|With the third of three first
round picks is the Houston Rockets and John Carter. Houston
acquired this pick (along with the 16th pick) from the Toronto Raptors for Kevin Willis.
Toronto received this pick from Portland in the Kenny Anderson - D.
Houston selects with 18:Cory Benjamin SG,6-5 Oregon State
I. TEAM NEEDS/HISTORY
The Rockets are at a crossroads as a franchise (it seems like I say that every year -- that's what free agency does I guess). Drexler retired. Hakeem is looking old. Barkley may never play again, and certainly is not the superstar we remember from the early 90's. Willis was traded. Elie's contract has expired. Need I say more? Suffice it to say that Houston has only **four** players currently under contract for next year: Hakeem, last year's first round pick Rodrick Rhodes, recent acquisition Roy Rogers, and fragile (and somewhat overpaid) point guard Brent Price. That's it! This situation makes writing this team evaluation a lot more difficult than it has ever been (and this is about my fifth time), since so much of what the team needs will depend on what free agents they can acquire (GOOGS!!!) and what trades they make (e.g., Hakeem for Abdur-Rahim and picks). So take this report with a large grain of thought.
The Rockets really only have two choices: (a) use their huge pool of money under the salary cap to sign a couple of elite free agents to three-year contracts that coincide with Hakeem's likely retirement or (b) unload and start over. Strategy (a) would call for signing Scottie Pippen and Rod Strickland, along with internal free agents Charles Barkley, Mario Elie, and Othella Harrington, to form a true Geritol patrol. Strategy (b) would involve dumping the high contracts, collecting lots of #1 picks, and picking up a young superstar-to-be or two (e.g., Gugliotta and Stoudamire). The trade of Kevin Willis for two mid-first round picks and Roy Rogers makes me hopeful that they'll go with option (b) - unload and start over. If that's the case, don't be surprised to hear that Hakeem gets traded before next season, despite the fact that he's a demigod in Houston.
Ok, first let's look back at last season. The Rockets had what could only be called a mediocre year that ended with a 3-2 first round playoff loss to the Jazz. I was not surprised to see them go only 42-40 in the regular season, since Rudy doesn't really care much about the regular season record and prefers to rest his aging stars for the real season - the playoffs. Unlike their previous championship runs, and even last year's trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets didn't go on a late season mini-tear that seems to signal their "preseason" warmup. I started to get a bit optimistic when they had the superior Jazz down 2-1 in the first round, the only time Utah was challenged in the playoffs before the Bulls in the Finals. But, after Barkley's tendon popped, it was pretty much sayonara. Drexler's last game was a definite downer -- if he'd shown up that game, he would have been able to play at least one more series. Oh well - time to plan for the future.
Assuming Houston goes with Plan B, that is - get younger and build for the future, they're off to a nice start. Kevin Willis was a great pick up for them two years back, and was certainly my pick as the team's MVP this season. That said, he's well into his thirties, was pulling in a decently large salary, and plays the one position Houston has well covered - center. They picked up two mid first round picks (#16 and #18), and a decent young player in Roy Rogers. There are rumors flying around, denied by Rockets management, that Hakeem is available for the right offer. Two rumors I've heard are Hakeem to Orlando for Penny Hardaway and change and Hakeem to Vancouver for Shareef Abdur-Rahim and change. I wouldn't consider trading Hakeem for Penny, simply because Penny is injured too often. However, the rumored trade for Abdur-Rahim is intriguing. Shareef is one of the most underrated players in the league, and should be a star for years to come. If Houston thinks they can resign him to a long term contract, something Vancouver may have trouble doing, I'd probably make the trade (assuming they tossed in a pair of #1's - one now and one well into the future). If they did that, they would have huge cap money to go after Stoudamire and Googs, which give them the makings of a championship team in 2-3 years.
META-COMMENT: The fact that Houston has only four players under contract is symptomatic of what has happened to the NBA in recent years, as the salary cap and rookie salary structure basically guarantee that teams have 1-3 key players and 1-3 recent first round picks under contract, and everybody else is vying for free agency or league minimum contracts. This means that the player composition of teams can change dramatically over any three year period (witness the Rockets right now!), which I bet will tend to cause fan loyalty problems down the road. But, given the current rules, the Rockets are well situated with few cap-eating contracts and lots of draft picks. Only Price's contract is out of line, and it's not awful.
Anyway, before deciding who the Rockets should pick with their three first round picks, let's first evaluate what they already have, starting at the top. I always do this position by position, but Houston has so few players under contract (Olajuwon, Price, Rodgers, and Rhodes) that this is going to be a bit spotty.
II. Position Analysis
HAKEEM OLAJUWON has been the best big man in the league for a while, but his age and injuries are taking a toll. He does not dominate games on his own like he did even two years ago, and was unable to carry a fairly talented team very far into the playoffs, something he used to do on a regular basis. When healthy, 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 team, rebounding, man to man defense, "team" defense. Unfortunately, his periods of healthy play are growing shorter as injuries start to mount. Still, he's going to remain one of the league's elite players until he retires in a couple of years, and he's a great veteran to build around. I would consider the right trade if I were Houston's GM, but it would have to be REALLY sweet given how popular Hakeem is (and thus how much of a draw he is at the gate).
Behind Hakeem, Houston is pretty thin. Prior to the trade, Willis usually spelled Hakeem. Now that he's gone, the job falls to second year player OTHELLA HARRINGTON, who isn't under contract but who I expect will be resigned to a medium length contract. Othella got a decent amount of quality playing time, and seems to be improving all the time. He's never going to be a star, but he has `solid journeyman' written all over him. He's not good enough to start yet, particularly on the offensive end, so the Rockets will definitely be looking to pick up some more size through the draft and free agency.
B. Power Forward
Hmm... this is a real problem area with Willis gone. CHARLES BARKLEY could play the position, but given his health, he should be coming off the bench in limited minutes. Assuming he's resigned, Othella might need to start here, since I don't think new acquisition ROY ROGERS is up to playing PF. Look for Houston to sign somebody who can fill in here (e.g., Tom Gugliotta, please, please), or for Harrington and Barkley to tag team it (non-optimal).
C. Small Forward
This position was filled last year by CLYDE DREXLER and MARIO ELIE. Clyde's retired to coach the Houston Cougars, and the word on the street is that Mario won't be resigned. So, that leaves the position to last year's #1 pick RODRICK RHODES, ROY ROGERS, or a free agent/draft pick. Rhodes is definitely young and athletic, and he started a decent number of games last year, but he needs to work on his shooting if he wants to make an impact (36.7% FG%). I liked seeing him play for 5-8 minute stretches when his athleticism really gets things going, but I don't remember anybody so unable to finish a play since Derrick Chievious. That said, a Rhodes/Rogers tandem at this position might actually work fairly well. ROGERS showed flashes of talent, but has been traded and injured so much that I don't have a good feel for how much he can contribute.
D. Shooting Guard
Drexler is gone. Elie is probably gone. Eddie Johnson is old enough to be my grandpa, and thus unlikely to be resigned. Essentially, the Rockets have nobody here under contract at SG. [Yeesh - this is the most bizarre draft report I've ever written, since most of the position players will need to be free agents, including some resigned off the current roster (e.g., Harrington, Elie, or MATT BULLARD) or draft picks... and I can't write about any of them!] Rhodes can play some 2-guard, but the draft has a decent number of quality shooting guards who should be available when the Rockets are picking, so I expect they'll pick up at least one. Jim Jackson is also rumored as a potential free agent pick up - a move I don't particularly support given Jackson's less than stellar performance the last few years at Dallas and Golden State.
E. Point Guard
Ah, the Rockets's perennial weak spot. I don't remember Houston having a high quality point guard since Calvin Murphy, with the possible exception of long gone Sam (Sam-I-Am) Cassell. Sammy once said that the Rockets would rue the day they traded him, and I think he's right. In his absence, Houston's three-headed-point-guard tandem has included MATT MALONEY, BRENT PRICE, and EMANUAL DAVIS. Maloney has one of those screwed up contracts where the Rockets are unable to increase his salary more than some small percentage from it's league minimum level, and he's worth more than that, so I don't expect to see him next year. That leaves the $18 million dollar man (over seven years, so it's not THAT sickening), Brent Price. Price is a journeyman guard who had one great year that earned him a big free agent contract. He's no better than adequate as a starter, and definitely not the answer in a conference with the likes of Kidd, Stoudamire, Marbury, Stockton, and Payton. Look for Houston to sign somebody like KEVIN JOHNSON to instantly boost this position while they hone a rookie point guard for the future.
F. COACHING/FRONT OFFICE
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, languishing on the bench of other teams, and in the CBA.
Houston has Olajuwon, Price, some decent young forwards, a ton of salary cap room, and three first round picks. Time to reload, boys and girls!
III. My Selection
Recall that I selected Kentucky center Nazr Mohammed with the 14th pick and Rashard Lewis with the 16th. Since there are no point guards left on the board worthy of the 18th pick, I'm going with the best player available, which in my opinion is:
Young, athletic, showed signs of NBA skills in his sophomore year at OSU. He'd have a chance to work on his outside shooting behind Rhodes and Rogers, and thus have time to develop into the kind of player I think he will eventually become. Very tempting.
IV. Others Considered
Houston should probably be looking to draft one guard, one small forward, and one big man. Those three players, plus two free agents and the existing players, should form the core of a nice team. I was hoping Jason Williams would sneak through to Houston, since there are so few good PGs in the draft, but it didn't happen. So, Houston will need to sign a free agent point guard (KJ or Stoudamire or ...).
The tough decision was which big man to take: Mohammed, Clark, or Doleac. I went with Mohammed, but it's not clear to me which would be the best pick. Doleac is probably the least risky - he should be a decent journeyman C/PF for years to come, but doesn't have a tremendous upside at the NBA level. Clark has a huge upside, but just a likely could be a total bust. Mohammed definitely needs developing, but I'm betting that he will have the time and inclination to continue improving as much as he has at Kentucky each year, this time under the tutelage of Hakeem and Barkley.
V. Who the team will probably take
Who knows? They have three picks, and I expect they'll pick one SF/SG, one PG/sg, and one C/PF. The above players look like a fairly decent crew from which to choose. The question is, do you take a big risk on either a space cadet (Clark) and/or a high school player (Lewis)? Making those decisions is why they make the big bucks, and not me. :-) Who they pick is completely dependent on who they think they can sign as a free agent -- I picked one of each category to maximize their flexibility in the free agent race.
One thing that would not surprise me would be for them to trade one of the #1s for a future #1 or some #2s, since three rookies might be too many to give adequate playing time.
VI. OTHER MOVES THE TEAM SHOULD MAKE
This is THE key for the Rockets in 1998-1999 - FREE AGENCY!
The Rockets have somewhere around $15M under the salary cap to pursue free agents, so they should be one of the, if not THE, biggest players in the free agent market this year. If the rumored trade of Hakeem for Shareef Abdur-Rahim happens, Houston has basically the entire salary cap available to them to pursue free agents! So, it's possible that the big names (Pippen, Stoudamire, Googs) might end up Rockets, but not if they ask for tooooo much. Here's what I see happening:
Basically I see Houston signing at least one of the elite/near-elite free agents (Googs, Stoudamire, Pippen, ...) and two or three mid-level players from other teams (Johnson, Jackson, Stackhouse, Ceballos, ...). That, combined with resigning Barkley, Harrington, and (maybe) one other player and the three first round picks would give the Rockets the core of a new team. They'd be MUCH younger, and thus have a future after Hakeem (not to mention Hakeem's huge salary slot after he retires). Fill out the rest of the team with low end free agents and "scout team" players and you're done. A starting lineup of...
Bench: Barkley, Harrington, Price, Benjamin, Williams, Mohammed, XXX
... would be pretty competitive and give the Rockets a strong core of young players with whom to build for the future. The swing positions would be a bit weak (and very young), but the rest is really strong and the bench would be much better than it's been in recent years (assuming some of the #1's step up and contribute).
Houston's other internal free agents are:
Finally, as I said above, I'd seriously consider trading Hakeem for Abdur-Rahim and a pair of #1's or this year's coveted #2 pick overall. That would only happen if Vancouver felt that he wasn't going to resign, and the Rockets were convinced they could resign him. Sorry for being disloyal to THE MAN, but I want to see the franchise win some more championships, and I doubt it'll happen until they reload and start over. That said, signing Googs and Stoudamire with their huge cap room would be ok by me, too. :-)
|Craig Simpson - Usenet Draft Commissioner|