The good people at The Dream Shake should probably get more play in Babble air space not only because of their excellent Rockets coverage, but because they actually mention the words "Robert Horry" and "Hall of Fame" in their mission statement: "Expect criticism, commentary and shameless promotions to get Robert Horry into the Hall of Fame." These are my type of guys. With the intriguing albeit confusing Houston Rockets rolling into Beantown this evening, today seemed the perfect opportunity to poach some Western Conference insight from Tom, Lee and David. The gentlemen were silly enough to think that I might have some useful answers to questions of their own, so we did indeed go home-and-home this time around (feel free to check out my rambling responses over there). Away we go with The Dream Shake...
SW: I wrote at season's start that the Rockets intrigued me as much as any team in the West. Their blend of haven't-won-yet and injury-prone but also super-talented stars made them a big-time X-factor in the Western Conference coming into 2008-09. What were the expectations for you and the fan base at large at the beginning of the year, and how have the first 36 games of the season altered those expectations?
TDS: I think we expected more from the Rockets this year, and not just in our record. At 21-15, I think we're doing okay, especially with the injuries we've had and with the Ron Artest experiment still in its early stages. But the tough losses to far inferior teams have really been quite annoying, as well as the lack of quality wins. We just never seem to kick anyone when they're down; our opponents are usually in the game for quite a while. It would be nice for us to play up to our potential on a nightly basis. Our expectations have probably dwindled just a bit. Everyone went nuts after the Artest trade and instantly thought, "Oh, we're definitely going to contend with the Lakers." Now, it's more along the lines of, "Yes, we have a very good chance, but nothing is guaranteed anymore." In my mind, we have yet to prove that we are anything more than an intriguing question mark. But we certainly have the potential to.
SW: Health aside for the moment, if there is one issue that seems particularly concerning, it's that of ball movement in this offense. Early in the year, the Rockets' offense seemed stagnant, which appeared to make sense given Rafer Alston's style at point guard and, perhaps more significantly, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest's occasional tendencies (particularly the latter) to put their heads down and turn offense into a one-on-all proposition. How much of a problem has this been this season? Is it merely an issue of time getting acclimated to having a new player in the lineup in Artest, or is this something that will inherently plague the team based on its personnel?
TDS: I'm getting so tired of that word (stagnant), but it really is a correct judgment of our offense. It's usually three easy steps:
1. Rafer Alston dribbles out 10 seconds off the shot clock.
2. Pass the ball to T-Mac, Artest, or Yao.
3. Stand and watch as Yao makes a post move or as T-Mac and Ron jack up pull-up jumpers.
In reference to the article you wrote, I very much agree with the Tom Ziller quote stating that Ron "repeatedly makes odd decisions on offense." It's true he's been chucking up threes this year like he's Kyle Korver (or, gasp, Tracy McGrady). As for McGrady himself, it's always been a problem, not so much with the fact that he touches the ball, but instead because he asks for isolation every time he gets it. Stagnant play as a whole is something that has plagued the team on many nights, but on others, we've seemed to shoot our way to 100 points, which is pretty much a guaranteed win (14-1). We have many good outside shooters, such as Aaron Brooks, Battier, Brent Barry, and even Artest (40% from three), but we can't rely on them all the time. We have to keep getting the ball to Yao, and if it lands in the hands of McGrady or Artest, we need to do something to get them some open space, as opposed to simply going one-on-one every time. Given each's health issues, driving right by a defender isn't an option any more.
SW: On a related note, for the second straight year since the Rockets brought in Rick Adelman and his high-octane offense, it has been the highly efficient defense that has carried the team (second in defensive efficiency last year, sixth this year), while the offense has remained in the middle of the pack. Is this to Adelman's credit as a better defensive coach than many may have realized, or has he simply inherited a good defensive team from Jeff Van Gundy and failed to bring the offense to the heights some expected when he came to town?
TDS: I think it's a lot of Van Gundy and a little of Adelman. JVG established a defensive mindset that has been entrenched in Houston even with Adelman's arrival. But it's not like Adelman is a terrible defensive coach either. Many of his Sacramento teams were among the top ten in the NBA in terms of defensive efficiency. While the defense was established among JVG, in no way has Adelman's presence negatively affected it. And in short, yes, his offense has failed to meet expectations. Not much more to say about that. By the way, to clear the air and echo the sentiments of David and possibly Lee, the Dream Shake misses JVG and appreciated all of the work he did in Houston. We wish him well, whether it is through a career in broadcasting or coaching.
SW: Does Rafer Alston's presence as the starting point guard limit how far this team can go? If so, what course of action would you like to see to deal with that?
TDS: It's not as simple as, "Rafer sucks, so don't start him." I wish it were, because believe me, he's had a sub-par season, but it can't be done, at least not at this point. I'm a huge Aaron Brooks fan, and I wrote earlier this season that he should start over Rafer. But despite the continued crappiness of Rafer's play, I've leaned towards the notion that A) He should still start, but B) His minutes should go down significantly. As good as Landry and Rawn are, Aaron is probably our biggest change-of-pace guy off the bench. When he comes in for Rafer, it's like replacing an iced tea with a Red Bull - it's just a whole different experience. I like his production with the second team enough to keep him there, and I would hate to see Rafer run the second team offense. However, as I said, I think Brooks should take more minutes from Rafer, most importantly fourth quarter minutes. Adelman has been inserting Alston into the game late over the past few weeks, and it has only hurt us. Brooks has kept us in many games, and if there is a course of action I would like to see to deal with the point guard situation, it would be for Brooks to see more action late in the game during the crucial minutes.
SW: One to get the fans riled up: Picking relentless reserve power forwards, Carl Landry or Leon Powe?
TDS: I for one have been impressed with Powe, despite my disgust with him after that outburst he had last season in Houston. But it's got to be Landry here. He averages five more minutes per game than Powe, and despite that, he averages less turnovers and fouls, and shoots a higher percentage from both the field and from the free throw line (82 percent!!!). His jump shot is coming along nicely, and, from what I've heard, he is practicing (gulp) a three-point shot! The similarities between the two are in the A) powerful dunks every few touches, B) instant energy off the bench, and C) ability to body up centers despite giving up a few inches in height. But otherwise, I think Landry is the more versatile player, and I would rather have him on my team. Plus, he is simply a boss. And for the record, am I impressed with Powe? Yes. Do I hate his guts as an opposing fan? Absolutely.
SW: Time for the Daily Babble Q-and-A staple: word association. Just the first word, phrase or thought that comes to mind:
Robert Horry: Hall of Famer
Aaron Brooks: his quick smells like French toast
Sam Cassell: we miss you, Mr. Alien Head
Bennett Salvatore: openly tries to be the worst referee in the league, sadly for him, Steve Javie still exists
First round: the streak will end this year
Rajon Rondo: Mind Screwer of one Rafer Alston
Luis Scola: all energy, all hustle, all the time
David Stern: the best commissioner in sports historically, refuses to fix the obvious issues with the game now
Rockets fans: rabid minority, yet large following...Houston is largely a show-me city for sports
SW: What's the biggest improvement this Rockets team needs to make in order to maximize its chances at the 2009 title?
TDS: I think it comes down to two things: consistent effort and cohesiveness on offense. On any given night, this team can come out strong and simply out-hustle the opponent en route to getting some rare fast-break points, defensive stops and turnovers, and offensive rebounds. This has been the kind of effort shown in games versus New Jersey, Denver, @ Atlanta, San Antonio, @ Phoenix, @ Orlando and New Orleans. In those games, we have looked like legitimate contenders that were hungry for wins. But on other nights, such as games versus Toronto, Indiana, @ LAC, @ Memphis, and Washington, we just look lackadaisical, and by the time we realize that we might lose the game, it's too late to just suddenly start trying.
If we could come out every night with the same effort and intensity that we have in that first batch of games I mentioned, we would improve our chances. And secondly, we're just not in sync right now. Even at this point last season, despite our ugly record, we were beginning to come together and jell. But it's just been a train-wreck so far. Crazy Pills has been solid, but he hasn't quite settled into a role yet. Our backcourt situation has been shady all year, especially with McGrady showing up for work once every three or four games. And while T-Mac may be the biggest reason why we haven't found a rhythm yet, the blame cannot be solely placed on his shoulders. The entire team needs to find a way to work out the kinks and play with some cohesiveness. But we still have plenty of time, and I think Adelman is experienced enough to find out what we need to work on the most in order to come together on offense.
SW: Score prediction for tonight?
TDS: In the blandness of Bill Belichick, "This is going to be a hard-fought contest between two good teams." However, in the boldness of Randy Moss, "Rockets 88, Celtics 84." Yup, I said it.
Much thanks to the fellas for coming aboard and sharing their perspectives today. Good luck to the Rockets and their fans tonight, so long as it's not too good. Go green!