Houston Rockets Will Steal Show With Improved Defense and Wins, Not 'Melo

Robert KleemanSenior Analyst ISeptember 25, 2010

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 12:  Aaron Brooks #0 of the Houston Rockets reacts during the game against the Charlotte Bobcats on January 12, 2010 at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The Bobcats won 102-94.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The 74-80 Houston Astros are no longer a last-place laughingstock. Brett Myers, Chris Johnson, Angel Sanchez, Brandon Lyons, and other pleasant surprises helped the Astros rediscover respectability after a mournful period in baseball's abyss.

The outcome of some football game tomorrow between two Texas teams matters to a few people. No one in Houston wants to talk about anything else.

 The Texans will remain the talk of the town even if they lose every other contest this season, even if they repeat a beat-to-death sentiment or have nothing of note to say. It works that way in a football-crazed metropolis.

What this means for the pro hoops squad is simple. Before the Rockets can eye superiority over the cross-state San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, they must first conquer their own city. They have it in them to become Houston's finest franchise, but the difficult work necessary to get there begins now with so many questions that beg for an answer.

When Hakeem Olajuwon sheriffed the interior, a Rockets ticket was the toughest commodity to find. Nowadays, management gives away seats to some of the less interesting games on the schedule--say a matchup with the woebegone Minnesota Timberwolves--and still cannot fill up Toyota Center.

How many casual fans know the team opened training camp today, or that the first preseason tilt against the Orlando Magic is less than two weeks away? No one sporting a Johnson or Schaub jersey, or even the resident Cowboys supporters, care about anything outside of the NFL right now.

The Rockets front office might also have to accept another somber reality as Saturday night approaches: the team will not steal back the sports spotlight with a trade for Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony. Yahoo! Sports reported today that Anthony was close to agreeing to an extension with the Nets, one of the final snags preventing the scoring machine from trading his Denver address for one in New Jersey.

GM Daryl Morey has acquired assets in his time here hoping to use a combination of them to land a bona fide perimeter star. He has pursued Anthony from the moment news of his Mile-High unhappiness broke earlier this summer. It seems now, just as with Chris Bosh, that another bride will leave this wishful groom at the altar.

The Nuggets appear opposed to sending Anthony within the conference, an understandable reservation, and Anthony's east-coast roots matter as trade talks reach a head. If Josh Kroenke, Masai Ujiri, or whoever is running that fractured organization decides it can stomach a transaction with a squad out West, and if Anthony vetoes a trade to a team that won 12-games last year and would struggle to contend for a playoff spot with him, the Rockets would have another chance to make a compelling pitch.

Morey's assets are numerous. I detailed them in this article. It is all but certain now, though, that Anthony will not shoot his way to Houston.

An acquisition of that nature would grab headlines and silence some of the Texans-Cowboys discussions. Since Morey cannot dictate the terms of a trade involving a star under contract with another team, the current cast will have to do it the traditional way: maximizing practice time and winning games when they start to matter come late October.

Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks, Rick Adelman's starting backcourt for now, must demonstrate marked defensive improvement. Brad Miller needs to get over his ankle injury, so Adelman can see how the reserve center meshes with different player combinations. Jermaine Taylor and Jordan Hill must show they improved enough this summer to warrant regular rotation roles.

Chase Budinger's defense and consistency must improve. Adelman will ponder how to make Yao Ming's strict 24-minute restriction work. Luis Scola and Shane Battier have been durable for most of their professional careers, but the injury risks will increase as their ages climb.

Patrick Patterson can contribute right away, but Adelman must first find a rotation spot for him. Chuck Hayes shone brightest at Tim Grgurich's heralded summer camp. Coaches have raved about his offseason. That means he will slide into a new role, or return to the slot he occupied before Yao suffered a season-ending injury. 

Mike Harris, Jordan Eglseder, Alexander Johnson, Antonio Anderson, and Ishmael Smith will compete for one final spot, if Morey and Adelman decide to keep that many contracts on the books. Those cut before opening night will hope to catch on elsewhere after their Houston audition. The above players are likely to act as extra training camp bodies. Adelman, like most coaches, loves having those around.

The team might practice 10 or 12 times before the Orlando game. That does not afford the newbies much preparation time. It also provides an opportunity for the youngsters to show they can learn quickly.

The Astros season ends soon and will not culminate with a playoff appearance. The Texans play through at least December and will be much harder to bump from the front page. A postseason berth for the worst NFL expansion team ever, according to winning percentage, would mean a lot to pigskin lovers in this city.

A few key wins would remind fans that the Rockets also exist. The team will need to do more than play hard to conquer that battle for airtime and fill up Toyota Center.

The roster boasts the athletes and the potential to do it. Even without Bosh and Anthony, the Rockets can become an attention-stealing unit. What they can accomplish in training camp, with a trip to China on the horizon, will determine whether they reach that desired destination.

Get to work, boys.