Houston Rockets: 5 Players Under the Microscope This Season
Just 12 days after David Stern declared the NBA had entered a nuclear winter due to a snag in the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, the NBA and its Players Association announced there would be a season after all.
With games set to tip off on Christmas Day, time is not a friend of the 30 teams. The Houston Rockets may have an early edge over most because if Chuck Hayes is re-signed, as most believe he will be, every player from last year's roster will be back other than the now-retired Yao Ming.
Houston boasts one of the league's youngest teams, with Luis Scola being the only player over the age of 30. That can be a gift and a curse, but there were more of the former following the February trade deadline. The Rockets finished 15-8 in their final 23 games, just missing the playoffs at 43-39.
In a media session Wednesday afternoon, general manager Daryl Morey and new head coach Kevin McHale stated the goal for this team is to make the playoffs. It's likely the roster will experience some turnover, but assume for now that it stays the same. McHale knows what he's getting in Scola and Kevin Martin, but he'll need more from the Rockets' stable of youth in order to reach their goal.
Here's a list of five players who will be under the microscope in Houston this season.
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Jordan Hill is entering the "now-or-never" stage of his career.
The eighth overall pick in the 2009 draft has shown flashes of brilliance during his first two years, but he's too inconsistent on both ends to be relied upon on a nightly basis. Take a look at his playing time in the final five games of last season: eight minutes, zero, 12, zero, 10. He played sparingly in three games and not at all in the other two.
Houston is currently void of any real presence in the middle and has been since Yao's last stand in May '09. If Hill can't find valuable minutes here, he likely won't anywhere. In 72 games, he averaged 5.6 points and 4.3 rebounds in 15.6 minutes, making his per-40 minute averages around a respectable 14 and 11.
No one questions Hill's talent. That part is obvious. He must make strides mentally if he's ever going to reach his potential. If McHale can't get it out of Hill, "it" might not exist.
Now or never, Jordan. What's it going to be?
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With Scola, Hill and Patrick Patterson already on the roster, many Rockets fans were surprised to see Houston select Marcus Morris with the 14th overall pick. Why take another power forward in the lottery?
It could mean a few things. Starting with a lack of faith in Hill. Or a sign the team isn't bringing back Hayes. Maybe Scola is on the trade block. All of these are possibilities, but the most likely answer is Morey and McHale just loved the player.
There's a lot to like about Morris. He averaged 17.2 points and 7.6 rebounds for the Kansas Jayhawks and was named Big 12 Player of the Year last season. At 6'9", he measures well enough to play power forward, and he's strong and athletic enough to be a serious mismatch at the 3-spot. All things considered, it's surprising that he slipped to Houston at No. 14.
Morey has already stated that Morris will split time at both forward positions, adding more flexibility to Houston's rotation. He's been right about most of his draft picks, namely Aaron Brooks, Chase Budinger and Patterson.
Rockets fans hope the trend continues with Morris.
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For a year-and-a-half, Chase Budinger proved to be a nice role player. Most fans and analysts thought that's how he would make a living.
Then Shane Battier was traded at the deadline and Budinger became Houston's starting small forward. In 22 games as a starter, he averaged 14 points, four rebounds and 2.5 assists. As a reserve, Budinger averaged 8.2 points, 3.5 boards and 1.3 assists. He also showed himself to be a capable one-on-one defender.
The question now is, were those 22 games a fluke, or is Budinger the long-term answer at small forward? He possesses the physical attributes and can absolutely fly, but can he defend the LeBron Jameses and Kobe Bryants for a full season? Can he develop into more of a playmaker?
With the 2012 free-agent class being nearly as stacked as 2010, it's likely Budinger will only have the next 66 games to provide the answers to these questions.
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Luis Scola might be the NBA's most sought-after veteran power forward. Whether or not he's expendable to the Rockets will depend on Patterson's development.
Patterson's rookie campaign earned rave reviews. His numbers won't wow you. He averaged six points and four rebounds in just under 17 minutes per game in 52 appearances. Patterson peaked in the month of March, averaging nine points and six boards.
Nothing special, right? Wrong. He's polished on the low block, plays above the rim, is a tenacious defender and he can stick a jumper consistently out to 18 feet. Patterson had his share of big games: 15 and 10 against Toronto, 18 and 12 against Boston, 14 and 13 versus Utah and he hung 20 on Detroit.
The former Kentucky Wildcat has the maturity and, more importantly, the game to be a starting power forward in the NBA. No one in Houston wants to see Scola, a fan favorite, leave. But if Patterson continues to progress, it could be only a matter of time.
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At this time last year, Lowry was the backup to Aaron Brooks, the league's reigning Most Improved Player. One year later, Brooks is a member of the Phoenix Suns and Lowry is arguably Houston's MIP—Most Important Player.
Lowry took his game to another level in 2010-11, setting career highs in points (13.5), assists (6.7), rebounds (4.1), steals (1.4) and three-point shooting percentage (.376). As evidenced by his perimeter shooting, Lowry made himself a threat beyond the arc, while continuing to be one of the more aggressive finishers in the NBA.
In a February game against the Sixers, Lowry put up 36 points on 15-of-18 shooting, including 6-of-9 from three. About a month later, he scored 32 in Phoenix, hitting 11-of-18 shots and a career-high seven threes.
From Feb. 26 to March 29, Lowry played Deron Williams twice, Steve Nash twice, Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo—four of the league's elite point guards. Lowry led the Rockets to wins in five of those six games. The only loss was to Phoenix, when Lowry put up the aforementioned stat line.
He's one of the best defensive point guards in the game and his offense continues to improve. He's also one of the leaders in the Rockets' locker room. But will he break into the upper echelon?
Paul is due to hit free agency in July. Like the other 29 teams, Houston will do its diligence. Unless of course Lowry's play deems it unnecessary.