It seems like forever ago, but the Rockets still hold the distinction of giving the reigning NBA champion Lakers their toughest playoff battle of the last two years. After pushing Kobe to just his third Game 7 of the last decade (’02, ’06, ’09), however, the Rockets essentially lost their top three players this season and wound up in the Lottery.
And yet, Houston has plenty of reasons to be optimistic. In a season of turnover and turmoil — where Yao Ming missed all 82 following foot surgery, Ron Artest left in free agency, T-Mac played a handful of games before a deadline trade, and fan favorite/future building block Carl Landry was also traded — the Rockets cultivated a new, younger core and still finished above .500 in the West. How can they get back to the playoffs in 2011?
1. Put Yao Ming in a bubble
Whatever it takes, just get Yao to the season opener on his own two feet. Houston is a playoff team with a 7-foot-6 guy in the lineup; if that guy can slap up 20 points, 10 boards and 2 blocks a night and make it through the regular season, Houston can win a round or two with Yao, Aaron Brooks, Kevin Martin, Shane Battier, Trevor Ariza, Luis Scola and Rick Adelman. At the same time, the Rockets need to make contingency plans in case Yao doesn’t hold up. They have the 14th pick in an NBA Draft deep at the center position; and if Houston wants to swing for the fences, they can explore a sign-and-trade for Chris Bosh or Amar’e Stoudemire.
2. Re-sign Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry
Scola is an unrestricted free agent in line for a raise over the $3.3 million he made this season. Lowry is a restricted FA with a $2.9M qualifying offer. The Rockets don’t have much cap room, but if possible (and barring the acquisition of an All-Star PF), they have to keep those two in town. Scola’s ability to run the floor and play bigger than 6-9 allows the Rockets to go small and play fast; he’s similar to what Amar’e is for the Suns when he plays center. Lowry as a backup PG is only a marginal drop-off from Brooks and keeps the second unit moving at a sprint.
3. Force a Kevin Martin/Trevor Ariza friendship
Get them Houston Astros season tickets, lock them in a gym together, enter them into the 2-on-2 For Brotherhood tourney … just get them hanging out if they’re not already close. Ariza needs to learn to create his own shot, and while he didn’t seem to absorb much under Kobe’s wing, K-Mart2 is one of the League’s most underrated one-on-one scorers and a student of the game. And just like Kobe, Martin has the work ethic of a monk and is constantly looking to add new moves to his repertoire. If Ariza incorporates just a couple of them, he’ll be a better player next season.