- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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BEIJING, China -- There are no bags under their collective eyes, their suits don't have that borrowed-from-an-older-brother look and they haven't hitched a ride en masse on Alonzo Mourning's ankle -- but give the Houston Rockets time, for in a lot of other ways the team is becoming a mirror image of second-year coach Jeff Van Gundy.
Maybe that's why Van Gundy ended the Rockets' week-long exhibition tour of the People's Republic of China in the most inexplicable mood -- giddy. When a post-game translator addressed him as "Mister Coach" after the Rockets' 91-89 exhibition loss to the Sacramento Kings, Van Gundy went on a five-minute riff. "I can't tell you how much I enjoy that," he said, smiling. "My players call me a lot of things but you can be sure it's nothing as nice as that. I want to take that home with me. I'm coming back over just for that. Now what was the question?"
That got a laugh from Chinese and American reporters alike, which then prompted Van Gundy to keep going. "This is great," he said. "I'm even getting laughs. When I'm at home, I'm usually dying."
Van Gundy acting light-hearted after a loss? To a Kings' team that doesn't look all that impressive itself? With severely overwrought expectations for this year's squad since the blockbuster trade that landed Tracy McGrady? The same Van Gundy who has been known to snarl after a bad practice?
"The trip was a positive in so many ways," he explained, "but there's no doubt the negative was for basketball."
Add the time lost to the 12-hour flights over and back, the absence of familiar facilities and food and the extracurricular events and jet lag that pre-empted normal practices, and the week was basically a goodwill tour. It did wonders for Chinese-American relations. The Rockets clearly appreciate more deeply star center Yao Ming's status -- think Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan and Robert DeNiro rolled into one -- among his 1.3 billion countrymen. The dividends for the NBA's popularity and presence were such that commissioner David Stern already is talking about bringing over regular-season games.
But prepare the Rockets to improve on last year's 45-37 record and first-round playoff exit with seven new faces? They might've been better served taking a week off.
"It was a great experience," said forward Juwan Howard, "but it's not the best way to get ready for the season. I don't know how much we learned about ourselves."
This much was apparent: While McGrady and Yao form one of the best inside-outside combinations in the league, the deal to get T-Mac has left Houston with myriad major holes. Free-agent rookie David Hawkins is the closest thing to a true two-guard in camp and free-agent refugee Charlie Ward is the starting point guard. This is the same Ward who the San Antonio Spurs were ecstatic to land as a free agent last January, only to watch him get outplayed by Devin Brown and Jason Hart. The same Ward who also went 0 for 4 on set-your-feet, eye-the-rim 3s in China.
Jim Jackson, a great find last season when he averaged a career-high 6.1 rebounds, is now being counted on heavily to have another standout season. He looks up to the task but at 33 that's hardly a lock, especially shifting assignments to accommodate McGrady.
The bench, meanwhile, is a treasure trove of one-dimensional players. Tyronn Lue can stay in front of most point guards and is an underrated three-point shooter, but he's not going to make a difference on offense. Taylor can score and make clutch shots but not defend or rebound. Dikembe Mutombo is a good practice matchup for Yao but his defense isn't much more intimidating than his offense, a long fall for a four-time Defensive Player of the Year winner. Ryan Bowen already is a team favorite with his hustle plays, but opponents will funnel jump shots to him all day long. Bobby Sura is not expected to return from back surgery until mid-December. Bostjan Nachbar still looks all too often as if he missed the hotel wake-up call.
This, in short, is a team that won't give Van Gundy any trouble with how it behaves and still give him plenty of problems in how it actually plays. While the Rockets' braintrust believes Ward and Lue are enough at point guard, they're already looking around for ways to combine their $5.9 million salary-cap exception and existing personnel to improve at power forward.
For now, though, the focus is on Yao and T-Mac. Sure, they're great. The question seems to be, just how great? Yao has added noticeable upper-body muscle and posted deep easily and consistently against both Brad Miller and Chris Webber. He is still susceptible to double teams, though, as his five turnovers in 27 minutes losing in Beijing demonstrated.
McGrady, the newest Rockets superstar, was a much more difficult read. He is so smooth and has such great vision that the offense already flows considerably better than it ever did last year. His chemistry with Yao is obvious. On one possession in Shanghai he drove the baseline and then lobbed the ball to the rim for Yao, a play negated because of a foul on the drive. The next possession he made the same move, threw the same pass and Yao deftly laid it in with his back to the basket.
No team will have a better go-to play than the Rockets' high pick-and-roll with T-Mac and Yao. The worst they'll get is McGrady raising up for an 18-footer. But the overall defense raises doubts about how many games they'll be close enough to win on a final possession. Ward, by the Rockets' admission, can't defend the league's starting point guards without help. The addition of McGrady means Jackson, whose strength allowed him to compensate for the speed he's lost and compete at small forward, is going to be matched up with a lot of shooting guards this season. So far, Van Gundy's impact on McGrady's oft-critiqued D hasn't been noticeable. Porous perimeter defense puts a premium on having agile shotblockers, which doesn't describe either Howard or Yao.
"My concern is not how Yao and T-Mac play together," Van Gundy said. "It's how the rest of our team fits together around them."
Getting the Rockets to play together shouldn't be a problem. Last year's Houston squad had cliques and a certain level of immaturity that drove the button-downed Van Gundy crazy, even though he said, "They competed and did everything I hoped for." The problem is that this year's team, while much more likely to stick to the game plan and not short-circuit itself with mental lapses, just doesn't have overwhelming talent beyond The Big Two.
If Van Gundy is nervous, though, he sure isn't showing it. Legendary for his pessimism, he has the pompons out, at least as of now.
"I like our guys very much," he said. "I like their character. They have an idea of who they are."
Which is -- they're Van Gundy guys. That means they'll be better than the sum of their parts, just as last year's Rockets were ultimately less than the sum of theirs.
Which sum ultimately proves to be bigger is what we're about to find out.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.
Yao and T-Mac looked comfortable together in China, but the rest of the Rockets are a work in progress.