Rockets Trade Rafer Alston: Hello Brooks and Lowry; Adios to Winning In May?

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IFebruary 20, 2009

Often misunderstood, berated and demonized, Rafer Alston now leaves the Houston Rockets in fitting fashion.

All the fans who have begged management to send him packing since he arrived may now appreciate what they had. The Rockets dealt Alston to the Orlando Magic for Kyle Lowry and Brian Cook in an unspectacular, last-minute, three-team deal.

The Orlando Sentinel's Magic beat reporter said on a blog just after 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday afternoon, "Magic unlikely to make a deadline deal."

Houston Chronicle basketball guru Fran Blinebury wrapped up his Rockets/NBA chat with an apology. "Sorry I didn't get to report on any blockbuster deals."

While swapping a career 36 percent shooter for a guy who could not get minutes on a dismal team with two 11-game losing streaks is certainly not a blockbuster, it was a surprise.

Let's get the obvious stuff about Alston out of the way. He is shooting 37 percent from the field, 34 percent from behind the arc, and 79 percent from the foul line. His average this year—11 to 12 points and 5.3 assists—is, well, average. Of the 14 other starting point guards in the Western Conference, 11 are probably better than Alston.

Still, with the McGrady circus seemingly over, the Rockets had a chance to make something of the season, and Alston had played well as of late. He dished 11 dimes in a 114-88 victory over the New Jersey Nets. He had 13 assists against the Kings last week.

Call him garbage 200 times, but it doesn't change reality. He was getting the job done. Ugly? Too often. Unreliable shooting? Of course. Face-in-your-hands airballed threes? Duh, he's Rafer.

All GM Daryl Morey wanted to do Thursday evening was gush over Lowry. The Rockets had finally scored the young point guard they had coveted for several years. Who could blame them for celebrating the occasion?

Also, who could doubt the Einstein general manager who brought the team Luis Scola, Carl Landry, Ron Artest, Aaron Brooks, and Brent Barry for zilch? Name one other general manager who has landed that many impact players without giving up a single player part of his team's future plans.

Bobby Jackson was a blase veteran good for a few big shots, Donta Greene was a defenseless project, Vasilis Spanoulis bickered and pouted his way back to Greece, and the cash used to buy the Landry pick? What savvy front office exec wouldn't fork up a few million to land someone like Landry in the second round?

Oh yeah, that Memphis guy. With half-hearted apologies to Chris Wallace and Michael Heisley, what Morey has done in his short time here deserves major kudos.

That is one reason to love this trade, even if Lowry averaged less than 10 minutes on a Grizzlies team that would have surprised no one had it won less than 10 games.

There is the old adage that if you can't get minutes on the crappiest of lottery teams, you must stink. Gerald Green should know the feeling. Trust me, few Mavs fans who still believe in the kid, he stinks.

Lowry deserves a chance to prove me wrong before I bust out the "s" word. Maybe in this stretch run with the Rockets, he will prove to everyone that he is not a scrub.

A quick scouting report of Lowry's ability makes him a better long-term choice than Alston.

He barrels his way to the paint, and subsequently to the foul line. If he fails to get the look he wants at the basket, he can kick it out to an open shooter. His drive-and-dish game is far superior to Alston's.

He also finishes most of his lay-ins. No one will miss Alston's underwhelming, and sometimes, depressing attempt at a teardrop. The perimeter shooting comparison is a wash. Lowry shoots a hideous 20-something percent from behind the arc.

Defensively, it's hard to pick the better player. Alston gets the edge because he has gone toe-to-toe with Deron Williams in a playoff game. Lowry is usually willing to sacrifice his body to draw a charge or cut off penetration. He also does a decent job of fighting through screens and executing closeouts. Still, the kid has yet to do any of that in a playoff series.

Despite being only 6'0" tall, Lowry's thick figure will make him less of a liability against the league's elite point guards.

The Rockets will need Lowry to be everything they think he is in a matter of weeks. Any team the Rockets meet in the postseason will boast a better point guard tandem. Chauncey Billups, Deron Williams, and Tony Parker will abuse Brooks. Steve Nash will not be afraid to attack him, and Derek Fisher will like his chances.

This trade is a head-scratcher because the Rockets have seen on many occasions this season that Brooks is not ready to run an offense for a playoff team as a starter. Against the Nets on Tuesday, he coughed up the ball three times, rarely ran an intelligent play and struggled to feed Yao. The limited burst of offense he provided was his saving grace.

For all that Alston did poorly, his assist-to-turnover ratio ranked top five to top ten in the league. He carried that statistic proudly.

When Yao needed touches, he knew how to get the big guy the ball. He had finally learned not to bounce pass the ball to 7'6" Yao against fronting defenses.

As Christian Bale might say, "Oh, good for you!"

Alston can run an offense with competence. He could be the starter on a championship team with the right superstars and support players.

He factored as much into the team's 22-game win streak last season as Luis Scola, Dikembe Mutombo, and Shane Battier. He dropped a career high 40 points, with a career-best eight three-pointers, to beat the Lakers 104-92, for that 22nd victory.

He returned from his injury absence in the first two games of the playoffs and played heroically. He helped the Rockets hand the Utah Jazz what was, at the time, only their fifth loss at Energy Solutions Arena.

Now, as Alston heads to Orlando, where he will boost the Jameer Nelson-less Magic, fans will realize that Alston did all of the above, knowing most of the people in the stands wanted him gone.

Charley Rosen wrote in his deadline deal column Thursday that Alston "thinks too highly of himself." For once, he's wrong.

Management tried to banish Alston the minute he skipped to Houston. He would not go away.

In 2007, Morey signed Steve Francis, Mike James, drafted Brooks, and had Luther Head. The thinking before training camp as to who would nail down the starting point guard gig? Anybody but Rafer.

Then, Alston showed up and kicked his four position competitors in the gluteus maximus with the kind of training camp exhibition that convinced new hire Rick Adelman to give him the keys to a retooled offense.

New Orleans and Washington have since joined Houston on the list of teams surprised to learn that James refuses to pass. He is a no-trick pony.

Francis achieved a brief comeback, in which he drilled a clutch layup in a road win over the Phoenix Suns, and showed some promise. The real Stevie showed up for the rest of the season. He pouted, moaned and un-practiced his way to bench last year and eventually to Memphis in late December. He's been a fine starting point guard for the Grizzlies!

What's that? He's not playing? Memphis waived him, too? Nevermind.

Say what you will about Alston, just do not call him an egomaniac. He had to play every night knowing that most anyone watching him thought he sucked.

I remember watching a pre-recorded halftime segment during a game, in which Alston interviewed fans at a Mariah Carrey concert. Among the questions he asked was, "Who is the worst player on the Rockets?"

Every attendee interviewed said Alston. Two people said "Ray," not Rafer, Alston. So, people butchered his name and didn't even realize they were talking to him? Ouch.

Alston had to appear confident so that he could prove what no one thought possible. When no one believed in him, he had to believe in himself.

That is not overconfidence. In the NBA, I would call that survival skills.

Maybe that is why I liked Alston a lot. His shooting was often woeful and in some key contests, he looked like the opposite of clutch.

He almost singlehandedly blew a home game against the league-leading Lakers with two missed free throws that would have tied the score. He also missed a point-blank teardrop.

Oh, there were tears all right.

If his inconsistent play was maddening, his attitude was inspiring. He started for the Rockets longer than any point guard had since Steve Francis or the Hakeem Olajuwon era.

Every year, the team hustled and broke its back trying to get rid of its supposed weakest link. Every year, Alston shut everyone up in training camp and nabbed the starting role.

Now, fans will realize the point guard they loathed so much was a convenient scapegoat. He deserved the criticism on many nights, but on others, he did just enough to win the battle against a superstar with loads more talent.

It is difficult to grade this deal. I do not see Brooks as a full-time starter. Ever.

He is a nice change of pace player who can fly to the rim and provide instant offense as a reserve. I doubt he will have the intelligence needed to win the Rockets a playoff round as a 35 minutes per game starter.

With Alston, the Rockets at least had a great shot to do what they had not done since 1997. A token second round appearance would be much better than another first-round flameout.

Lowry is an unproven commodity, who yes, his former college coach once called "one of the smartest players he had ever seen." At 22, he has the upside Alston does not.

Still, does a Lowry/Brooks combo scare anybody in the West? Have the Rockets just given away their chance at modest postseason success?

I would call winning a playoff round modest success. Brooks and Lowry will have to win over many who believe they are not good enough. How should they do it?

They could learn from Rafer Alston. It would be an unspectacular but adequate start.


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