Houston Rockets: Improvement Each Player Must Make for Next Season

Dan BartemusCorrespondent IJune 17, 2011

Houston Rockets: Improvement Each Player Must Make for Next Season

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    Summer school is in session and the Houston Rockets have a lot of work to do.

    Two straight seasons outside the playoff picture should have everyone at team headquarters motivated to make the improvements essential for a return to the contender's circle. 

    Despite finishing 2011 as one of the most dynamic offensive clubs in the NBA, a number of players could stand to better themselves in certain aspects to make the engine run even smoother. For others, it's about the defensive end of the floor, where just about everyone struggled this year. 

    Let's take a look at one area each Rockets player should focus on enhancing for the 2011-12 season.

Chase Budinger: Playmaking Ability

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    Budinger made a number of strides on both ends of the floor in his second season.

    He attacked the basket more often, became a capable one-on-one defender and proved himself worthy of starter's minutes. 

    The one glaring hole in his game is his inability to create shots for others. For someone with Budinger's basketball IQ and athletic ability, that part of the game should come easy, but he averaged just 1.6 assists per game. 

    Former coach Rick Adelman ran a free-flowing offense for the past two seasons, which gave players free reign to make decisions with the ball. Budinger may be playing it too safe as he averages less than a turnover per game for his career.

    No coach will complain about that, but it's time for Budinger to start using his gifts to get into the teeth of the defense, and break it down by hitting an open shot or finding the open man.

Goran Dragic: Free Throw Shooting

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    No professional basketball player should struggle at the free throw line. It's the easiest part of the game and these are the best players in the world.

    Dragic would beg to differ. The promising 25-year old point guard has seen his percentage dip incrementally in each of his four seasons as a pro. He shot a respectable 77 percent as a rookie, then fell to 74 percent in his second year, 67 percent in 2009-10, and bottomed out at just below 61 percent this year.

    It has to be mental because Dragic shoots a decent percent from the field (43 percent) and is a dead-eye shooter from beyond the arc (38 percent).

    If Dragic ever wants to be the one finishing games, this is one area that he must improve. You won't find many head coaches playing a point guard who can't hit freebies in the final minutes.

Chuck Hayes*: Finishing at the Rim

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    Hayes had his best season as a pro in 2010-11 and became the temporary face of the franchise in the process. 

    He was the one player Houston could count on every night to shut his man down, no matter who it was. 

    Defense is Hayes' calling card, and as much as his offense improved this year, he must continue to expand his currently limited offensive repertoire. He'll never have a major role as a scorer for the Rockets, but he has to be able to finish layups and chip shots around the basket.

    It would also help if he added a move to complement the fake-left, spin-right into the paint move that sets up his baby hook. That's about all he has to lean on, a sign that Hayes is in need of variety.

    *- assuming he is re-signed by team.

Jordan Hill: The Mental Game

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    "Please tell me you saw what Hill just did!"

    It may have been an emphatic rejection of a shot near the basket that started a momentum-swinging fast break, or a putback in the form of a one-handed tomahawk slam.

    "What planet is Jordan Hill on right now?"

    That was probably asked two or three minutes after the emphatic block or slam, after Hill was lost on a defensive assignment or fumbling a rebound out of bounds. 

    The kid has so much talent and athleticism. There aren't many things he's incapable of doing. The problem is, you can say that about everyone in the NBA. The ones that can stay focused and consistently perform their craft at a high level become great.

    Hill's problem isn't the game of basketball, it's the mental aspect. If he ever figures that part out, the Rockets can halt their search for a capable post presence. 

Courtney Lee: Attacking the Rim

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    Lee is a good shooter. He was one of the NBA's best from three-point land this year, making 41 percent.

    But he's very streaky. If he's on, watch out; but if he's off and you're sitting courtside, be on guard. 

    Because his jumper is inconsistent, Lee would be wise to work on ways to get himself to the basket. He has good lateral quickness, great leaping ability and a strong upper body that enables him to finish through contact. Yet, he often tends to settle for jumpers.

    Getting to the rim would help him get into a rhythm easier on nights when his shot is off. It would also put him at the line more, a place Lee hardly finds himself, as he averages just 1.6 attempts per game for his career.

Kyle Lowry: 3-Point Shooting

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    This will surprise some because Lowry is coming off his most accurate season from distance, where he shot nearly 38 percent. 

    As great as it was, he would be foolish to consider it a strength.

    Lowry shot 27 percent or worse from three in the four years prior to this. That's very bad, and gives fans reason to believe that his breakthrough may be nothing more than a fluke.

    One is a fluke, two is a trend, three is a habit. If we apply that logic here, it says Lowry has to show this season's three-point accuracy for two more years before being considered a true threat. 

Kevin Martin: Defense, Defense, Defense

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    The last thing Martin should be working on this summer is his offense.

    Houston was one of the NBA's worst defensive teams this season and Martin's open door to the basket policy had much to do with it.

    If you're smart and blessed with lateral quickness, there is no reason you shouldn't be a good defender. We know Martin is a smart player, and we know he's quick because we've all seen his first step and how fast he is with the ball in his hands.

    Word on the street is Martin earned playing time as a rookie in part because of his defensive abilities. If that's true then he simply needs to recommit himself.

    Whatever the case may be, he must get better defensively or whoever the front office signs to protect the rim will be hung out to dry.

Brad Miller and Yao Ming*: Get Healthy

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    Miller just underwent microfracture surgery and we all know Yao's injury history.

    The Rockets could use both of them, especially the latter if he can stay in one piece for longer than a week. 

    Sources say Miller could be ready to play by January, whereas Yao's future is much less certain. He told the Chinese media that he'll retire this fall if his left foot doesn't respond to treatment.

    *- if he is re-signed by team.

Patrick Patterson: Low Post Moves

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    Patterson will be a serviceable rotation player for 10-12 years if he merely levels off, but he can be special if he so desires. 

    Adelman used Patterson perfectly as a rookie by asking him to do nothing more than clean up the offensive glass and hit open jumpers. He did both very well, but showed flashes that he's capable of so much more.

    Current Rockets players are blessed to have one of the NBA's all-time greats, Hakeem Olajuwon, at their disposal. He has spent summers working with Yao, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant.

    The best thing for Patterson to do is seek out Olajuwon to pick up an array of post moves that he can use for the next decade. If he grows accustom to playing with his back to the basket, the sky is the limit.

Luis Scola: Post Defense

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    Along with Martin, the Rockets' two best offensive players are also their two biggest defensive liabilities.

    That's a problem.

    Scola doesn't possess great quickness or athleticism, but he's strong and has a great understanding for the game. With the way the power forward position has transformed in recent years, there are certain match-ups that Scola just can't win.

    Still, there's no excuse for getting beat up by the likes of Josh McRoberts and Serge Ibaka.

Hasheem Thabeet: Everything

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    This is a cop-out, but it's also a fact.

    Thabeet, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2009 NBA Draft, has career averages of 1.1 points, 1.6 rebounds, 0.1 assists, 0.3 blocks, 0.2 steals and 1.6 fouls per game. Yes, Thabeet is more efficient at fouling than anything else.

    If you can pinpoint one area that needs the most work, power to you. I can't.

    New Head Coach Kevin McHale has a real project on his hands.

Terrence Williams: Accountability and Coachability

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    Williams, also a lottery pick from the 2009 draft, has been much better than Thabeet, but that's more of an indictment on Thabeet than a compliment to Williams.

    He's said to have serious accountability issues, and is apparently very difficult to coach. That's not good for a player whose future in the league is in serious question.

    Williams should view the McHale hire as a fresh start. He needs to change the way he thinks, acts and plays, and he must be willing to take constructive criticism.

    The opportunity is there for him to get on the good side of his new coach, but if he's quickly put in the dog house, he may never see NBA daylight again.