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Whole Offense, Hole Defense: The Houston Rockets Preview

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It’s now our pleasure to introduce Sesha Kalapatapu, who will be blogging about b-ball for us from time to time. Be nice. Or not. We get the feeling this guy doesn’t mind a good argument.

Sometimes I imagine that the major newspapers each have a huge white board that lists all of the standard pre-season articles, and right before the season starts, there’s a sportswriters’ draft for the story lines. My guess is that it goes something like this: “If A and B stay healthy, if declining veteran C gets his mojo back, if second year player D’s learning curve goes as expected, if rookie E brings something to the table, and if free agent signees F,G, and H settle into the rotation, this could be, just maybe, the most interesting, dangerous, fun team to watch in the NBA.” Way to go out on a limb, fellas!

Come on. Let’s have a real, honest, objective analysis. A crutch to rely on when the team loses, and something to pitch in favor of unabashed fanaticism when they win. That’s what I’m offering here.

A word about me: All you need to know is that I’m a hardcore Rockets fan. I high-fived my brother in our parents’ living room when they won the 1983 coin toss and the right to select Sampson, and again the following year for the right to select Hakeem, not Jordan. Like most diehards, I was glued to the TV during the OJ chase – except I was trying to find anyone who would show Rockets-Knicks Game Six instead of a white Ford Bronco driving down a Los Angeles freeway. And I could probably tell you, from memory, how each Rockets player over the last 20 years was acquired by the team, how long he stayed, and who replaced him via trade or free agency.

Beyond that, you don’t want to know. Trust me on this. All you’ll find if you Google me is that I’m probably smarter than you. (Or maybe not. But probably.) Beyond that, you’ll get distracted by the links to www.kalapatapu.com – that is NOT my family and I do not know the people who run that Web site. Where I come from, the surname “Kalapatapu” is as common as Smith is here in the U.S.

But anyway, I digress. On with the analysis.

Rockets season preview: Any true analysis of this year’s team has to start with an assessment of last year’s. Conventional wisdom says that the 2007-08 Rockets were defensively strong but offensively challenged. But I just don’t buy it.

Last year, Rick Adelman realized early that it was taking a lot longer than he anticipated for the team to grasp his motion offense (especially Yao). He ended up running a lot of JVG’s plays for most of the year. So of course the offense was boring and generally about as effective as it was when they ran it for JVG.

This year, I am expecting big things from the offense. Yao is the hardest working man in NBA show business, so he should keep on keeping on from where he left off when his season ended. T-Mac, in my opinion, has one of the highest basketball IQs of any player in the NBA. Alston, Landry and Scola understand their roles and are effective in them. Battier is Battier, of course – he does anything the team needs him to do. And Artest knows the offense as well as anyone, plus the constant movement is probably a huge plus for a guy who’s better when he’s involved than when he’s standing still.

So by all accounts, this ought to be a high scoring, highly effective offense. Defensively, though, this team still has some serious holes. Yao has finally starting playing his size, but he will never have the footwork or lateral quickness of a Shaq, or Hakeem, or Tim Duncan. And I can’t figure out T-Mac, defensively. He always talks about defense after games, but where does he fit in the league as far as defenders? (More on this to come.) Battier and Artest are plus defenders, but you’re not likely to see them on the floor at the same time unless the other team is playing small, or you’re giving up offense because T-Mac is getting a breather.

How were these holes filled? In two words, they weren’t. Yao needs an Otis Thorpe type, or at the very least, a Kelvin Cato type next to him – a large body, athletic inside-the-paint banger, rebounder and put-back specialist. In the regular season, Landry, Artest and Scola are strong enough to win games, but in the playoffs you need someone with size enough to guard Duncan, Amare Stoudemire, Pau Gasol / Lamar Odom, Carlos Boozer, Tyson Chandler, probably LaMarcus Aldridge, and so on.

The other major hole defensively is at the point. That’s great that Aaron Brooks is a “bright spot” this preseason, but is he going to guard Deron Williams or Chris Paul? I love Rafer’s game, but since Cuttino Mobley got traded the Rockets have struggled with big, fast and quick point guards.

Don’t get me wrong – this is not a knock on Daryl Morey because I just didn’t see anyone out there this summer who could’ve helped the Rockets at the point and at the four spot. But Morey is better at getting something out of nothing than any GM in the history of Houston sports, so I’m hopeful. Witness: 2006 mid-level exception and Juwon Howard become Bonzi Wells and Mike James, who become Bobby Jackson, who becomes Ron Artest. Would you trade the 2006 mid-level exception and Juwon Howard for Ron Artest? I certainly would. All that said, unless he can pull a defensive minded PG or a springy PF out of his magician’s hat, it’ll be no better than a first or second round playoff exit again this year, depending on the matchups.

So I’m expecting a big regular reason, and hopeful for a roster change that gets the team past the early rounds of the playoffs. Because IF the team grasps Adelman’s offense, and IF they figure out how to play Artest, Battier and T-Mac together, and IF they upgrade defensively at the point or with a live body PF, then this team might possibly have a better than average change of making a serious run at the Lakers, Hornets and Spurs.

Food for thought: I love him, but is Battier superfluous for this team? (I know that’s a big word for some of you, but try to keep up.) And if he is, how could we “fix” the roster by dangling Battier? Battier for Lamar Odom? Offer Battier for Chauncey Billups if the Pistons stumble out of the gate? Discuss amongst yourselves and I’ll talk to you next week. -- Sesha Kalapatapu

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