Updated: Oct. 27, 2005, 7:31 AM ET

SPECIAL PREVIEW EDITION
Rockets: Second best in West?

Rockets

Team Page | Schedule | Roster | Hollinger Stats

Where will the Houston Rockets finish in the Southwest Division and the Western Conference? Get 12 different takes from ESPN's NBA experts.

ANALYST DIV CONF COMMENT

Chris Broussard ESPN Mag

3
5
Need a Dawg to play next to Yao.
Ric Bucher ESPN Mag
2
4
They should be the second-best team in the West by the end of the season. Stromile Swift's biggest contribution will be helping keep Yao out of foul trouble and on the floor.
John Carroll Scouts Inc.
2
4
Excellent inside-out game with Yao and McGrady. Houston was ranked the NBA's No. 3 team in fewest points allowed. Addition of Swift up front adds athleticism. Question marks are the point guard and health of Wesley and Sura.
Chad Ford ESPN Insider
2
4
The Rockets may be the second best team in the West this season. If Yao progresses, Stromile produces and Rafer behaves, T-Mac and Van Gundy should lead Houston deep into the playoffs.
John Hollinger ESPN Insider
3
5
The West's third-best team is unfortunately the third-best team in its own division, meaning Houston likely gets Dallas in the first round again and exits early while inferior teams advance to the second round.
Scoop Jackson ESPN
Page 2

2
4

Tracy proved in the playoffs that it's his world. Did Van Gundy recognize?


Tim Legler ESPN
2
4

See Item 7 for Legler's analysis of the Houston Rockets.



Eric Neel ESPN
Page 2


2
4
I like them, but the backcourt is a problem, and with both Swift and McGrady, the team could check out for games at a time.

Jim O'Brien ESPN Insider
2
4
Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady just got some more ammunition in the backcourt with Derek Anderson and Rafer Alston. Stromile Swift makes them deeper along the front. They could make the Spurs flinch.
Will Perdue ESPN Insider
2
4
Might be San Antonio's biggest threat in the West. I figure they will get off to a much better start this year than last (15-15 as of Dec. 31). Stromile Swift should help clog up the middle even more for the Rockets' opponents.
Chris Sheridan ESPN Insider
2
4
True story: One night last June, a woman at the bar of the Delano Hotel in South Beach went decibel crazy while summing up that Yao is soft and T-Mac was worthless in Game 7 against the Mavs.
Marc Stein ESPN.com
2
4
Questions aplenty in the backcourt, with glue guy Bobby Sura injured and newcomers Alston and Anderson moving into prominent roles. Yet there's much to like, with Stromile Swift in as Yao's long-awaited frontcourt sidekick.


Houston Stro
Ginobili
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images
The Rockets got Swift, and Stro makes them miles more athletic.


Lineup Breakdown
ESPN The Magazine sizes up the Rockets roster:

PLAYER ANALYSIS RATING
Starters: Lots of questions. Not enough answers.
PF
Juwan
Howard
If he stays healthy, he's still only OK.
6
SF
Tracy
McGrady
Can nice guys finish first?
9
C
Yao
Ming
Will he ever be more than an Asian Rik Smits?
8
SG
David
Wesley
At 35, is undersized 2 getting old? OK, he is old.
6
PG
Rafer
Alston
Will he melt down emotionally as he did in Toronto?
6
Bench: Stromile Swift (pedestrian), Derek Anderson (always hurt) and Dikembe Mutombo (old as dirt). Luther Head (yeah, who's he?).
7

TOTAL SCORE

42

ESPN The Magazine's NBA Preview hits newsstands Oct. 26.



Hollinger's Player Spotlight
Yao Ming
Player Efficiency Rating
23.22
vs. NBA Avg.: +8.22

One of the strangest subplots of the season came when Houston struggled at the start of the year. Out of nowhere, a lot of "What is wrong with Yao Ming?" articles started popping up, as though it was clearly Yao's fault that Charlie Ward needed a walker to get across half court. In truth, Yao already was well on his way to his best season as a pro and has shown slow but steady improvement in his three pro campaigns.

Yao is unusual because, despite his size, he doesn't overpower opponents with brute force the way Shaquille O'Neal does. Instead, Yao is a very good short-range shooter, and since nobody has a prayer of blocking his shot, he's a devastating scoring option. While Yao's 18.3 points per game average doesn't seem overly impressive, keep in mind that he averaged only 30 minutes a game. On a per-40-minute basis, he scored 23.9 points with one of the highest True Shooting percentages in the league. Yao is slowly learning how to play more physically, as well, causing his free-throw rate to climb steadily.

The reason Yao averages so few minutes is tied to two factors. First, he frequently gets in foul trouble. Yao's foul rate actually increased quite a bit last season and he fouled out of eight games. The playoffs were even more extreme, as Yao completely dominated but couldn't stay on the court. He averaged over 21 points and shot 65 percent against Dallas but could play only 31 minutes a game.

Second, although Yao doesn't have great stamina, the Rockets have him running all over the place. On defense, they ask him to step out and trap screen-and-roll plays, then run back to the middle. On offense, he has to set a high screen for McGrady before he dives down the lane to a spot on the blocks. If he only had to run from block to block like Shaq, he might be able to stay on the court for much longer.

-- Rockets player profiles from John Hollinger's "Pro Basketball Forecast: 2005-06," available at Amazon.com and Potomac Books.


The Mod Couple
Johnson
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
Basketball's never seen anything quite like the pairing of the gentle 7-6 giant Yao and the unstoppable HS-to-NBA T-Mac.


SportsNation Speaks
Yao Ming's success at center for the Rockets can't hide some significant flaws in his game.

We asked SportsNation what he needed to work on most. More than 10,000 fans responded:

What should Yao Ming most improve on?
35.1% Stamina
33.1% Rebounding
31.8% Foul difficulties

Vote: Rockets in 2005-06 | Results



Tim's Time
Tracy McGrady

Legs on Rockets: The Rockets were the third best team in the West (behind San Antonio and Phoenix) by the time the playoffs rolled around last April. Their collapse against Dallas in the first round (up 2-0, before dropping Games 3 and 4 at home) should actually make them stronger this time around.

Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming haven't come close to realizing their potential as one of the top inside-outside combos in the NBA.

With David Wesley, Juwan Howard and newly acquired Rafer Alston in the starting lineup, Houston has the role players to be a serious threat to the Spurs.

The difference-maker may end up being a new acquisition. Stromile Swift will bring shot-blocking, offensive rebounding and boundless athleticism to a front line lacking in all of those areas.

Too bad for the Rockets that they may have one of the top-five teams in the NBA yet are runners-up in the state of Texas.

Tim Legler, ESPN Insider



Coach's Corner
Jeff Van Gundy
Experience: 9 years
Reg. season record: 344-240
Playoff record: 41-40
Coach's profile

Jeff Van Gundy's teams are always stingy at the defensive end (No. 2 in field-goal defense) and were first in the league in defensive-rebounding percentage last year.

Striking the right balance between running with Tracy McGrady and the deeper perimeter or waiting for Yao Ming to set up in the half court will always be a balancing act.

Jim O'Brien, ESPN Insider



Hollinger's Q & A
Are T-Mac and Yao the West's best duo?

Although players such as Swift and Sura are important pieces, realistically the Rockets will only go as far as McGrady and Yao can carry them.

That looks to be quite far indeed. McGrady actually had an off year by his standards in his first season in Houston. The only thing that saved his per-game averages from a steep decline was his playing an insane 40.8 minutes per game. He probably won't have to play so much with the additions of bench players such as Anderson and Head, and the hope is that more rest will allow T-Mac to rediscover the outrageous scoring skills he displayed in Orlando.

Yao has the opposite problem -- he averaged only 30.6 minutes per game because of stamina and foul issues and needs to stay on the court longer to take advantage of his devastating shot-making in the post.

That said, is there a duo in the West one would take over these two? Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili certainly make an imposing tandem in San Antonio, but Ginobili plays even fewer minutes than Yao and neither Spur can fill it up like McGrady.

The only realistic competition is Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire in Phoenix, but one can make the argument for Yao and Tracy even against those two because the Rockets' pair provides more defensive value and has played at this exalted level for longer. Perhaps we'll get a definitive answer if the two teams meet come May.

More Hollinger Rockets analysis Insider



Fantasy Fix
Swift
Swift

Sleeper: Stromile Swift has long been a fantasy sleeper, but he often has disappointed. Now on a new team that doesn't have to force him to play center, Swift should thrive. Swift should see an increase across the stat board, especially in rebounds and field-goal percentage. Having Yao Ming draw attention will propel Swift to new heights.

Bust: Juwan Howard comes off his worst season by far, but fantasy owners shouldn't expect it to be a mere fluke. Howard is 32 and no longer one of the top three or four scoring options for his team. Here's where name value isn't worth much in fantasy. Howard won't see enough minutes or passes to be worth drafting.

Eric Karabell | Fantasy Basketball Index

 

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