Wednesday March 5th, 2008

HOUSTON -- The people have spoken and they ain't happy about my recent column discounting the Rockets' chances of making the playoffs without Yao Ming. Those e-mails kick off this mini-mailbag.

What makes you so much of a freakin' expert? Who did you play for, coach or manage in basketball? The Rockets will make the playoffs and you will look foolish! -- Jim, Virginia

Stay in New York and never come to Houston. This is Clutch City, where we've been down and won two championships. Stay away, hater. -- Mark, Houston

With all due respect to your reactionary, myopic assessment of the Rockets just hours after the Yao news, a true professional would not be so quick to do so. There is no doubt Yao's presence on the court will be missed, but their winning streak was not by his doing alone; it was a TEAM effort. -- Phillip, Houston

You don't know much about the NBA, do you? -- Chris, Houston

Touch a nerve, did I? Look, I'm far from a Rockets hater. Before Yao's injury, I believed Houston to be a dark-horse candidate to come out of the Western Conference. Not just because of Yao or Tracy McGrady, but because the supporting cast surrounding the two superstars was the strongest it had ever been.

Luis Scola is the South American version of Tim Duncan. As one Rockets official told me, Scola is the best pure power forward in Houston since Otis Thorpe, who, incidentally, was traded in 1995.

The maligned Rafer Alston is playing like a top-flight point guard. He was averaging 14.2 points and 7.5 assists during the 15-game winning streak that the Rockets took into Wednesday's game against Indiana.

Shane Battier and rookie forward Carl Landry have stepped up to play important roles. And the ageless Dikembe Mutombo, who will be wagging that finger in his grave, has proved he is still a solid, 20-minute-per-night player.

The biggest benefactor of all these contributions has been McGrady, who acknowledged that he hasn't always trusted his teammates. "I've gotten better since I've been [in Houston]," McGrady told me for a story that appears in this week's Sports Illustrated. "But when I was in Orlando, I had to shoot all the time. It's the way it was."

Does all this change my opinion of the Rockets' playoff chances? Ehhhhh. Houston benefited from a fairly easy February schedule (though, as one Rockets official pointed out, so did the Lakers). The Rockets' March slate is anything but easy: They will face all of the other top West contenders, with a home game against Boston mixed in as well. A mid-March stretch of four games in five nights against the Celtics, Hornets, Warriors and Suns -- the last three on the road -- will be especially grueling. It's still an uphill battle.

"It's a bitch of a conference," McGrady said.

Now that I agree with.

I realize that Devin Harris is talented. But the fact that he is in his fourth year in the league and hasn't really "exploded" as a top-tier point guard worries me. Maybe it was because he was on a playoff contender and had a short leash in terms of mistakes allowed. It will be interesting to see how he plays in New Jersey. -- Allen, Washington, D.C.

I'll take it one step further, Allen. New Jersey got a steal in Harris. The Nets are convinced that Jason Kidd was mailing it in this season. They are more than happy to have Harris, a 25-year-old blur who will team with Richard Jefferson and Nenad Krstic to form the Nets' core. At least until LeBron James hits free agency (that can happen as early as 2010, close to the time the Nets are expected to move into a new arena in Brooklyn).

The question that remains is what to do with Vince Carter. I'm told by league sources that the Nets have made it known throughout the league that Carter is available. It wouldn't surprise me if the Nets pushed to deal him in the offseason. Actually, it would surprise me more if they didn't.

Can we expect to see Caron Butler and/or Gilbert Arenas back in Wizards uniforms this season? -- Bill, Arlington, Va.

Butler has missed the last 12 games with a hip injury. Arenas has been sidelined since having knee surgery in November (his second knee surgery in seven months). I'm told that both players will be back this season. I think it's a mistake.

The Wizards have little chance of making any noise in the postseason. They would would be wise to be careful with Butler, who is in the third year of a five-year, $50 million contract, and Arenas, who will opt out of his contract and become a free agent after this season.

Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld has some big decisions to make this summer regarding Arenas and All-Star forward Antawn Jamison, who will be an unrestricted free agent. Knowing his core is healthy would help him decide whether to keep this group together.

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