Sunday , Oct , 25 , 2009 Oly Sandor

How good is Houston without Ron Artest, Tracy McGrady, and Yao?

Their fortunes appeared to be changing, but then summer hit. Yao’s foot injury was worse than originally diagnosed and he’s out all of 2010. McGrady, after a summer rehabilitating his micro-fractured knee, is still questionable, while Ron Artest left Houston for the free agent riches and fame of Los Angeles …

How good is Houston without Ron Artest, Tracy McGrady, and Yao?During training camp and the early stages of the regular season, HoopsVibe the Blog will ask and answer an important question facing each of the NBA’s thirty teams. Weigh-in with thoughts on our ‘Key Questions’ feature in the comment box below.

Today’s team: the Houston Rockets.

Key Question: Can Houston compete without Ron-Ron, T-Mac, and Yao?

The Answer: If it weren’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.

After years of playoff heartbreak, the Houston Rockets overcame injuries to superstars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming to win a seven game series and push the world champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semi-finals.

Their fortunes appeared to be changing, but then summer hit. Yao’s foot injury was worse than originally diagnosed and he’s out all of 2010. McGrady, after a summer rehabilitating his micro-fractured knee, is still questionable, while Ron Artest left Houston for the free agent riches and fame of Los Angeles.

Even without their three best players from 2009, the blue-collar Rockets could conceivably challenge for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and scare a contender in the first round. Here’s why:   

The less talent they have, the more blue-collar Houston becomes. Without McGrady and Yao, the rest of the roster has no choice but to dig-in, man-up, and get-stops. Their defense – led by Trevor Ariza, Shane Battier, and Luis Scola – must further reduce opposition scoring, even though they only gave up 94.4 points per game in 2009.

They have nice role players. Guard Kyle Lowry, after being acquired from Memphis at the trade deadline, is physical on both ends of the floor. Meanwhile, third-year man Carl Landry could post double-figure scoring numbers, rotating between the four and five positions.

So they have an identity and some chemistry from last year. What are the negatives?

Points will be hard to come by. Without a first-option who can create for himself or others, Coach Rick Adelman will be forced to use a scorer-by-committee system. On some nights, the offense will struggle.

The cupboard isn’t totally bare, though. For instance, young Aaron Brooks emerged as a player last year. Look for the tiny table-setter to use his speed on pick-and-rolls to create pops (jumpers) for Battier and rolls to the basket for Scola. 

There may be minutes for second round pick Chase Budinger. The offensively starved Rockets could certainly use the former All-American volleyball player’s athleticism, outside range, and scoring ability.

However, Budinger is a bit of a mystery.  Years ago, I watched him as a freshman dominate a pre-season tournament near Vancouver, B.C. His talent was obvious, yet he never fulfilled his potential at Arizona. Budinger did have an impressive summer league and his skill-set may be better suited for the pro game.

The five-spot is a concern. David Anderson, an NBA rookie with loads of European experience, will try to replace the injured Yao. And at times, Adelman will go with workers like Scola and Landry. Still, bigger teams could have their way with the undersized Rockets.

After years of bad luck, Houston will need some good fortune to be relevant in the Western Conference.  

Prediction: In the mix for the eighth playoff spot in the West.

Sound off: Where do you see the Houston Rockets finishing in 2010? Get at us in the comment box below and follow Oly on HoopsVibe and Twitter. Photo courtesy of mikeopera.