Always waiting to pick a sleeper for the Houston Rockets is:
John Carter

John selects:
Ed Gray


Team Needs/History

The Rockets are at a bit of a crossroads as a franchise. Their key players (Olajuwon, Barkley, and Drexler) are all nearing the end of their careers (especially Barkley and Drexler), so one could argue that the team needs to start looking towards rebuilding for the future. On the other hand, the assembled talent is clearly still a serious competitor for the title, which would argue for trying to pick up one or two more players for a last title run or two, and then rebuild from scratch. Personally, I favor the latter approach, since in this new age of free agency and three-year rookie contracts, it would be possible to recreate an excellent team from near scratch once the big contract's of some of Houston's veterans are gone. Although the Rockets failed to achieve their goal of bringing home another title, I would still rate their season a success. I believe that they had the third best team in the playoffs, and were not very far off the pace set by the Bulls or Jazz. The Rockets-Jazz series was essentially a toss-up, but in the end, Stockton made the plays in games five and six to win it for Utah. If Houston had made the Finals, I am confident that they could have given Chicago at least as much of a series as Utah, which is to say, they very well could have won it with a favorable bounce here and there. Before deciding who they should pick, let's first evaluate what they already have, starting at the top. A. CENTER: What can I say? Although he doesn't receive the hype of Shaquille, or even David Robinson, HAKEEM OLAJUWON is hands down the best big man in the league. In my opinion, he is the second best player in the game today, behind his Airness. You certainly never see Hakeem fail to step up to bat in crucial games, like Malone did throughout the Finals. Hakeem dominates both ends of the court, even when matched up against the other elite centers. Basically, he does it all: low post scoring, mid range jumpers, passing out of the double/triple team, rebounding, man to man defense, "team" defense -- you name it, he dominates it. It seems pointless to continue to extol his virtues. Even his passing has greatly improved -- it's not safe to double team him any more and assume that he will turn the ball over or make a poor pass. Houston is set at starting center until Hakeem decides to hang up his jock strap and become a Muslim missionary or something. Behind Hakeem, Houston is much deeper and more talented than they have been in years. KEVIN WILLIS has been an All Star in the past, and although nobody would attempt to claim that he still plays at that level, he played quite well behind Hakeem throughout the regular season, and stepped in and played admirably whenever Hakeem or Barkley were injured. On the other hand, how can I put this, he sucked big time in the playoffs, which certainly hurt Houston's drive for the title. Frankly, I was surprised to see Kevin struggle so much, given his excellent regular season play, and as a result, I would add "backup big man" to Houston's list of possible needs. I doubt it's one that they'll actively work to improve, though, what with Kevin having a fairly hefty free agent contract, and there being a young turk in the wings in the form of OTHELLA HARRINGTON. More on Othella below. B. POWER FORWARD: This is the position where Houston made the most change in the last off season, bringing in CHARLES BARKLEY and Willis, and drafting Othella Harrington at the beginning of the second round. Like Hakeem, Barkley is one of the truly elite NBA players of all time. The years are starting to take their toll on the Chuckster, but for the first time in several years, he avoided serious injury. Combining that with the lack of back problems, and my concern about his health has abated somewhat. Chucky is not the one man wrecking crew that he was several years ago, but he still demands a frequent double team and can take over the boards. His scoring average was well down this year, but that's not surprising given that he is now surrounded by other players who can pick up the slack. Like Willis, he really struggled in the Utah series, and there were certainly times where I wished Rudy would quit calling Barkley's number, given that his "backin' it in, backin' it in..." low post moves were totally useless against Malone, who is one of the few forwards who is bigger, stronger, *and* quicker than Charles. If he'd given up a few of his shots for Hakeem, Houston would have been better off (IMNSHO). Willis is the first big man off the bench for Houston, behind both Hakeem and Chuck, but first year player OTHELLA HARRINGTON got a decent amount of quality playing time. In last year's USENET draft, I mentioned that I considered taking Othella with Houston's first round pick (an idea quickly squelched when I saw that Steve Nash was still available). I was worried that he didn't have the size and strength to take the day in, day out beating dished out inside in the NBA, and while I'm still not convinced, Othella did better than I anticipated. He definitely needs a few years of refinement, and he definitely has rookie-foul-itis, but he is a talented rebounder and at times demonstrated an ability to score in the low post. Given his presence, I doubt Houston will pick up another big man in the draft, since there just won't be enough playing time to develop two youngsters. C. SMALL FORWARD: Houston is fairly well off at small forward, with MARIO ELIE starting and CLYDE DREXLER sliding over to give Elie a rest from time to time. Elie is a stereotypical Tomjanovich role player. He plays his heart out, never stops hustling, knows his role, and contributes a hell of a lot to the team. Although he's usually the third or fourth option on offense, Elie is capable of hitting the open 3 or creating his own shot (often a driving finger roll from about three feet out). His dagger in the heart, kiss them goodbye shot against Phoenix two years ago is still one of my all time favorite sequences. Although he's not particularly tall or quick, Elie is quite strong and hustles like made, making him a good defender. He can be outquicked, but it's hard to out smart or out hustle Super Mario. Prior to the playoffs, SAM MACK got a decent amount of time at the swing position. Sam played fairly well, and was able to score enough to warrant keeping around at the position, but given Elie and Drexler's age, and the general abundance of swing type players in the late stages, I would expect them to draft for that position, unless a great point guard slips really deep. D. SHOOTING GUARD: Although he only has a couple of years left in him (I'd guesstimate two), CLYDE DREXLER is still one of the league's elite 2-guards. Never a spectacular outside shooter, which sets him apart from most of Houston's backcourt, Clyde excels as the second offensive option behind Hakeem. He usually defers to Hakeem, Charles, or an open three point shooter, but when Houston needs a bucket, Clyde can and does usually create. He's most dangerous going to the hole, since at 6'7"+, he towers over most other shooting guards. Drexler is also an excellent rebounder (something Houston desperately needs) and a decent defender, which is pretty much why he is consistently an NBA All Star. His primary deficiencies are his age, and thus his injury problems, and the fact that he's not fast enough to keep up with some of the mighty mites of the NBA. Luckily, with Hakeem behind him, he can afford to take risks on defense without giving up a definite layup. Also, he seemed to be willing to toss up the three's too often in the playoffs this year, which I take as a sign that he's tiring. While Clyde's outside shot has improved over the years, he is not the guy you want shooting threes with inside threats like Hakeem, Barkley, and Willis able to get easier shots. Clyde's first backup is Mario Elie (see above). During the rash of injuries, Tomjanovich always manages to find a couple of diamonds in the rough from the CBA or retreads from past glories. This year's cast of thousands is led by EDDIE JOHNSON, who is a consummate shooter. Eddie is the kind of guy who is *never* afraid to take the last shot (or the first shot, or *any* shot, for that matter). While he doesn't play defense worth a damn, his ability to come off the bench and score in bunches is a very nice addition to any bench. Who can forget his 31 pts and last second three pointer against Utah? However, if Eddie misses his first three or four shots, you'd better sit him down for the rest of the game, because he won't stop shooting. As I said above, the general age and lack of young depth at the swing positions would lead me to pick the best swing man available at the 22nd pick. E. POINT GUARD: This is the position where Houston made a complete overhaul last offseason. Out went Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell, and Eldridge Recaster. In came BRENT PRICE, MATT MALONEY, RANDY LIVINGSTONE, and SEDALE THREATT (for the playoffs). Price was signed to a fairly hefty free agent contract after having an exceptionally good year for the Bullets two years back, but he was snakebit all year. After he spent most of the early season on the bench with a broken arm (?), he only returned for a couple of weeks before blowing out his knee. At this point, he's a complete unknown. As a Bullet, he was a dead-eye gunner from the 3-point arc, which is the most important skill required of a Rocket point guard. He displayed none of his shooting touch while a Rocket, but presumably much of that was due to him not being healthy. I guess we'll see. With Price out for the season, unsigned free agent pickup Matt Maloney was given the starting position, and became the only rookie to start all 82 games last year. He averaged almost 10ppg and 3.5apg, and shot over 40% from behind the arc. What by all rights should have been a disastrously weak position for the Rockets, turned out to be quite adequate, thank you. After Price was injured, Rudy planned to shop around for another veteran point guard, but several of the Rocket vets, led by Barkley, told Rudy to "give the kid a chance -- he can do it." And do it he did... at least until game four of the Western Conference SemiFinals against Seattle. Until then, Houston had thrived off of their inside-out offense, with Hakeem or Charles drawing the double team, and then kicking it out for the open three pointer. Part way through the Seattle series, however, George Karl figured out that it was a good idea to *not* leave Maloney wide open, and in fact to pressure him with everything you've got. After that point, Matt was essentially a non- -factor, and his poor play against John Stockton certainly helped doom Houston's playoff chances. Then again, he *was* a rookie, and rookie point guards usually suck. I'll be curious to see how he grows as a player. T They really need to resign Maloney, and then they should be looking to trade one of the three point young point guards (Maloney, Livingstone, or Price) for a young swingman or young power forward (or draft pick). Behind Maloney for much of the regular season was Randy Livingstone, the once-heralded PG from LSU. By all accounts, it was a medical miracle that Livingstone played at all last year. He'd suffered a series of horrible knee injuries at LSU, and had slipped from one of the top five high school recruits to a late second rounder as a result. Houston picked him with the intention of leaving him on injured reserve for a year while he recuperated and worked on his game, but Randy would have nothing of it. In fact, he played damned well! He isn't (yet) a great outside shooter, but he's far and away a better ballhandler and passer than Maloney. I was really annoyed with Tomjanovich's decision to leave Livingstone languishing on the bench in the playoffs after Maloney, and then Threatt, proved incapable of playing with either Gary Payton or John Stockton. Although Randy is not a threat to score 20 points, like Maloney or Threatt, he also isn't nearly as likely to get rattled by the tough in-your-face defense of Payton or the push-n-grab defense of Stockton. Personally, I'd like to see more of Livingstone in the future. Finally, the last Rocket at the overstocked point guard position is Sedale Threatt, another late season pickup (like Eddie Johnson) picked to give Houston more veteran experience in the playoffs. Sedale played quite well in that role, and definitely caused Seattle and Utah some fits when he was in there. However, Sedale is certainly not a long term option, and I'm not sure if he'll even be with the Rockets come next year when Price is back from his injuries. F. COACHING/FRONT OFFICE: A few years ago I would have never thought I could say this, but Houston has one of the best front office and coaching staffs in the league. RUDY TOMJANOVICH is probably the most underrated coach in the league, turning a team that had very little chemistry and guts and turning them into a well-oiled machine that won two straight championships. He is a player's coach, and his players know exactly what their role is, something that you cannot say about most teams. Sometimes the players cannot adapt to Rudy's plans for them (witness bad boy Vernon Maxwell), but in general Rudy gets the most out of each player possible. A master of evaluating talent, Rudy has amazed most observers, including yours truly, at his ability to find diamonds in the rough with low draft choices (Horry and Cassell), languishing on the bench of other teams (Elie and Johnson), and in the CBA (Maloney, Mack, Chucky Brown). G. SUMMARY: Houston has a lot of talent at key positions (C, PF, SG), good players at others (SF, PG), ok depth (Willis, Harrington, and a collection of vets), excellent coaching, and great team chemistry. What they really lack is youth, and enough depth to compete with the likes of Utah. Look for them to work to remedy these problems in the offseason to ready themselves for one of their last serious runs at the title before Barkley, Drexler, and Olajuwon retire.

II. My Selection (and an explanation)

ED GRAY - The best Swing man left on the board

III. Others considered (and why considered)


IV. Who the team will probably take

To tell you the truth, I expect to see the Rockets repeat last year's trick of trading out of the first round. All first rounders must be offered guaranteed three year deals, while you can choose to waive second rounders at your leisure, or sign them to one year deals. Last year's trade worked great, as Houston managed to pick up both Harrington and Livingstone with their second round picks, while at the same time not being forced to spend first round money on anybody. In fact, there's talk of Houston combining a player and their #1 pick for a couple of #2's from an expansion team with cap money to burn. Alternatively, they might try to trade up, although they do not have much to offer, given salary cap considerations. If they do not trade their pick, I expect them to take the best player available, with a bias towards players who can play swingman (SF/SG). My considerations above are biased on that belief. If a really solid inside or point guard prospects slips down to their level, I would not be at all surprised to see them pounce. One thing that has characterized Rudy's tenure as head coach has been his ability to find solid players with low picks. Late Info They have had five players visit so far: Big men: Serge Zwikker (yes, really), Pat Burke (Auburn), and Paul Grant (Wisconsin) Swingmen: Keith Booth (Maryland), Anthony Parker (Bradley) I note that only Parker is rated highly by most sources, but Tomjanovich seemed to like what he saw from Booth. The scoop on Booth is that he played PG in high school, but was forced to switch to PF at Maryland. They expect him to switch back to PG/SG in the pros, which would make him a BIG guard.

V. Other moves the team should make

They really need to resign Maloney, and then they should be looking to trade one of the three point young point guards (Maloney, Livingstone, or Price) for a young swingman or young power forward (or draft pick). The only other major "move" that they need to make is to convince Barkley that he wants to return for another year and make another run at a title. From everything that I have heard, Chucky is leaning strongly towards coming back. He hasn't felt better physically in years, and he must be frustrated to have once again come close to the title he's long sought, only to be turned away with a couple of close losses. Houston's other major off season need is to improve their bench. At one point during the last season, I was quite content with Houston's bench trio of Willis, Mack, and Livingstone, but the playoffs proved just how thin Houston's bench was. Johnson was just about the only player off the bench who produced on a regular basis, while Willis, Threatt, and the rest could not keep the team afloat until the starters returned. Besides that, those three are all old enough to have played in the first basketball game with Naismith! So, the trick is to find some young talent that can develop and give them solid minutes come playoff time (e.g., like Anderson and company for Utah). Price, Maloney, and Randy probably have what it takes at the point guard position, and Harrington might develop at power forward, but that still leaves a lot of positions with no young talent being developed. The trade for Barkley decimated Houston's bench, and they need to work to rebuild it ASAP to give the aging vets more rest. The Rockets don't have much space under the cap, but you can always get creative and find somebody. I haven't a clue how they will do it, but this must be their focus.

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