New Rocket boosts add pressure for T-Mac, Yao, JVG
HOUSTON -- One splashy offseason move is typically all it takes around here. We saw it again in September, just like the summer before.
The Houston Rockets signed Bonzi Wells and, almost instantly, were widely proclaimed to be back among the NBA elite.
Those who actually play and work for the Rockets know it isn't so. They remember all the premature praise in circulation this time last year, when Stromile Swift, improbable as it seems now, was afforded full-fledged Missing Piece Status upon signing up to serve as Yao Ming's new frontcourt sidekick.
Good health, then, is merely the No. 1 worry for a team that managed to put Yao and Tracy McGrady on the floor together in only 31 of its 82 games last season.
"You've got to manage the hype," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "For us, it's all projections and predictions at this point. I've told our guys, I don't want them to underestimate how good they can be. But I also don't want them to underestimate how far we have to go."
Van Gundy is famously pessimistic, true, but he's hardly exaggerating about the length of the journey. The Rockets haven't won a playoff series since 1997, went 0-8 last season against their fellow Texans from Dallas and San Antonio, and can't even dream about playoff glories until they know their two superstars can manage the injuries that have habitually interfered with McGrady's vulnerable back and Yao's left foot.
It's not as if they're off to the best start, either. Yao has already missed a good chunk of this month with a serious (at least to Van Gundy) toe ailment. And Wells, thanks to persistent groin trouble and then a root canal, has yet to get through a full practice with his new team, meaning he'll undoubtedly start his Rockets career delivering a good bit less than the 23.2 points and 12.0 rebounds he averaged in the playoffs for Sacramento.
It also means that Van Gundy will likely open the final season on his contract without a single look at his best five players on the floor as a unit before opening night.
Spend time around the Rockets, though, and you don't sense any here-we-go-again discouragement ... yet. Even Van Gundy has been joking about his "new personality" and an accompanying promise "to focus on the positives."
Maybe that's because the Rockets made more than one splashy move, which makes a return to the playoffs likely if they can find some sustained health. On draft night, remember, Houston traded the rights to the promising-but-enigmatic Rudy Gay -- and free-agent misfit Swift -- for Shane Battier, one of the league's most revered role players.
The Rockets also acquired Kirk Snyder from the Hornets at a minimal cost to add size to their too-small backcourt, scored what appears to be a draft steal with second-round sharpshooter Steve Novak and imported 2004 draftee Vassilis Spanoulis after the versatile guard helped Greece upset Battier's Team USA in the semifinals of the World Championship in Japan.
So there was a buzz about the Rockets and their revamping even before the September score of Wells at a bargain of $2.1 million this season, after Wells famously rejected a $7 million-a-season offer from the Kings. Wells' arrival, helped along by McGrady's behind-the-scenes lobbying, inevitably ramped up what Van Gundy termed "the hyperbole of the preseason" ... and justifiably so if he can fit in as a third scoring option.
"They asked me about him," said Battier, who played with Wells in Memphis. "I told them that Bonzi is a fiery guy, and sometimes his cup runneth over as they say, but I think a lot of that has been circumstantial. On this team, I think he can be a really good player. He'll be able to get shots and minutes and the ability to produce, and that'll keep him happy."
Of course, it appears Houston will need November and December to figure out whether it's best to bring Wells off the bench as the featured gun for the second unit or squeeze him into the starting lineup. If they ultimately choose the latter, Battier's presence is critical, since it's his ability to masquerade as a power forward, in a league where long-limbed three men who can shoot and defend increasingly find themselves at the four spot, that would give Wells sufficient down-low space to operate.
Battier might find himself at power forward quite a bit anyway, in spite of what that might do to the Rockets' ability to rebound, with Van Gundy among the growing legion of Yao-watchers who believes that the giant in the middle would benefit most playing alongside a four-man who can shoot and pass.
There might also be times when Van Gundy tries Wells as his power forward in a lineup featuring Snyder and McGrady, with the idea that the Rockets' increased size at the swing positions could compensate for how small Houston generally looks when Yao is on the bench. The success of all those possibilities, mind you, flows from the fact that McGrady looks quite spry and smooth these days, especially considering that his oft-interrupted 2005-06 season ended in March.
"Tracy is ready for the season to start," Van Gundy declared, relishing what he describes as a "renewed sense of upbeatness" from the 27-year-old.
Said McGrady: "Yeah, man, I am back. I'm healthy. I'm just excited for the season. I think we have a really good chance of being a great team."
Oh, yeah. Sometimes the hype comes from the Rockets themselves. T-Mac recently announced that Houston's fortified depth, athleticism and perimeter shooting makes this "the best team I've been on in my 10 years in the league."
He was a bit more restrained in our chat, knowing that the Rockets -- McGrady, Yao and Van Gundy, specifically -- have some win-now pressure to manage, as well.
The coach always feels it, but so do these two stars, neither of whom (a) has gotten out of the first round yet and (b) knows for sure how long his body will cooperate.
"You guys are going to put us wherever you're going to put us," McGrady said of the projections and predictions. "It's good if you're all going to have us high, but we haven't proven anything yet. You've got to have the right chemistry. Guys have to be willing to sacrifice their games. Injuries occur -- you saw what happened around here last year. Just because we have Bonzi and Shane, we've still got to go out and prove ourselves."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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