The Rockets season ended in a 19-point rout last week at the Staples Center. Seven days after the fuel jets iced over and the shuttle crashed, here is a player-by-player grade report and a list of questions the team must address to advance in the playoffs.
When the Rockets dealt away Rafer Alston, Brooks became the man. He handled the pressure like a pro and showed All-Star potential.
He earns a B- because his inexperience proved to be a liability in the season's most important game. He must learn to harness his speed and sweet stroke if he wants to be the starting point guard on a champion. He will never be an 11-assist-per-game performer, but the Rockets need him to cut down on the miscues and errant passes.
GM Daryl Morey swiped Barry from San Antonio last summer, and most expected the 37-year-old vet to play a large role.
His first year in Houston was a dud, to say the least. His shot was erratic and his once savvy court awareness proved untrustworthy. In short, he rarely performed like the clutch shooter and passer who sparked the Spurs during a pair of title runs.
A throw-in player in the deadline deal to get Kyle Lowry, Cook should not figure into the Rockets future. When his shot falls early, he can be a useful designated scorer. When it doesn't, his man attacks him relentlessly and he best helps the team by staying on the bench.
Landry earns extra kudos for recuperating from a near-death shooting near his home and returning to give the team a lift. He poured in 16 points in the Rockets last win of the year, Game Six, against the vaunted Lakers.
His length and athleticism make him a valuable second-unit source for scoring, and he helps the team crash the boards. Still, he needs to become a better crunch-time free-throw shooter and more consistent.
That a one-dimensional player with no offensive game and a hideous free throw stroke still manages to be impactful is amazing in itself. Hayes, all 6'6" of him, did an admirable job banging with Pau Gasol in the second round.
He proved himself again as an elite post-defender, but the Rockets could stand to be less reliant on such an undersized center.
What more can you ask a 43-year-old with 17 years of pro experience to do? His season and ended in a melancholic but fitting fashion, with his knee buckling after a remarkable hustle play.
He gave everything he had left and spurred the Rockets to several key regular season victories when he started in Yao's place. Finding a new reserve center ranks just behind resigning Artest on the scale of importance.
As far as backup point guards go, Lowry is among the best. He plays the drive-and-kick game more effectively than Alston ever could and makes most of his free throws.
His quickness and finishing ability pressures opposing defenses on the break.
Still, it is difficult to discern any sort of ceiling for Lowry. With Brooks in the developing stages and an offense in need of more stability, is Lowry enough?
Like a good neighbor, he was there. Like another insurance agency, his grit and toughness put the Rockets in good hands. His gamemanship and hustle were often the ingredients that kept this team glued together. Scola is a world-class competitor and should start at power forward for the foreseeable future.
He left the reservation at times and displayed that nasty penchant for running his own offense. He was awful and out of control for most of the Lakers series.
Still, he was an upstanding citizen and a terrific teammate. The Rockets need his toughness and sans-pareil defensive prowess. Resigning him to a multi-year deal should be Daryl Morey's top priority.
Battier came up big in the playoffs whenever the Rockets needed a key stop or a momentum-shifting "tre". His professionalism offset the sometimes questionable courses charted by Artest.
He is one the game's best individual defenders, both disciplined and courageous. He takes every assignment without complaint and never wavers when an opponent decides to bombard him with trash talk (see Kobe Bryant).
Now, he must help the Rockets take the next step and contend for a championship.
Everyone knows the explosive McGrady was not himself. He played most of the season as an injured shell of a former All-Star.
He earns an average grade because he failed to fight through the pain and compete like a champion should. Paul Pierce he was not.
If he wants to get better marks next season, his career-threatening surgery aftermath will give him plenty of opportunities to show heart and bravery.
The Rockets should welcome anything he can give them after he recovers. They should also remove him from any future plans after 2010.
Has Wafer found a permanent home? He hopes so, and so do I.
From D-League bottom-feeder to energy reserve, the Rockets could use Wafer's scoring punch. His team defense and decision making must improve.
His fourth-straight major foot injury makes point deductions on his grade inevitable. The Rockets should be concerned about his durability and reconsider keeping him as the franchise's foundation.
When he did play, though, he was a steadying influence and one of the NBA's best centers. His size and determination won the Rockets a first-round series for the first time since 1997. With that wall of burden off his back, he can now be seen as a winner.
How much can he win, though, if he can't stay healthy?
Eight offseason questions the team must answer:
1. Resign Artest? Can the Rockets tender a contract with the right number of years for the right amount of money?
2. Stay the course with Brooks and Lowry? Can these two youngsters develop enough to lead the Rockets to the promised land or would pursuit of a veteran backup point guard be the wiser choice?
3. How much money should the Rockets spend to resign Wafer?
4. Given Yao and T-Mac's inability to stay healthy, should the Rockets focus more energy on a Plan B?
The team has $40 million tied up in Yao and T- Mac (Nearly $24 million of that is McGrady). Does that financial gridlock give them the leeway to make the right moves?
5. The Rockets play exceptionally when the odds have all but buried them. Can this core, as constructed, learn to play well when expectations are high. Example: last night of the season in Dallas.
A win would have secured a division title, home court in the first round and made a second round matchup with the favored Lakers impossible. Oops.
6. How should Morey view this core? The one that took the top-seeded Lakers seven games without three key cogs or the one that lost a game seven by 19 points?
7. Who will replace the retired Deke? The Rockets need another seven-footer to back up Yao, as proved in the Lakers series. With Yao injured so often, maybe they should eye more than just a reserve.
A guy who can play 25-30 minutes a night on occasion and stand in when Yao needs to sit a game would be ideal.
8. Is the team's turnover problem solely on the point guards (hint: no)? What can management do to remedy the giveaway blues?