|An opposing team's scout sizes up the Rockets|
They're saying Tracy McGrady won't be back until late November at the earliest. I'd say he'll be back later than that. He thought he tried to push through his last injury, and also he's going to be a free agent this summer so he doesn't want to get hurt. He'll see how the team is doing, but I wouldn't be surprised if he waits until January. That would give him four weeks to make an impression leading up to the trading deadline.
They go into the season without McGrady and Yao Ming, who is out for the year, and Ron Artest, who signed with the Lakers. But I don't see them dropping all the way to the top of the lottery. They've got a good coach and they run a good system. I know Rick Adelman is not going to go down easily. Plus, they're not totally devoid of talent, though they'll have to be really committed defensively to make up for the offensive weakness.
No question Luis Scola is the best player and most important player as long as Yao and McGrady are out. He has a good feeling for what they want to do at both ends and he brings great intensity every night. You can tell how much he enjoys playing because he plays with a smile on his face, which you don't see a lot of times. He fits well with their system. He can rebound, pass the ball, put the ball on floor and finish at the basket or with a decent mid-range shot. He won't scare you at the three-point line, but you have to know where he is on the perimeter. He's pretty good one-on-one defensively, and he uses his quickness to make up for his lack of height. In the past, he's had the big guy behind him, so this year it will be interesting to see if he has to guard the centers a lot more.
Their second-best player is probably point guard Aaron Brooks based on what he does as a small scorer who disrupts defenses. They're going to need scoring, which plays to his strength. That strength prevents him from making a priority of distributing the ball. He has the ability to be a true point guard, but it's his second thought. Some of his passes are late when his driving lanes or scoring opportunities are shut down. I don't see him as a selfish player, but his mentality is to score. He has the ability to get by his man so often that he gets himself in position to score. The only thing about his penetration is that it creates problems with the Rockets' transition defenses sometimes, which means the shooting guard and small forward have to get back and cover for him.
You have to game-plan for Brooks and figure out ways to slow him down and keep him out of paint. One way is to attack him at the other end by posting him up, but he's shown he'll do a good job of competing in the post. He doesn't just give up position, so he's a pretty crafty guy defensively. For the long run, I don't ever see him being among the top 10 point guards in the league because there are too many holes in his game. I see him as being a level below the top point guards who have a variety of three or four tools, while he has two or three tools. His jumper is adequate, and he's streaky enough from the three-point line that you're going to give him that shot in order to back off and try to keep him out of the paint. He's a three-point threat in transition and on the move but not so much on kick-outs. He shoots a good percentage out there [36.6 percent last season], but even so you're going to give him that shot rather than close out hard and dare him to get by you.
I like Kyle Lowry as a good fit for their team because he can play both guard positions and he can also play alongside Brooks, even though that makes them a small team. I like his toughness and strength, which give him a different skill set than they get from Brooks. Even though Lowry is not a big guard, he can put pressure on you. He can defend the ball against a bigger guard like Deron Williams without it being a complete mismatch, and offensively he doesn't force a lot of plays the way Brooks does. He tries to run the offense, but if he's pressured he will revert back to being a scorer, which is what he was in college and also with the Grizzlies. He's another good driver, and he's good at chasing down loose rebounds.
I wonder if too much is being made of Trevor Ariza. If they had Yao and McGrady available, he would fill a good complementary role without being the distraction Ron Artest was. But he doesn't have anything like the toughness of Artest either. Even though Artest is a pain in the locker room and in the media and I wouldn't want to coach him, his skill set and toughness -- especially on the defensive end -- make him completely different from Ariza, who is a passing-lane guy who depends on his length. I don't think you have to game-plan for Ariza, whereas you definitely had to game-plan for Artest. That being said, I'm sure their locker room is going to be much better without Artest and they'll be grateful for that this year. You wouldn't want to have Artest on this injured team because losing brings out the worst in him.
It will be interesting to see how rookie David Andersen fits in for them. He's a skilled big guy whom everybody has forgotten about. He's the same age as Scola  and he's been around a long time in Europe, where he has proved himself at the highest level. He could be a guy who jumps on the scene like Scola did because he's going to get a chance to play a lot with Yao on the sideline. The offense should be a good fit for him because he has the ability to shoot.
You see Shane Battier play the 2, the 3 (which is his natural position) and the 4, and yet you don't ever seem to notice him being at a disadvantage at any of those spots. He is a versatile and subtle difference-maker. He only takes good shots, which is very important. Two-thirds of all his shots were threes last season. He can also post up and score on the block. He is a very good passer and an exceptional post feeder, he is a great cutter, he hits the boards, and he is a great defender against 3s and 4s. I've seen him guard everyone from Rip Hamilton to Rasheed Wallace and do a good job. I'd love to coach him and have him on my team, but in that same respect he has got to be your fourth-best player in order for you to have a great team, because he doesn't score enough and he doesn't drive it. You could put him on the Lakers today and they'd be the favorite to win; he'd be better for them than Artest will be. There is no baggage with him. He is going to run your offense and defer to the stars, and he'll play at a consistent level always. Think of all the teams that could use him -- the Spurs, Lakers, Boston, and he'd be great for Portland. I can't believe teams don't try harder to trade for him. At 31, he's on the wrong side of the curve, but it's not like his athleticism is what made him a good player.
All of that being said, you'll notice on a losing team like this that Battier's deficiencies will stand out more. They'll need scoring and he won't be able to provide enough of it. I wonder how long he stays with this team. Are they going to be content to play out the year with him, or will they try to move him knowing he may have one or two really good years left in him?
Brent Barry is another guy who needs to be on a very good team because his deficiencies show on a below-average team like this. He needs to be in that Robert Horry role where he plays 15 minutes a game and comes in to knock down the big three. I can see one of the top teams trying to trade for him to come in and be their eighth guy. He may be close to retiring. But if you put him on the Lakers or Spurs or Boston, he could help any of those teams in the playoffs.
They're able to go really small with [forwards] Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry because both guys are warriors who just play. Plus, both guys get help from Battier, who is such a good team defender. Landry has the better offensive game and he's become a better shooter. He isn't a great passer yet, which is important at that elbow spot in their offense. So often he'll be away from the ball setting screens and making the hustle plays. But he's becoming a better and better player, and this could be a big year for him.
The Rockets were smart to give Chase Budinger a two-year deal as a second-round pick because he has the potential to get better in their system. I used to have my doubts about him, but I think more highly of him after watching him in the summer league. He has a pretty good feel and he can put people on their heels by driving the ball. He shoots it well enough that defenders have to respect him. He's going to get an opportunity to play a lot.