|John Carter has been the Rocket's GM for every Usenet Mock draft. His reports are always among the best (if not the best). John gets my "Lifetime Achievement" award :-). John selects:|
I. TEAM NEEDS/HISTORY
While a 34-48 record is normally nothing to write home about, the Rockets can be proud of the way in which they overcame adversity after adversity and started to look like a real contender over the last month or two of the season. In what was thought to be the first year in a gradual generational change, the young Rockets were tossed into the water and forced to learn to swim without any help from their veteran stars, after first CHARLES BARKLEY and then HAKEEM OLAJUWON suffered season-ending injuries.
First, a moment of silence in honor of the passing of Sir Charles, one of the greatest players to ever grace the NBA.... We'll miss you, Chuck! Enjoy your retirement!
The Rockets are clearly rebuilding, with only Hakeem (and MATT BULLARD!) left from the great Rocket teams of the mid-90s. The good news is that the rebuilding process is off to a roaring start thanks to trading for the rights to STEVE FRANCIS and seeing CUTTINO MOBLEY develop into a potential star. While they struggled for much of the year, the Rockets were clearly coming together as a team as the season wound to a close. They won't be challenging the Lakers for the NBA title any time soon, but have a solid foundation on which to build.
Last year I suggested that Houston should (a) get younger and (b) unload some of their huge contracts to give themselves flexibility. They did both, which is why things are looking a lot more rosy now than they were a year ago. A lot of people criticized the Rockets for "giving away" Pippen to the Trailblazers, but I thought it was a great move. They unloaded a player who was divisive and overcompensated in return for a couple of younger players and much greater salary cap flexibility. I was less supportive of the Rockets' decision to give unproven KELVIN CATO a huge contract, but c'est le vie.
For those of you who have followed the Rockets for a long time, and I've been doing Rockets Reports and mock drafs for them since the mid-80's, this year will be an odd one. The Rockets backcourt should be amazing, while its frontcourt will (mostly) suck, which is quite the opposite from what it's been like for the last twenty years or so.
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 Father Time and injuries have taken their toll. He does not dominate games on his own like he did even four years ago. When healthy, Hakeem is still a very good center, but he doesn't dominate teams by himself like he did in his prime. He had by far his worst season as a pro last year, and while we can hope that next year will be somewhat better if he's healthy, he's pretty much just playing out his (huge) contract.
Behind Hakeem, Houston is paper thin. KELVIN CATO came over from Portland in the Pippen deal and got the lion's share of minutes after Hakeem went down. Cato's a solid young center, but he's inconsistent and doesn't always appear to play hard. At times he is a menacing defensive force, blocking 2 shots and pulling down 6 boards per game. At other times, he seems lost on the court. His offense, however, is severely lacking and doesn't show many signs of ever developing. That said, he's still young and last year was the first in which he got serious minutes, so the jury is out. Odd as it might seem, Cato might be on the trading block, partially due to his $42M/7-year contract.
Cato's backup was ANTHONY ("PIG") MILLER, who works his butt off every minute he's in the game, but he's only 6'9", so he isn't really a center. Tough defensively and on the boards, Miller can give the Rockets some tough minutes off the bench, but not much more.
B. POWER FORWARD:
Like center, the power forward position is thin as it gets. The Rockets tend to play power forward by committee, but the leading contender for a regular starting job is KENNY THOMAS, a second year player who benefited from the increased playing time that resulted from the injuries to Olajuwon and Barkley. Like Cato, he was good for about 8 points and 6 rebounds per game, but Unlike Cato, Kenny was able to create his own shots and was a much more fluid part of the offense. On the downside, his shooting was often atrocious (witness his .399 FG%), but he seemed to be improving rapidly as the season drew to a close, which bodes well for next year.
Although he's not much of a rebounder or defensive presence, MATT BULLARD gets some minutes at power forward, as does CARLOS ROGERS. Both are solid journeymen, with Bullard providing a serious outside threat when Francis and Mobley are drawing attention with their drives, and Rogers providing a mix of rebounding and inside scoring (mostly not off set plays). All in all, the power forward position is in ok, but not great, shape.
C. SMALL FORWARD:
Last year's big free agent signing was SHANDON ANDERSON from the Jazz. For most of the season, Shandon did not demonstrate the skills that caused the Rockets to sign him, but like many of the other young players, he seemed to find his role in the last month or two of the season. During Houston's strong closing stretch, Anderson and fellow SF WALT WILLIAMS each were huge offensive presences, and Anderson can even play some defense. The one thing that both players lack is consistent board presence, which exacerbates Houston's weakness up front. However, like the power forward position, the Rockets have a reasonable rotation at small forward, including one young player with whom they can build for the future.
D. SHOOTING GUARD:
Two years ago, Michael Dickerson was one of the biggest rookie surprises, playing himself on to the All-Rookie second team and showing real sparks of talent. When he was traded to Vancouver as part of the deal for Steve Francis, it looked like Houston would have a real problem at the 2-guard position. Not so! Fellow rookie (now second year player) CUTTINO MOBLEY was a leading contender for Sixth Man of the Year last year, and he might well have won it if the Rockets were a contender. Mobley complimented Francis perfectly, and he gave Houston a serious scoring threat off of the bench (15.8 ppg and a .356 3-FG%). Houston's number one free agent requirement over the off season is to resign Mobley! He and Francis could be Houston's backcourt for the next decade.
Note: In practice, Anderson, Williams, and Mobley share the SG and SF positions. The rotation is fairly good.
E. POINT GUARD:
Ah, power forward. I cannot remember the last time that the Rockets had a point guard worth a damn, but now the future of the franchise is clearly STEVIE ("Wonder") FRANCIS. After pouting his way out of Vancouver, Francis has done it all, and then some, for the Rockets. Not only was he not the headcase many feared he would be (after pouting his way out of Vancouver), but rather, Francis quickly became the team leader after Barkley and Olajuwon went down. Since point guard is by far the hardest position for a rookie to pick up, Francis' development was nothing short of remarkable! He led the team in practically every statistical category, including scoring (18.0 ppg), assists (6.63 apg), and steals. He shared Rookie of the Year honors with Chicago's Elton Brand. For all intents and purposes, last year signaled the shift from Houston being' Hakeem's team to Houston being Francis's team. From all indications, Francis will be a perennial All-Star and is the kind of player around whom you can build a franchise. All hail the new king!
Tomjanovich and company used a bit of their CBA magic to pull another rabbit out of the hat when they signed MOOCHIE NORRIS to a pair of 10-day contracts, and then kept him around. Norris was a real surprise, and handled the point quite effectively when Francis needed a breather. He seems to have solidified a hold on backup point guard, if the Rockets resign him, and seems to be a quite talented one at that.
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. It must've been frustrating for him at times last year when all of the youngsters were out of synch and nobody really understood their roles, but Rudy and Company persevered, and it all seemed to be coming together when the season ended.
In addition to doing a great job of bench/practice coaching, the front office did a great job under trying circumstances. The trade for Francis was a HUGE move, and will be the foundation of the franchise for years. In addition, I was solidly in favor of the "addition by subtraction" that came with moving Pippen to Portland. In last year's report, my number one concern was how old most of the team was. Boy, things sure can change in one year! Now, the entire team is young, with the exception of Olajuwon, and to a lesser degree, Bullard and Williams. While that means that wins will still be a precious commodity, the youth movement should do wonders for the long term health of the team. Bravo!
After years in which it was obvious that the Rockets were slowly sliding into mediocrity, the team decided to really shake things up last year and made huge strides towards buliding for the future. It will take a few more years to play out, but the foundation is there, and there are talented youngsters at every position, with the possible exception of center (depending on your opinion of Cato). That said, the frontcourt is EXTREMELY thin, and the Rockets won't be consistent winners again until that is remedied.
II. MY SELECTION (and an explanation)DerMarr Johnson, 6'6" SF/SG from Cincinatti
I can hear you thinking, "Huh? I thought John said that their #1 concern was the frontcourt - why another swingman?" Given that the team is rebuilding, I decided that it would be best to choose the "best player available." The best big men available (Moiso and Tsakalidis) have major question marks, and both seemed like a real stretch at #9. That left me deciding between Johnson and Fresno State SG Courtney Alexander. I eventually decided that Johnson's ability to play small forward in addition to shooting guard was enough to put him ahead of Alexander, and his amazing repertoire of scoring moves. Johnson is a great ballhandler and can hit the outside shot, both of which should make him a solid compliment to Francis and Mobley. In addition, he's really young, since he played only one year at Cincinnati, so the upside is high.
III. OTHERS CONSIDERED (and why considered)
Courtney Alexander, 6'5" SG from Fresno State: Alexander is probably the better SG prospect, but with Mobley and Francis already getting the majority of the playing time in the backcourt, he isn't quite the right match. If the Rockets don't think they can sign Mobley, or get a particular attractive sign-and-trade offer for him, Alexander would be an excellent option.
Jerome Moiso, 6'11" C/PF from UCLA: Moiso is the best of the rest when it comes to US big men. He's fairly smooth and can board well, but I'm not sure if he'd be much of a move up from Cato and Smith. The Rockets have had him in for tryouts, which is a lot more than I can say I've done, so I would not be surprised to see him selected here.
Iakovos Tsakalidis, 7'2" C from Greece: I've never seen Tsakalidis play, but all indications are that he's one of the better bigman prospects to come out of Europe in years. Unfortunately, his contract situation is really muddled, and the latest news seems to be that he is still under contract in Greece. That being the case, I am not sure if he can be signed. Again, if the Rockets know something I don't, like status of Tsakalidis's contract with AEK, then he would be a real option. Certainly Houston could use an imposing presence inside!
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. I'm hoping that they can bundle a player with their pick and move up to the point where they could take one of the top front court players (Martin, Mihm, Swift, or Fizer), but it's always really hard to move up into the top 4-5 positions, even when you can dangle the 9th pick as bait.
V. OTHER MOVES THE TEAM SHOULD MAKE
Houston has six free agents of their own, but the only ones that really matter are Cuttino Mobley and (to a much lesser extent) Moochie Norris and Anthony Miller.
Houston's #1 free agent priority for the offseason MUST be to resign Mobley, without giving up the farm for him. Mobley shows all signs of being a long term part of Houston's backcourt of the future, and it would be a serious setback if they cannot retain his services.
Both Norris and Miller would be nice to keep, but not sorely missed if they were not resigned. That said, I expect them to both be resigned, since they provide useful time off the bench.
When it comes to other teams' free agents, Houston doesn't have a lot of flexibility (even with Barkley's retirement). They have a $2M/year exemption and possibly a larger trade exemption, but basically not too much to dangle in front of any of the elite free agents. The one player that is mentioned regularly as a likely target for Houston is Houston native Rashard Lewis, small forward from Seattle. Lewis would be a very solid pickup, since he not only can score, but seems to be a solid defender and rebounder as well, both things that Houston needs more of. If they can sign (or think that they can sign) Lewis, then the choice of DerMarr Johnson looks a lot more suspect.
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