Houston Rockets: The NBA's Biggest Surprise
Take the top three scorers away from any team today and that team tumbles, right? Imagine the Lakers without Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Cavaliers without LeBron James, Mo Williams and Shaquille O'Neal.
Welcome to the lottery, Lakers and Cavs. We saved a seat for you next to the Clippers.
What happens to the Houston Rockets when you remove Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, and Ron Artest? They win. How is this possible?
Former Rocket coach Rudy Tomjanovich will forever be remembered for uttering the phrase "Never underestimate the heart of a champion." It was true back when the Rockets were winning back-to-back NBA Championships and the spirit of that statement is alive in today's version of the Rockets.
This team may not win a championship, but they play every game as if its game 7 of the Finals.
How is it possible that a team that loses its top three scorers can be this good? It's not smoke and mirrors. When you look close, it comes down to five things.
In a team full of blue-collar workers Landry's collar is by far the most blue. This cat was shot in the leg and missed only eight games. Are you kidding me? Generally, being shot in the leg is a one-way ticket to a nice long vacation. Not when you have Landry's work ethic.
He takes a charge against Dirk Nowitzki and ends up giving away five of his teeth. Two literally being embedded in Nowitzki's elbow. He undergoes six hours of dental surgery and missed one game.
Forget the value he brings on the court by way of scoring and rebounding (A very respectable 16 and 5.6), Carl Landry's real worth to this club is in how he sets the tone. The Rockets are a fierce group of tough guys, none tougher than Landry.
It must be easy in a league full of teams that fires coaches with as much regularity as I change socks to panic when you are handed a team minus your top scorers. Adelman didn't panic. He took the team he was given, provided them with a plan to succeed and then got out of their way.
It's hard to find fault in 10 championships but when you look at the Bulls and Lakers you see the same team running the same offense with different players. When you hire Phil Jackson you get a coach with a system. When you hire Rick Adelman you get a coach who will adjust to the pieces you give him.
His Sacramento teams had arguably the best passing big men in the history of the game in Vlade Divac and Chris Webber. Adelman coached to that strength. In Houston he has a gritty group of competitors that will dive for every loose ball. He coaches to that strength. The coach of the year award is his to lose.
His numbers (18.6 pts, 5.1 assists) are good but not sensational. He is a shoot first, pass second point guard. He is 6-feet tall like I'm 7-foot-3 (I'm not). He isn't flashy, but he is scary.
He fits the Rocket mold perfectly.
No one really appreciated Chauncey Billups all that much outside of Detroit until he led the Pistons to a championship. Brooks is the player on this team who will take, and often make, the key shot. Sure he looks to shoot first but he knows when to dish and is learning how to control a game.
Is he a superstar in the making? Possible but that might be a stretch. Is he the type of player who will develop into a closer in this league; the type of player you don't want to see take the last shot if you are the opposing team holding on to a one point lead? I think he is already there.
The first time I ever heard the phrase "supporting cast" was when Michael Jordan used it while referring to his teammates prior to a matchup against the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. The LA reporters had a field day with MJ. "Michael talks down teammates" and "MJ and his supporting puppets" where the headlines of the day.
Today, it's understood that players like Bryant, James, Dwyane Wade and others like them need support. A 30-point a game stud is nothing without some 15 ppg and 18 ppg support.
But what if you don't have a 30 ppg stud? Then the 15 ppg and 18 ppg players support not the star, but each other. The Rockets supporting staff is solid.
Trevor Ariza's shooting is down from last year but he leads the team in minutes per game and his 15.9 a night don't hurt. Luis Scola hasn't missed a game and is dropping 15 every game. Chuck Hayes' collar is just a few shades lighter that Landry's. Like Scola, he hasn't missed a game and drops 5 ppg to boot.
Chase Budinger is the shooter this team needs to spread the floor and Shane Battier is a defensive stud. Battier hasn't missed a game either.
The Intangible Heart of a Champion
When the Rockets came to town to play the Lakers recently, Stu Lantz, analyst for the LA team, commented that the Lakers may have better talent but they will not out-hustle the Rockets. Every loose ball will be challenged, every rebound will be fought for. In short, the Lakers were in for a battle against the Rockets, Lantz warned.
The Rockets have an aura about them, a confidence, a swagger. The score doesn't seem to matter; whether they are up by 20, down by 20 or in a close game, this team will battle. When you play this team you cannot take a breath, you have to keep the pressure on. Otherwise, this team will beat you.
Every franchise in the NBA fields a team of players. Few NBA franchises actually become a team. The Rockets are a team; the surprise team in the NBA this year.