When walking through the jungle, never wake the sleeping tiger. In the ferocious forest of the Western Conference, a team with enough weapons for a championship lies in wait: The Houston Rockets.
From top to bottom, Daryl Morey has assembled one of the finest basketball clubs in the NBA. Loaded with talent, armed with toughness, and as deep as the Nile, the Rockets are the team no one is talking about, for fear they might encounter them in the dense thicket that is the Western Conference Playoffs.
Let's start with the backcourt:
Aaron Brooks has emerged as one of the most talented point guards playing right now, having averaged 19.6 points and 5.3 assists per game, shot 40% from three point range and used his lightning quick speed to consistently penetrate the defense. He earned the 2010 NBA Most Improved Player Award, which is another way of saying welcome to the elite point guard club.
Kevin Martin was traded to the Rockets from the Sacramento Kings for the final 24 games of the season and he quietly averaged 21 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and shot 36% from the three point line. There isn't a more perfect complement to Aaron Brooks, since Martin can spot up from anywhere on the floor and can also create his own shot off the dribble.
In the frontcourt:
Yao Ming is back, and if his foot does not become an issue, he can return to his 7 time All Star status by pouring in 20 and 10, along with 2 blocks and 2 assists per game. The league has very few centers that can handle him on the block, yet it's his passing that really makes the offense go. The way coach Rick Adelman utilizes his Pete Carril influenced offense, it is vital to have a good passing center, and the Rockets should get no shortage of wide open 15 foot jumpers (see Kevin Martin above).
Luis Scola is one of the craftiest low post scorers in the game, capable of putting up a 20 and 10 of his own. He averaged 16 points and 9 rebounds a game, and proved himself more than rugged by starting all 82 games. He gives them a toughness (if you can get under Derek Fisher's skin, you're tough) that most teams lack and he more than makes up for his lack of athleticism with guile and trickiness.
Shane Battier is the official if-you-want-to-win-play-this-guy-as-much-as-possible poster boy. While his stats are modest (8 ppg, 5 rpg, 2.4 apg), he gets the job done wherever the team needs it. He's their best defender and legitimate Kobe stopper, and can also initiate the offense and knock down open shots - which he will surely get with Yao posting up and Brooks penetrating. There is no way to measure his intangibles, but he's the player every coach covets when they start a playoff series.
On the Bench:
Brad Miller was just signed as a free agent - a nice alternative to Chris Bosh - and also insurance in case Yao goes down again. He played for Adelman in Sacramento and is one of the best passing big men in the game. He can handle the ball, shoot from 15 feet, and has enough bulk to hold his own down low. Adelman has a myriad of possibilities with him, including playing Miller and Yao together (to combat Gasol and Bynum, for instance). He's a career 12 point/8 rebound per game player and should get enough minutes to easily match those numbers.
Kyle Lowry is a clone of Aaron Brooks minus the 3 point shot - waterbug fast, great instincts, and averaged 4.5 assists in only 24 minutes a game. The Rockets do not miss a beat when he comes in and he has feasted on the opponent's back up point guards. There is no question he deserves to be a starter in this league and only a talent like Aaron Brooks can keep him on the bench for now.
Chuck Hayes is the alter ego of Lowry, having averaged 5.6 rebounds in only 21.6 minutes a game. That's over 10 rebounds a game if he played starter's minutes. He is pure energy off the bench, swarming his man, playing perfect weakside help defense, and snatching every ball that comes his way. His offense is unpolished, but clearly unneeded with this kind of fire power.
Trevor Ariza was a starter all last year and it remains to be seen how he fits into this lineup. Adelman prefers what Martin brings to the table offensively, and Battier plays the small forward position well. This will be a dilemma when he decides who's going to sit on the bench next to him. That said, Ariza is also pure energy on defense, yet surprised many with his offensive output during the first half of the season last year. After averaging close to 20 ppg for the first few months of the season, Ariza finished at 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game. He is proven, a year wiser, and will no doubt repeat these numbers whether it's as a starter or off the bench.
Chase Budinger came in as an unheralded former volleyball player from Arizona, and finished the season averaging 9 points a game and shooting 37% from 3 point range. He is a bona fide knock down shooter, and his size makes up for his lateral quickness deficiencies. Having watched Budinger in the 2010 Summer League, he looks much more confident and willing to put the ball on the floor and penetrate. He even displayed some passing ability - which makes him even more valuable to the team. Most teams covet a small forward with shooting range like his, and he'll stretch the defense for Yao and Scola.
Patrick Patterson is a physical specimen, having played on the fabled Kentucky team with the other first round draft choices. He seemed a bit lost at times but is clearly an incredible athlete with tremendous upside. Patterson will begin with spot minutes and be another energy guy off the bench, but when he gets settles in - watch out - he could be on the receiving end of a lot of bounce passes from Brooks for vicious dunks.
Let's not forget they also have Jared Jeffries - anything they get from him is gravy - as well as Jermaine Taylor who also looked impressive in the Summer League. His confidence was soaring as he averaged 18 points and 5 rebounds a game.
If you examine these match ups from the Lakers perspective - you see some real nightmares. Fisher and Blake will not be able to keep up with Brooks and Lowry, while Kobe will have his hands full having to chase Kevin Martin around screens. Down low, Scola is smaller than Gasol, but knows Pau well and has never let bigger defenders be an issue for him. Bynum can't handle Yao by himself, and certainly won't be able to help his teammates nearly as much, if at all.
Then you add Brad Miller to this mix, with Budinger spotting up, and Ariza creating some havoc, and suddenly the Lakers bench with Barnes, Vujacic, and Ratliff doesn't seem so imposing.
Whether the Rockets can keep everyone healthy is the only issue here. Yao has already talked of his retirement and qualified his answers regarding his foot. Otherwise, the sky is the limit for the Rockets, since they play like a real team. They have just the right pieces in just the right places along with the toughening experience of last year's disappointing squad to make them a hungry, and terrifying, team.
So if any of the other NBA teams are going hunting in the jungle this year, they better hope the Rockets aren't lying in wait, or it could be a massacre.
Check out our latest interviews with Dennis Scott and Clyde Frazier from the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas: