The Rockets have the dubious honor of being the
team with the best record (45-37) to ever miss the playoffs. That represents
an 11-game improvement over the 1999-2000 version of the Rockets, which is
sweet, but the Rockets are still in a rebuilding phase. In particular,
the Rockets went an amazing 25-5 against Eastern Conference foes, and
an unprecedented 14-0 against the Central Division, but only went
20-32 against the West. I think this can be directly attributed to
the East's relative lack of dominating inside players, against which
the Rockets have few weapons. Addressing that problem has to be goal
#1 for the Rockets' front office this summer, via draft or free
The rebuilding is clearly centered around Houston's
extremely talented backcourt duo of STEVE FRANCIS and CUTTINO MOBLEY.
Although future Hall of Famer HAKEEM OLAJUWON showed signs of his old self
at times last season, he is nearing the end of his career, which might not
even happen in a Rockets uniform. To take it to the next level (e.g., 55
wins and a decent showing in the playoffs), Houston needs to build a
frontcourt that complements Francis and Mobley, either via the draft or free
agency (e.g., Chris Webber). They have a decent amount of cap space
available, so the free agent option is available, but let's stick to the
draft for now.
Houston has three first round picks: #13 (their own),
#18 (from New York via Phoenix and Orlando), and #23 (from Orlando via
Dallas). All indications are that they won't keep all three of them, but
for the sake of the USENET draft, I need to assume that there will be
no trades. Before deciding who the Rockets should pick with their
three first round picks, let's first evaluate what they already have,
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. However, he
was much more healthy last year than in previous years, and showed
flashes of the early Hakeem at times. He averaged 12 ppg and 7.4rpg, both
of which are respectable numbers... if only we didn't remember the
Hakeem of yore. That said, his contract is up, and it is unlikely
that Houston will offer him anything close to the $16.8M he made last
year, so his time in Houston might be over. It would be nice for him
to retire a Rocket, but Hakeem wasn't happy with his diminished roll
in the Houston offense ("bad basketball"), and seems likely to jump to
a potential contender for his last year or two. It will be sad to see him
in another team's uniform, if it comes to that.
Houston is paper thin. KELVIN CATO came over from Portland in the Pippen
deal and showed enough promise two years ago that Rockets management signed
him to a $42M contract through 2006. I'll bet they regret that deal every
day. Cato's an ok 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. Rookie JASON COLLIER did not really play enough
for me to judge his potential here.
In summary, the Rockets could
use some serious housecleaning in the pivot.
took a while before last year's big free agent signing, MAURICE (Mo) TAYLOR,
found his role in Houston's offense, but he seemed to become comfortable as
the season progressed, at least on the offensive end (13ppg). That said, Mo
is not the most intimidating defensive presence in the middle, averaging
fewer rebounds per game than Francis (5.5 vs 6.9) and only 0.5 blocks
per game. This left Houston vulnerable to teams with good inside
games, which unfortunately includes most of the Western Conference.
Taylor has the option of entering free agency again (and likely will), and
is widely considered the second best PF free agent option behind
Webber. If the Rockets cannot land Webber, I hope they don't break the
bank for Taylor, who is talented, but a bit one-dimensional.
Taylor's primary backup is KENNY THOMAS, a solid third year player. He
increased his scoring average to 7.1ppg and pulled down 5.6 rebounds per
game. Thomas also provides a bit more of a defensive presence than Taylor,
although his "tweener" size causes problems for him against the elite PFs in
the league. Thomas shared minutes with MATT BULLARD and CARLOS
ROGERS, both of whom 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.
SHANDON ANDERSON, a self-less player who plays hardnosed defense but can put the ball
in the hoop when necessary, would seem to be the ideal SF for the Rockets.
And, there were games when Shandon did just that. Too often, however, he was
the forgotten fifth man on the offensive end, going entire quarters without
taking a shot. I'm sure he found this frustrating, even though his work on
the defensive end was really all Houston needed. He's opted to retest
the waters of free agency this summer. I, for one, hope that he can
be lured back into the Rockets fold, because Houston needs more
players willing to play their role, without worrying about their
scoring averages or making the highlight films.
forward duties with Anderson is WALT WILLIAMS, a talented scorer who does his
disappearing on the defensive end. Williams is best suited coming in off the
bench when Houston's primary scoring threats (Mobley and Francis) are taking
a blow. The one thing that both Williams and Anderson 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... if they can resign him.
Although Mo Taylor's free agent signing got most of the national press,
Houston's resigning of uber sixth man (and now starting 2-guard) CUTTINO
MOBLEY was Houston's most important move of last offseason. Despite shifting
to the starting lineup where he would face opposing teams' best guards,
Mobley's game only improved last year. He average 19.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, and 2.0
apg, demonstrating the all around skills that has become a trademark of his
game. Mobley is signed to a long term contract, and barring injury is the
Rockets' starting shooting guard for the next decade.
Ah, point guard. I cannot remember the last time that the Rockets had
a point guard worth a damn, but the future of the franchise is clearly Wonder
Boy STEVE 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. He led the team in scoring (19.9
ppg), assists (6.5 apg), and steals (141). Francis is an amazing scorer,
an (all too) unselfish passer, a tenacious defender, and an
excellent rebounder (6.5 rpg) for a guard. If Francis has any flaws, it's
that he is too unselfish. If that's your point guard's biggest flaw,
you know you're in good shape. Expect Francis to be an All Star
next year, and stay on the All Star squad for years to come
(especially once Stockton and Payton retire).
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.
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.
The front office has made some good
moves in recent years to bring in other young players to augment the
backcourt's prodigious talents and to free up salary cap space. Hakeem's
$16.8M/year contract has expired, freeing up a lot of cap space. Another $6M
in cap money is available due to several contracts ending (Anderson (player
option), Bullard, Colson, and the long-gone Don McLean), and another
$2.7M could be freed up if the Rockets decide not to pick up Langhi
or Rogers' contracts. According to RealGM,
Houston sits almost $15M under the salary cap for next year, despite
Cato's ridiculous $6M+/year contract.
After years in
which it was obvious that the Rockets were slowly sliding into mediocrity,
the team made huge strides towards building for the future. It will take a
bit longer to play out, but the foundation is there, and there are talented
youngsters at every position, with the exception of center. That said,
the frontcourt is EXTREMELY thin, and the Rockets won't be
consistent winners again until that is remedied.