2011-2012 Houston Rockets Season Preview
The Houston Rockets tip-off their lockout-shortened season Monday night in Orlando against the Magic.
To say that this has been a tumultuous offseason for the Rockets would be an understatement. Much has happened since the last time basketball was in Houston, and unfortunately for the Rockets, not a whole lot of it has been good.
While the Rockets were not able to make any significant changes during the offseason or land any marquee free agents, they still have a stable of young, talented players with a lot of upside, and this team will play hard.
The Rockets will once again be led by the energetic Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola, with scoring threat Kevin Martin providing precision shooting from the wing. Although Chuck Hayes has, for the time being, departed, newly acquired center Samuel Dalembert should provide some much-needed stability in the post for the Rockets.
Let’s take a look at the complete breakdown of key players (and head coaches) who have moved on from the Rockets organization, as well as the incoming head coach and new players:
Outgoing: Head Coach Rick Adelman, Yao Ming, Chuck Hayes
Incoming: Head Coach Kevin McHale, Marcus Morris (R), Chandler Parsons (R), Samuel Dalembert
Obviously, the biggest change we will see from last season to this season is the head coach. Rick Adelman did a great job with a young group of players playing without a superstar. Let’s get real for a second… This team will not be a serious contender until they get a superstar, or maybe two.
Many believe that this group of players actually overachieved last season because Rick Adelman is so adept at squeezing every bit of talent he possibly can out of them. This may be true, but Coach McHale is also pretty good at motivating his players.
Although the Minnesota Timberwolves were miserable when McHale was manning the sidelines, compiling a 39-55 record as head coach of the Timberwolves, he didn’t exactly have very much talent to work with at the time.
Kevin McHale is a true player’s coach who is great at developing relationships, working one on one with players, and using his communication skills to effectively manage a team filled with young kids who make a lot of money. X’s and O’s will be important, but McHale’s lighthearted attitude and easygoing nature, as pointed out by the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen, may be even more of an asset to this team than anything this year, especially considering the hurt feelings and bruised egos from the Pau Gasol debacle.
We won’t know for sure how this Rockets team will look in terms of offensive and defensive philosophy under McHale until we see them out on the court. McHale does have a history of being a very aggressive coach who asks his players to take chances and play their rear ends off. He also emphasizes a great deal of off-the-ball movement on offense, such as the screen and roll.
He had a great career as a player in the NBA, making his name in the paint, and he will look to do the same with the Rockets. This does not exactly look to be McHale’s idea roster as is, but he will have to roll with what he has.
In The Paint
The addition of Samuel Dalembert was huge for this Rockets team, as they now have a legitimate NBA center, and not just a project. Dalembert will provide a shot-blocking and rebounding presence on the defensive side of the ball that the Rockets have been missing ever since Yao Ming’s career ended. He may not be an All-Star, but true centers are few and far between, and the Rockets finally have one of their very own.
Jordan Hill and Hasheem Thabeet may still have productive NBA careers ahead, but they have much to learn. Hill is expected to come off the bench for Dalembert and provide a spark, and he has looked efficient and energetic in short action this preseason. Patrick Patterson should also come off the bench as well, seeing an increased role after a solid rookie season in which he displayed pretty good defensive instincts. His ability to play strong man defense in the paint could prove to be invaluable for the Rockets down the road, as this team has struggled mightily on defense ever since Jeff Van Gundy left for the greener pastures of calling games on television.
As usual, Luis Scola will be the go-to man in the paint when it comes to scoring points for the Rockets. Scola averaged 18.3 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game last season, having one of the best of his career. Last season was probably Scola’s ceiling, but there is no reason to expect a decline this year.
On The Wing
On the wing, the Houston Rockets have Kevin Martin holding down the fort as the main offensive threat. Martin averaged 23.5 ppg last season, and although he seems to still be struggling mentally over the trade-not-trade to the New Orleans Hornets, he will nonetheless be a key component to the offense going forward. He is a professional, and he will play like one.
Chase Budinger is the projected starter on the other wing. Budinger provides leaps and bound of athleticism and length from the three, with great shooting range that can help to stretch the court with the dead-eye Kevin Martin opposite of him. However, he needs to improve upon his 43% FG shooting from last season.
Off the bench from the wing, Courtney Lee, Terrance Williams and rookie Marcus Morris should see plenty of action backing up Martin and Budinger. Lee is a solid defender and a good spot up three-point shooter, while Williams provides great athleticism and solid rebounding but very limited upside in terms of an outside shooting threat.
Kyle Lowry is the starting point guard, and this is his team. He is the emotional leader and the general on offense calling the shots. Lowry had his best season as a pro last year, averaging 13.5 ppg, 6.7 assists, and 4.1 rebounds to go along with a 37% 3-Point field goal percentage.
Lowry is looking to build on last season’s campaign and continue to improve both as a player and as a leader. If he can make the type of jump from last season to this season as he did the previous year, Lowry could push for a spot on the All-Star team, something the Rockets haven’t had much of in a while.
Backing up Lowry will be Goran Dragic and Jonny Flynn, two more good young players with a lot of potential. Whether or not it will be realized remains to be seen.
What We Can Expect
“Good young players with lots of potential” seems to be the phrase that comes to mind most when thinking about the 2011-2012 Rockets. Houston is loaded with “assets”, and General Manager Darryl Morey’s strategy ever since the end of the McGrady-Yao era has been to stockpile such assets to land a marquee superstar in a trade. He almost had his man in Pau Gasol this year before David Stern decided to play dictator and veto the trade, but that is another story for another time.
The Rockets must play the cards with which they are dealt, and they will have to play them well to have a shot at the 7 or 8 seed in the Western Conference. With division foes such as the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, Memphis, and San Antonio, the sledding will be tough. Each of those rosters is more talented and experienced than the Rockets, so this young team will have to lay it all on the court each and every night, winning the “hustle categories” such as offensive rebounding, and take care of the basketball by playing smart.
If the Rockets can manage to do that, in a 66 game season, I can see their ceiling being a #6 seed with a 37-29 record, BEST CASE SCENARIO. Keep in mind, this is my ceiling projection, and while it would be a great story to see the Rockets have a season like this, I don’t believe it is likely.
I think it will take the Rockets some time to adjust to Kevin McHale’s coaching style and strategy, especially with no training camps this offseason. I think that is to be expected, though. The advantage that Houston does have is that they have largely kept their core group of players intact for this season, so their familiarity with each other should help a great deal.
That will not affect the learning curve of having a new coach and a new system enough to make them a #6 seed, though.
I’m projecting the Rockets to finish 32-34, just missing the playoffs as the #9 seed in the Western Conference. It will be a tight race for the last spot in the west, with teams like Utah, San Antonio, Denver, and the Lakers likely all in it, but with a shotgun start and a new head coach, I don’t see Houston quite being able to make it in.
For the Rocket’s sake, here’s to hoping I’m wrong, and here’s to a great NBA season!
Find me on Twitter @jaredhuntley