In 2007 in an interview with Stephen A. Smith, Rockets Guard Tracy McGrady claimed it was "his team, and how far we go is ridin' on my shoulders," most famously finishing off his comments proclaiming "It's on me!" Those words couldn't be any more accurate coming into a Rockets season filled with low expectations. It will be McGrady's team, and how well he plays will determine the Rockets success, or lack thereof.
The problem is McGrady himself is recovering from micro-fracture knee surgery, and while his rehabilitation is a definite cause of optimism having lost a considerable amount of weight while being in the best shape he's been in a long time, the Rockets former all-star is still expected to miss the beginning month of the season.
It seems to be gloom and doom for the Rockets, as every so-called analyst acknowledges the grit and fire the Rockets play with, but just not having enough talent to legitimately win 40+ games this season. Depending on the status of McGrady, their about to be wrong again - for the third straight year.
I'm under the belief that the Rockets are downplaying McGrady's rehab, meaning I wouldn't be surprised at all if he weren't back with the set date of November 23rd.
But enough of McGrady, the Rockets still have the pieces to make it a battle for every team. It starts with Luis Scola and Aaron Brooks. With the absence of T-Mac in the lineup last year, and Yao in the playoffs, the higher level they both took their individual games.
Scola will do what he does best. Last season he averaged nearly 14/10 in the second half of the season, and accomplished that with great efficiency. Expect the efficiency to drop a little, but the scoring to rise, as without Yao in the middle, Scola will become the primary focal point on the inside. He'll bang, use his assortment of moves, and get open off the pick and rolls to find his points.
Brooks is a small diminutive guard that's a defensive liability. While all of that is hard to argue, one thing that's obvious is, Brooks is a natural born scorer. He's one of the quickest players in the league, a deceptively good finisher around the basket, and a improving three-point shooter capable of going off from the perimeter. As we saw in the Laker series, his ability to create, and stop on the dime for the mid-range shot is improving as well. With a lack of other options, and McGrady likely to miss some time, Brooks will be the Rockets main scoring threat.
Trevor Ariza has struggled in preseason thus far, his inability to create his own shot has shown, but what he does provide, is an athletic finisher on the break, a solid three-point shooter, and excellent defender. On the flip side, Battier provides similar qualities, more prolific three-point shooting, high IQ, and an overall feel for the game that doesn't show up in the stat sheets.
The main storyline to watch for might be Carl Landry. With David Anderson still adjusting to NBA rules (he's shown nice progress each game), Joey Dorsey looking more like he'll not make the roster, and no other viable options, Landry is expected to see a jump both in his playing time, and touches.
The Rockets will likely employ a big man rotation of Hayes, Scola, Anderson, and Landry, with Scola/Landry getting the bulk of the minutes. Let's look at Landry's production these past two seasons more closely.
In 21 minutes, Landry put up nearly nine points, five boards and 57 percent from the floor. Adjust that to a per 36 minute stat, Landry averaged over 15 points, and eight rebounds while getting to the line nearly five times per game. He's shown improvement in his game from his rookie season, going from a mid 60 percent shooter from the line to well over 80 percent. Don't forget that his stats were subpar immediately after he came back from the shooting.
With increased minutes, Landry will and should thrive.
Another thing to watch for is Rick Adelman. No, not actually watch what he's doing on the court, but this is the first year the Rockets plan to employ the Princeton Offense. Actually, retract that, in his first year with Houston, he tried to employ his brand of offense by placing Yao in the high post. After quickly realizing that it wouldn't work, he had to abandon his philosophy and adjust to the team he's had.
The Rockets have openly said they're going to run, even McGrady being an advocate of that style of play - something his game with Houston has suggested against.
With the youth of the Rockets, added athleticism and shooting with the likes of Budinger, and Ariza, the Rockets are ready to run and run to the finish line. The crisp passing from the big men, the shooting from the perimeter, and ever so underrated defense those Kings teams had, the Rockets will try to match.
It won't happen with that great deal of success, as the Rockets just don't have enough talent to match up with those Kings teams, arguably the best team of this deacde to win the championship, but a very poor mans version that could give glimpses of those teams for stretches.
That itself is a headline, watching the Rockets to see what type of offense, and gameplan they'll use to attack their opponents.
Off the bench, Lowry will provide a nice compliment to Brooks at the point guard position with his defense and play-making abilities. Budinger seems to be working himself with his shooting touch, and ability to come off screens and get open.
With Brooks at the PG position, a player that can take advantage of his main attributes, namely scoring. With Battier and Ariza on the wings playing defense, locking down the opponents best scorers and knocking down threes, Scola, Anderson, and Landry doing their best to replicate Yao's offense, and Hayes doing the dirty work, the Rockets have all the surrounding pieces to make a run.
Now they need that star, and that's why we come back to Tracy McGrady.
Some say he's done, and far past his stardom. Others are more optimists and believe he can return to that level he was at in 04-05 where he was arguably the best wing player in the league. Both might be extremes, judging by recent pictures and videos of McGrady, signs are encouraging, he's in great shape, and motivated to prove those wrong he still has it in the tank.
Not to mention being in a contract season can light a fire under your butt.
He's lost too much athleticism to become that First Team NBA All-Star player that he was, but it wouldn't be too far fetched to assume he could regain that 06-07 form in which he was on the All-NBA Second Team and in the top 10 of MVP Voting.
Keep in mind last season when he got shots before the game, or had extended time of rest McGrady had multiple 20 point games, a week in which he averaged over 26 points per game against the NBA's elite, a week where he averaged nearly a triple double including a 20/14/10 game, and other games which showed "flashes" of the T-Mac we're accustomed to. Other than those select games, McGrady was hobbling on the court, and at times had trouble getting up the floor.
The Rockets will play hard, with or without McGrady. They will compete both defensively, offensively, and show that no matter who's in the lineup, that grit and fire to prove those wrong will never die.
Shaq in Cleveland, Carter in Orlando, Artest in Los Angeles, and Rasheed in Boston. Those are all the main headlines coming into the ever fast approaching season, but let's not forget about the Rockets, and McGrady's potential return.
I intended not to write much about McGrady, as there are many other story lines to watch for: Landry's time to shine, Scola's play as the main big man, Aldridge type numbers, or role player for life? Brooks development into either a legit starter, or a guy better suited towards bringing a spark off the bench. The rookies reacting to a situation in which they could potentially find playing time faster than they expected, and David Anderson's adjustment to the NBA game. The implement of Rick Adelman's offense, the storylines don't stop.
But it's too hard to ignore, the Rockets may be everyone's team that will miss the playoffs that made it last season, but the pieces are there for the Rockets to make a playoff run. There are just those things you can't measure when talking about wins. Talent is needed, and the Rockets have it, all they're missing is a star to put everyone back in their place.
And the Rockets might have that star, it's just a matter of wait and see. T-Mac will be back, and the Rockets will be a legitimate threat to make the playoffs. Houston we have a problem? I think not. Who will be the team to suffer at the Rockets expense, well that's their problem.