been able to stay on the floor. He played 47, 71 and 66 games the previous three seasons. And after having surgery last May to clear loose tissue from his left shoulder and left knee, McGrady already has missed 16 games this season. No question, his injuries are legitimate: His 6-foot-8, 230-pound body is a mess. It's just that some teammates wonder if he should be trying harder to fight through it.
It's frustrating for McGrady. After reinjuring his knee in November, a despondent T-Mac talked about being back at "square one," and he has openly pined for the day he can be pain-free again. It's frustrating for his teammates, too. With a healthy Yao Ming and the addition of Ron Artest to round out a new Big Three, the Rockets entered 2008-09 with lofty expectations after four first-round playoff exits and one 34-48 season in the last five years.
But it's been a challenging season so far. Artest has been almost as banged up as McGrady; both players returned from extended absences in last Sunday's victory at Detroit. The usually reliable Shane Battier has been sidelined for 22 games. The injuries have led to 15 starting lineups in 46 games and kept the Rockets from building chemistry, though they still have managed to stay in contention for a top-four seed in the Western Conference.
How much time do the Rockets need to jell to contend for conference supremacy? Coach Rick Adelman said there is not a specific date when McGrady, Yao and Artest have to be on the floor together for a consistent stretch of games. But March 1 is probably it. That would give Houston a month and a half to come together before the playoffs and give general manager Daryl Morey a chance to see if Artest (who will be a free agent at the end of the season) can coexist with Yao and McGrady in the long term.
The stretch run will also be a chance for Houston to evaluate McGrady. There are rumblings around the league that McGrady is already available; another playoff disappointment for the Rockets would certainly put the seven-time All-Star (who is owed $23.3 million next season in the final year of his contract) squarely on the trading block. Morey is not the type of GM who would have a second thought about pulling the trigger on a deal for his once-franchise player if he thought a McGrady-led Rockets team was maxed out.
Is it? Point guard Rafer Alston calls Houston's potential the "million-dollar question." But the answer is inextricably linked to McGrady. If he can stay healthy, play unselfishly and dominate the fourth quarter like few players can, the Rockets have the makings of a deep championship contender.
If he can't, the Rockets will fail. And McGrady will probably be wearing a different uniform next season.
Bucks face uphill climb without Redd
Michael Redd, 29, has been a picture of health for years. No surgeries. No serious injuries. But that all changed Saturday night, when Redd hobbled off the floor in the third quarter of the Bucks' game against Sacramento. Tests revealed Redd had suffered a torn left ACL and MCL and would be lost for the remainder of the season.
"I knew it as soon as it happened," Redd said in a telephone interview. "As I walked off, it didn't feel right."
The good news: As serious as Redd's injury was, it probably could have been worse. Doctors have told Redd that they expect him to make a complete recovery within six months, more than enough time for the shooting guard to be ready for the start of next season. Redd talked about spending his time off reshaping his body -- "Look for my body to be totally different next year," he vowed -- and said he got a boost from a phone call from Dwyane Wade, who has battled knee injuries in the past.
"He told me to take my time, not rush it and I will come back stronger," Redd said. "Seeing how he has played this season after battling stuff like this, that means a lot."
The bad news: Milwaukee's playoff run could be over. Redd was the team's leading scorer (21.2 points), and the Bucks won't get anywhere near that kind of production from backups Ramon Sessions and Charlie Bell. It's a huge disappointment for a team that survived a brutal two-month stretch at the start of the season to grab a tenuous hold on the eighth playoff spot in the East.
"I think we can still do it," Redd said. RJ [Richard Jefferson] is a great scorer. Charlie [Villanueva] is a scorer. Andrew Bogut is back. And I'm going to be around to encourage them and hold everyone accountable. I'm going to be like a coach."
I think the Cavs are scared to make a big splash to avoid disturbing chemistry, but a more subtle move could do the trick. A guy like Jason Kapono could be a perfect addition to come off the bench to provide a deadly outside threat and more production than Sasha Pavlovic. As a Raptors fan I like Kapono, but for whatever reason his talents seem wasted on this team.
You're right, the Cavs are nervous about any deal disrupting their carefully cultivated chemistry. I'm not sure Kapono is the answer. I don't think he is that much of an upgrade over Wally Szczerbiak or Pavlovic. Szczerbiak is a lot like Kapono: spot-up shooter who doesn't do much of anything else.
Cleveland doesn't have many holes, but bringing in a backup big man like Joe Smith would provide valuable insurance in case Zydrunas Ilgauskas suffers another injury. I still expect the Thunder to waive Smith before March 1.
Given the quick trigger on coaches lately, what do you think about the future of Detroit's Michael Curry, Chicago's Vinny Del Negro and Phoenix's Terry Porter -- three coaches who were hired last offseason?
My feeling is you can't evaluate a coach without at least two years on the job. That said, I'm starting to seriously wonder if Curry, Del Negro and Porter will survive until next season. Curry is the most likely to stay because he has a strong general manager in Joe Dumars, who understands there will be bumps in the road for a team essentially trying to reinvent itself. Del Negro, who wasn't Chicago's first choice, appears to have lost his players, and Porter's system has not endeared him to Steve Nash or Amaré Stoudemire. So I don't think coach-hunting season is over yet.
Come on, Chris, stop throwing Chris Bosh's name out there in a meek effort to get the Raptors' faithful upset enough to start e-mailing you like crazy about Bosh's possibly leaving. And yes, I realize the irony in this e-mail.
Hey, at least I'm not Jalen Rose, who announced on ESPN early this season that both Bosh and LeBron James would definitely be in New York in 2010. Look, I don't think New York City impresses Bosh the way it does LeBron. I think if Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo can put the kind of team together that will make Bosh feel comfortable in the direction of the franchise for the next six or seven years, he will re-sign. But if Colangelo doesn't, Bosh is gone. It's as simple as that.