I. TEAM NEEDS/HISTORY
|The Rockets are at a crossroads as a franchise, but I
say that every year. Hakeem is
looking old. Barkley may retire
for good and is not the superstar we remember from the early 90's. Pippen doesn't seem to fit in. They didn't
resign Elie, who took his heart
and fire to San Antonio, where he's about to earn another ring. The backcourt was run by a
couple of rookies, but hey, I'll rate that as a bright spot as at least they were young,
hustling, and improving.
Last year I
suggested that Houston only had two choices: (a) use their huge pool of money under the
salary cap to sign some elite free agents or (b) unload and start over. Unfortunately, and
despite my advice in last year's draft report, the Rockets chose option (a), blew a wad of
money on Pippen, let Elie slip away, and showed that they are not nearly up to
championship caliber. Hopefully they will learn their lesson this offseason.
Once again, I think Houston has basically two choices,
although they are different choices this year. Option A is to
keep the core of the team together and make us Rocket fans suffer through another weak
regular season followed by a one-and-out visit to the playoffs.
You can probably guess from the tone of my sentence what I think of that option. Option B is to unload one or more of the big contracts and start to
rebuild. To quote Houston Chronicle's columnist Dale
Robertson, "Assuming Pippen isn't traded or Olajuwon doesn't voluntarily retire -- no
chance of that -- they can't improve themselves one iota, because there will be no way to
make a significant acquisition, and their young players' progress will be offset by the
veterans' declining skills." I couldn't say it any better.
Mr. Robertson raises an interesting scenario. Pippen was
one of the keys to Chicago's domination this decade, behind His Airness. Now that ex-Bulls
coach Phil Jackson is the new head coach of the Lakers, might Houston be able to palm off
Pippen and his huge contract to the Lakers for a couple of players. I doubt it, but one
can dream. More likely, they'll keep basically the same group of players together, pretend
that a full training camp and preseason will make a serious difference, and go about their
mediocre ways. Sigh. As somebody who has been following the Rockets closely since the
early 80's, who can remember standing in the upper deck of the Summit when "we"
won our first championship (against the hated Knicks) and then watching the improbable
second championship run from the sixth seed, it sure is depressing to watch them simply
So, to summarize, Houston's two biggest needs are to GET YOUNGER and to UNLOAD SOME OF THEIR HUGE CONTRACTS TO GIVE THEMSELVES SOME FLEXIBILITY. The two are closely linked, since the only way to get younger is to
unload some of the veterans and bring in some fresh blood, by trades or free agency. If
Charles is interested in another year, and can accept the fact that playing with the
Rockets will not get him his long sought ring (sigh), then they should resign him so that
they retain a semblance of quality and entertainment during the rebuilding process.
Anyway, before deciding who the Rockets should pick with
their first round pick, let's first evaluate what they already have, by position.
HAKEEM OLAJUWON was the
best big man in the league for a long while, but his age and injuries have takend their
toll. He does not dominate games on his own like he did even three 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 can control both ends of the court, even when
matched against the other elite centers, but he doesn't dominate teams by himself like he
did in his prime. Basically, he can do it all: low post scoring, mid range jumpers,
passing out of the double team, rebounding, man to man defense, "team" defense.
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. OTHELLA HARRINGTON is a good young player,
who seems to be improving every year. However, he's too small to play center on a regular
basis and is better at the power forward position. ANTOINE
CARR is a wily veteran who can spell Hakeem in short bursts,
but he's older than dirt and wille eventually need to make way for younger blood. If a
miracle occurs and a good big man falls to the 22nd draft spot (hahaha!), the Rockets
could do a lot worse than picking one up (e.g., Eschmeyer or MacCulloch). They could
definitely use another shotblocker, albeit it would be best to get one who could share the
court with Hakeem, like Robert Horry used to do.
B. POWER FORWARD:
Depending on the lineup, CHARLES
BARKLEY joins Hakeem prowling underneath the basket. Although
he seriously thought about retiring before last year, Charles had a very good year and I
hope he returns again. His scoring average is down from his "glory" years, but
considering that he has to share the paint with Hakeem, that's not surprising. Stanley Roberts and Othella Harrington are the primary frontcourt
reserves, as described above.
C. SMALL FORWARD:
Houston made a lot of noise last season when they signed
perennial All-Star SCOTTIE PIPPEN
to a long, and very lucrative, contract. Unfortunately, as I predicted, he didn't mesh to
well with the existing talent and had what could be generously called a mediocre year.
It's not all his fault, though. Chicago had no real inside game, so Pippen and Jordan had
plenty of lanes to drive to the hoop, which is Scottie game at its best. With Hakeem and
Charles justifiably filling the middle, Scottie was forced into being a designated 3-point
shooter, which is not his strength. While his offense stunk, Pippen did manage to
contribute nicely as a ballhandler (5.9 apg) and on defense. Still, he was a bit of a
square peg in a round hole. While I'm not sure if there is any truth the rumors, a trade
to LA for Glen Rice and Robert Horry might just make sense. Rice is (or was, until this
year) a great three-point shooter, which Houston could use, and Horry would give the
Rockets a talented veteran off the bench.
Behind Scottie are MATT
BULLARD and SAM MACK, both designated three-point shooters. With Hakeem and Charles still
demanding a lot of attention inside (especially Charles this year), players who can hit
the open 3 can make a big impact on Houston's roster. That said, neither Matt nor Sam is
exactly known for their defense or their ability to create their own shots, which can help
lead to Houston's occasional long dry spells on offense.
D. SHOOTING GUARD:
After "Glide" left to coach the Houston
Cougars, the 2-guard position looked like a black hole. Instead, it turned out to be one
of the few real bright spots last year as rookies MICHAEL
DICKERSON and CUTTINO MOBLEY combined to average over 20ppg. Sure, they made lots of rookie mistakes,
but they both showed serious signs of being NBA players. Dickerson even made the
All-Rookie second team, which is quite an accomplishment for somebody drafted as low as he
was. Assuming that they continue to develop, which should happen since they both get a lot
of playing time, this position looks pretty solid for the next couple of years -- in other
words, the Rockets should not draft a two-guard unless something really bizarre happens.
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 is included MATT MALONEY, BRENT PRICE,
and rookie BRYCE DREW. Maloney
is a solid player, but nothing special. Lucky for him, and the rest of the Rocket point
men, they don't have to do much, what with Pippen handling much of the ballhandling and
most of the plays involving feeding the post and waiting for the kickout pass. Drew got a
lot of playing time as a rookie, and showed flashes of quality play, but still leaves a
lot to be desired. Price is a journeyman guard who had one great year that earned him a
big free agent contract. He's no better than adequate. While I could see Houston drafting
somebody here, they already have a lot of young unproven talent, and I'm not sure a rookie
would get enough playing time to develop.
F. COACHING/FRONT OFFICE:
Houston has one of the best front office and coaching
staffs in the league. RUDY TOMJANOVICH is an excellent coach, who gets a lot out of his players. 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. Elie (before he left), Mobley, Dickerson, and Mack are
all astute cheap pickups in recent years. Then again, signing Pippen and trying to fit his
slashing style into Houston's inside-out game wasn't the greatest move ever...
The Rockets have lots of good players, especially up
front, but they didn't mesh all that well as a team last year, mostly because Pippen is being forced to play "out of
style." They're getting REALLY old, and need to draft the best young player(s)
available and develop them. Given options, they would be best off drafting a forward,
since that's where they're oldest and thinnest. A good point guard would not be bad,
II. MY SELECTION (and an explanation)
|TODD MACCULOCH, C,
Washington. The best of the big men still on the board,
and not a terrible talent. He was one of the few players who taped out as taller than
listed at 7'1". He's not speedy, but he has solid offensive moves and should be a
solid, if unspectacular, NBA player for years to come. You can't really ask for much more
at the 22nd spot.
III. OTHERS CONSIDERED (and why considered)
|To be honest, I would have preferred to have taken a
small forward or point guard, but it seemed like both those positions had been picked over
pretty hard before the Rockets got to pick. Given who was left on the board, I decided to
ignore positional needs and take a player who I thought would stick around in the NBA for
a while and give the Rockets another solid young player to develop for the future.
LARON PROFIT, SG, Maryland. Very good defender and a solid shooting guard, albeit not the greatest
shooter. If Houston wasn't already so deep with young 2-guards, he would likely have been
DEVEAN GEORGE, SF,
Augsburg College (Div III). I was sorely tempted to take
George, based on what I've read about him having really good workouts. However, since I
haven't been at those workouts and don't know how much of the press leaks are smoke
screen, I decided to pass. Teams are unlikely to burn a first round pick on George, a raw
Division III player, but look for him to get drafted by somebody.
LEE NAILON, PF/SF, TCU. One of the leading scorers and rebounders in the NCAA for the past
couple of years. Unfortunately, he's a real 'tweener, too small for PF and too slow for
SF. Although I like his raw talent, I've seen similar players turn out to be huge busts
(e.g., Walter Berry and Derrick Chievious), so color me uninterested.
CHRIS HERREN, PG, Fresno
State. Very talented player with enough off court
problems to keep him from being picked too early. He's a real point guard, which Houston
could use, and while his shooting leaves a lot to be desired, he might be worth a shot.
KRIS CLACK, SF/SG, Texas. Clack was really tempting. He's apparently had some pretty good workouts
and has shown some flashes of real talent in college. Question is whether he has an
KENNY THOMAS, PF, New
Mexico. Thomas had an amazing freshman year, which led
people to expect a lot from him. He never really delivered, although he did carry the
Lobos to four straight NCAAs. A lot of talent and a good attitude might justify a shot at
SCOTT PADGETT, SF/PF,
Kentucky. His solid defense and ability to shoot from
outside might make him worth consideration.
IV. WHO THE TEAM WILL PROBABLY TAKE
|Who knows? Houston rarely makes a predictable pick,
sometimes for the good (Sam Cassell or Michael Dickerson), sometimes not (Rodrick Rhodes). I'm sure they'll do a better job of evaluating the talent than I did
(even though I did "steal" Eddie Jones in the late first round a few years back
in the USENET draft).
One thing that
would not surprise me would be for them to trade their pick, possibly to move out of the
first round in return for future picks. Houston seems to do pretty well with late picks
(e.g., look at Mobley and Harrington), and there's not much difference
between the 22nd pick and the 32nd one.
Houston is also rumored to be listening to offers for Maloney, since they have a bit of a glut of
ok point guards. If they could package Maloney with their pick and move up enough to pick up one of the better point
guards in the draft (e.g., Terry
or Avery -- I know they can't
get high enough to snag Francis,
Davis, or Miller), that would certainly be worth
V. OTHER MOVES THE TEAM SHOULD MAKE
|I think Houston would be best off trying to move Pippen, if they can get anything approaching
fair value for him. His style is simply not a fit with the rest of the team, at least as
long as Hakeem and Charles are around. It's a shame to waste so
much talent, and salary cap money, on him if they could pick up a high quality small
forward or guard. I'm not a huge Glen Rice fan, so hopefully they can find a different deal to make. In any event,
the major offseason moves begin and end with Pippen (or Olajuwon).
Given their almost total lack of salary cap money, it's pretty clear that
Houston won't be playing in the free agent pool much this year. I'm still bummed that they
let Mario Elie slip away -- he
had more pride and guts in his pinkie than some players will know over their entire
careers. I don't think it's a complete coincidence that the Spurs started winning big
after he showed up.