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Houston Rockets

For the 10 years that there has been a Usenet Mock Draft, John Carter has been the Rockets GM.   This year, John will have three first round picks to make.  The first is the Rockets own, and he uses it to select

Loren Woods, C, 7'1", Arizona


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 agency.   

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, 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.  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.   

Behind Hakeem, 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.   


It 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.   

Sharing small 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).   

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.   


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.   

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.


LOREN WOODS, 7'1" C from Arizona


With the 13th pick, I also seriously considered Woods' teammate RICHARD JEFFERSON (6'7" SF, Arizona) and VLADIMIR RADMANOVIC (6'11" PF, Yugoslavia).  This was a real tough decision.  Jefferson is a super athletic SF who plays the kind of hard-nosed defense that the Rockets love, and could be an excellent replacement to Anderson. Radmanovich wowed scouts during a workout with Gerald Wallace and Jason Collins, and is said to be better prepared for the NBA than Dirk Nowitski or Pau Gasol by the one man who's coached all three.  I decided to go with Woods because he fills a real team need, and his stock is supposedly rising after putting on a much needed 20-pounds of muscle while working out with Michael Jordan's trainer and a couple of solid workouts with teams.  I would not, however, be at all surprised to see either Radmanovic or Jefferson in a Rockets' uniform next year.


Who knows?  Houston rarely makes a predictable pick, sometimes for the good (Sam Cassell or Michael Dickerson), sometimes not (Rodrick Rhodes).  All indications are that the Rockets will trade one or two of their picks away, either to move up in the draft or to stockpile more future picks.  Whichever pick(s) they keep, I expect them to go for size, since an intimidating inside presence is what they lack most, and because this draft is surprisingly deep with big men.


Houston has six free agents of their own, but the only ones that really matter are Moochie Norris, Mo Taylor, and (to a lesser extent) Carlos Rogers.  The big question is... can they land Chris Webber? Webber has been playing his cards very close to his chest, not really tipping his hand.  He did say that Houston was one of the teams he would consider joining, but who knows?  It would seem like a good match with the potential to make a real dent in the playoffs, but I guess we'll see if Webber sees it the same way.