Houston Rockets: Thin Free Agent Class Tests Texas Triangle

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IJuly 7, 2008

Writer’s note: this is the second of a three part series on critical offseasons for the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, and Dallas Mavericks.

The latest class of NBA bachelors looking for an expensive marriage with a new team underwhelms at best. Two of the biggest names, Baron Davis and Gilbert Arenas, appear to be off the market.

Elton Brand faces a tough decision: re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers for about $75 million and play alongside Baron Davis, or head to Davis' former team, the Golden State Warriors, and cash an eye-popping $90 million check.

Since the possibility of Brand heading to Philadelphia seems dead, his landing spot figures to make a softer impact in a rugged Western Conference. Whether the All-Star power forward decides to stay in L.A. or pack for the Bay Area, he will anchor a roster full of questions.

The Warriors now need a starting point guard and the Clippers need a bench with more than Tim Thomas and a few prospects on it.

The teams that won this year's youngster-filled NBA Draft traded unproven freshmen to get old guys who can play. That would be Kevin McHale's Minnesota Timberwolves, who landed the most undervalued guard/forward hybrid in the NBA. Who knew that McHale would devise a way to pair Mike Miller with Kevin Love and Al Jefferson?

The Portland Trail Blazers stole the evening again and stomped all over it. The Blazers landed the draft's second or third best point guard in Jerryd Bayless, depending on who you ask, and managed to snatch explosive reserve Ike Diogu in a trade.

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Most mock rookie of the year lists slot Greg Oden at the top and Spanish star Rudy Fernandez in third place. Nate McMillan gets to mesh all of that talent with All-Star Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. Who doesn't envy the Blazers' position as a possible future powerhouse?

I can name three teams, and they hail from the same hot and humid state.

The Blazers will make a run at the seventh and eighth playoff spots next season, but they are not ready to contend. Adding Miller makes the Timberwolves a playoff prospect—but Randy Whittman's young bunch has a long route to a championship.

That arduous path includes multiple bumper-to-bumper, three-hour traffic jams, torn-up stretches of highway, faulty directions, and a half tank of gas with no filling station for 1000 miles.

A productive big man next to beastly Big Al, with Miller and Corey Brewer: So, what's the problem?

Let's just say Minnesota fans will not see a championship Love the next few seasons.

Many teams will spend this summer trying to add some veteran toughness to their soft and inexperienced rookie squads. How much can you expect a guy with one year of college to do in the NBA? What happens when 90 percent of the players on the team fit that undesirable mold?

The Supersonics happen, and while Oklahoma City fans inherit a 41-year-old team, surely they would prefer not to revisit last year's chilling, gruesome 20-62 campaign in Seattle.

The three Western Conference elitists in the Texas triangle have the opposite problem. The Spurs, Rockets, and Mavericks need to win now. This Texas trio did not fill any major roster holes on draft night, and these teams' stars' salaries eat up valuable cap space.

The Blazers can afford to think five years down the road, as can the Timberwolves. The Mavs should wonder if 35-year-old Jason Kidd will still play in five years. He won't.

The Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming pairing has produced zero playoff series wins for the Rockets, and nagging injuries suggest an already narrow championship window is now closing at warp speed.

The Spurs, still the best of the trio, managed to win a Game Seven on the road for the first time in franchise history but stumbled badly in the conference finals against the Lakers.

Each of these squads can spend between $5 and $6 million, using their mid level exception, and have few tradable assets not already part of the franchise's immediate plans.

Donnie Nelson, Daryl Morey, and R.C. Buford will swelter this summer. To win a title next season, each general manager will need to turn that sweat into an impactful free agent signing.

Articles in the San Antonio Express-News and on hoopsworld.com, citing unnamed sources and reports, suggest Corey Maggette is giving the South Texas heavy consideration as his new destination. If the Clippers re-sign Brand, the team cannot not afford to also keep Maggette.

This all assumes that Brand nixes the Warriors' generous offer. Who wouldn't start packing a suitcase for $90 million over a few years?

The Orlando Sentinel reported the Magic are pursuing free agent point guard Chris Duhon. If Orlando snatches the unhappy Duhon from Chicago to improve its questionable front court, it would have to exit the Maggette sweepstakes.

That leaves the Boston Celtics and Spurs as the front running suitors. Maggette would fill nearly every hole on a leaking, offensively lacking veteran Spurs roster.

If the 22 points per game scorer can thrust aside his sizeable ego and wants to win a championship now, San Antonio would be a perfect situation.

The other two Texas teams stare at lesser prospects in a dwindling free agent group.

Trouble in Texas? You decide.


The Rockets missed out on Miller Time.

The player who would have fit so perfectly in the Rockets' system while filling almost every offensive hole, will play in Minnesota next year.

The Rockets will have to settle for the crappy beer.

Maybe Mike Miller was not bleeping on Morey's radar, but he should have been.

The Rockets desperately need reliable perimeter shooting, a third 20 point scorer, and a player other than Yao who can make free throws.

Miller will provide all of those valuable talents to a Timberwolves team that will challenge for the West's eighth seed next year.

Some Rockets fans might say Yao Ming's injury diluted the outcome of a second first round series against the Utah Jazz, but does anyone without the last name Gullible believe that just plugging him back in fixes everything?

Even when the Rockets shocked and awed NBA spectators with the second longest win streak in NBA history, a sizeable chunk of that 22-game spurt without Yao, the Rockets were flawed.

What the team has:

·   The fierce, formidable ScoLandry (Luis Scola and Carl Landry) power forward tandem, a combo that sets them at that position for years.

·    The best center in the NBA

·    A near 11-year veteran who can take over any game he wants when he   is healthy.

·    A 41-year-old center, oldest player in the league, who continues sucking the fountain of youth dry.

·    A great coach—whom Sacramento's Maloof brothers stupidly let walk—with the patience, system, and adaptability to boost the team's scoring production without sacrificing the gnarly, suffocating defense Jeff Van Gundy instilled.

·    A tough-minded defender in Shane Battier who fills the role that has been so valuable on the last three championship teams.

Team needs:

·     Perimeter shooting.

·     Three point shooting.

·     A third scorer to aid Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.

·     Backup center.

·     Healthy Yao and McGrady.

·     Healthy McGrady playing like the superstar his paycheck says he is,   complete with unalterable desire to win.

·     Resign Landry

Likely returns:

·     Yao Ming

·     Tracy McGrady

·     Rafer Alston

·     Shane Battier

·     Luis Scola

·     Carl Landry (provided both sides can end this medical test dispute)

·     Aaron Brooks

·     Chuck Hayes

·     Steve Novak

·     Steve Francis

Questionable returns:

·     Luther Head

·     Dikembe Mutombo

·     Bobby Jackson (likely a goner)

·     Mike Harris

·     Loren Woods

In the last game of that streak against the Lakers, Rafer Alston played the game of his life, scoring 40 points and committing no turnovers. Two of his career-high eight three-pointers were drilled from the figurative parking lot, at the end of the shot clock and with a defender in close range.

Can you rely on an unreliable shooter to make these shots and win a championship?

Alston all but proved with his solid play and newfound leadership last season that he can be a starting point guard on a championship contender. The Rockets do not need to shop Alston, yet. If he continues playing with the same fire that shot him over four other starting prospects during training camp, shoots near 40 percent from distance and improves his finishes at the rim, he needn't worry about his job security.

The best point guards in the league—Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, and Jason Kidd—aren't going anywhere. Detroit Pistons general manager Joe Dumars has yet to move Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams is locked in Milwaukee, and Baron Davis jumped ship to head for L.A. Jose Calderon reportedly signed a new contract with the Toronto Raptors, T.J. Ford will play in Indiana, and the Sixers do not want Andre Miller to skip town.

Only one team has Chris Paul, so having Rafer Alston is not a death sentence.

The Rockets may have a point guard but that doesn't mean they get the point. Who is the team's third best player?

With some work on his post defense and finishing, Scola might claim that title. Do not expect this squad to win squat in the playoffs if that honor belongs to Battier or Alston.

James Posey defended like a Doberman and drained timely three pointers in the recently concluded NBA Finals to help the Celtics secure banner number 17. He was Boston's fifth or sixth best player at best.

Rajon Rondo, the second year point guard who notched a stat line in the series clincher worthy of a license plate—21 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and six steals—was the Celtics' fourth best player, sometimes.

The Rockets do not need to replace Battier or Alston to escape the first round. Morey needs to find another scorer who will alleviate pressure from the two limited scorers.

Fawn over Battier's underutilized jump hook all you want but this columnist says that is not his game. Battier is not a scorer and as long as Houston fans expect him to fill a 10-20 point void, he will be seen as a failure.

What the Rockets need most—Yao and McGrady in full health playing at a high level—no free agent signing can guarantee.

The Rockets picked up the mobile, oversized scoring wingman they had targeted in the draft in Donte Greene. The would be sophomore seems eager to show what he has learned since the tragic death of his mother. Oozing with profound basketball gifts, Greene might become a draft night steal.

Joey Dorsey is undersized as a center and maybe as a power forward, but he is worth a look to back up Yao. In a statistically underwhelming but strong college career, Dorsey scored most of his points by cleaning the glass. At 6'9" with an average wingspan, he may struggle to grab offensive rebounds from stronger, bulkier big men.

The biggest offseason hitch now seems to be re-signing Carl Landry. With an aggravated knee injury limiting his gritty play in the regular season's final frame, the Rockets want to subject the forward to more medical tests, to ensure there are no chronic issues, before tendering a contract offer.

Landry's agent Buddy Baker has called the request ridiculous and insists that his client has no lingering medical issues. Morey says he asked for additional test results after the Rockets season ended in another first round ouster.

Morey cannot let this apparent spat end with Landry walking. The Rockets may need a trade to shore up an incomplete roster come February and Landry is the best bait on the team.

If he plays up to expectations, he will not be going anywhere. The Rockets should want to keep the ScoLandry combo intact for the next five years. But, should they need to trade for an impact player, Landry seems to be the only guy not named Yao or McGrady with either the contract or talent to attract a fair deal.

Since Morey has promised the Rockets will continue to build on the Yao-McGrady foundation, the team needs to fill the above holes surrounding the All-Star duo.

McGrady acts as the imperfect star, a volcanic talent that erupts increasingly less. If the team wants to stick with "T-Mac," so be it.

Nothing the Rockets do this offseason will save the team if one of the two stars falls again. Can this roster compete for a playoff seed without Yao or McGrady?

They answered 'yes' last season.

Can this roster win a playoff series without Yao or McGrady?

Utah Jazz win another first round bout in six games, dominating the clincher 113-91. I'll take that as a ‘no.’

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