They didn't lose anything form their core by trading for Ron Artest, so it was a good deal for them. Coach Rick Adelman knows Artest, and Artest knows and respects Rick. Adelman knows how to work with those kinds of players: Vernon Maxwell, Bonzi Wells, Rod Strickland, Keon Clark, even Chris Webber -- Rick did well with all of them. So they have that going with Ron.
The question is, How are they going to play with Ron? He has a very distinctive way of playing: He plays with the ball. That's not the way their offense is set up. But I don't see Ron changing the way he plays; it's too late in his career for that and he's got too much at stake for himself being a free agent after this season. My feeling is that it won't work out as well on the court between Artest, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming as it looks on paper. At the same time, it's going to help the Rockets to have Artest more than it hurts them.
A fair way to assess Artest is that when you're winning and the games are competitive and he's interested, he'll be engaged and compete. But when you're directionless or the team's not doing as well as he thinks it should, he can be a malcontent. I don't see the latter happening with Houston, so I think he'll be OK.
Artest will be worried about his scoring numbers, but if they're winning it will be foolish for him to make an issue of that. I also don't see a strong track record of Ron's having a good relationship with his teammates. If he's there for the one year it should be OK, but he can be a hard guy for teammates to bond with. He is emotional and he'll have his outbursts, and it's hard to accept that all of the time -- you can't yell at teammates all of the time and expect them to say it's OK. I bet Yao has never had experience with a guy like Ron.
McGrady had his own issues early last season after Adelman took over. McGrady was probably wondering where his shots were going to come from and what his role was; he seemed to believe that some of his touches were going to be eliminated. He turned out to have one of his most meaningful seasons as a leader. But let's remember, there hasn't been a lot of meaning to his career so far. He's the kind of guy who seems to go into his own shell, and he doesn't appear to be really approachable to his teammates. And that's not so bad, but you still have to show some emotion so people know where you stand. There'll be a lot of pressure on him and Yao to finally get past the first round now that Ron is there with them.
McGrady and Yao should have a lot more familiarity with Rick's system going into this second year. It's so different from what players are used to because you're reading situations off the ball, and reading your man when you don't have the ball, reading the defense on the weak side to decide where it's coming from. And you have to do all of that within the conventional NBA sets. Other coaches are running their plays to get the ball to a player in a certain spot; in Rick's system, the ball movement depends on how the defense is playing you.
This will be Yao's seventh NBA season, and over the next couple of years he'll have to take that next step up. The only reason he isn't rated at a higher level is because of his injuries. He's a focal point when he's out there, and he seems to have a lot of desire to succeed and break through. Maybe it will take some of the stress off him to pound the ball to Ron. If Yao had a full healthy year, he could really be special. There's nobody who matches up with him, and besides being so big he's amazingly skilled and willing to do what is asked of him. With the years he's had in the league, there shouldn't be any doubt in his mind of what he can do, so his confidence should be high.
They're going to be a half-court team because none of three stars likes to run. Overall, their half-court style will be good in the playoffs, and the way to control tempo against a small or faster team is to walk it up and throw it into Yao and make them match up with you. Every team that's had Ron has used him to create mismatches, so you'll probably see Yao spaced opposite the high post as the high-low feeder knocking down those elbow shots. We haven't seen much of Yao there, but we all know he can shoot it. They'll also continue to post Yao at times because he's so big; when he's out of the game, they'll probably feature Artest in the post. I would think Artest will play quite a bit with the second unit in addition to playing with Yao and McGrady.
Picking up Brent Barry was a good move. At the end of the game, they can go really long around Yao with McGrady, Barry, Ron and Shane Battier, if he's healthy [Battier was slowed in the preseason by inflammation in his left foot]. And you don't need a point guard for those situations, because either Brent or Tracy can bring it up.
Defensively, they're very, very solid and one of the top teams in the league statistically. To get the most from Artest defensively, they'll have to keep it consistent. It's when you change things up that you have problems with him.
Their biggest vulnerability is at point guard. Rafer Alston is solid and he's gotten better every year, so give him credit. But the difference between him and guys like Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Steve Nash is his vision for playmaking. Alston makes his mistakes when he's under duress and they need him to improvise. The best point guards are hard to defend because you never quite know what that they're going to do, but Alston is predictable that way. So the Rockets probably don't want Alston to have the ball in the pick-and-roll, because he won't surprise the defense.
Luis Scola is a good fit because he complements the others and he can score. He's not big for his [power forward] position, but that's not much of a problem when he's playing alongside Yao.
The situation with Battier is going to be interesting. When he comes back, he could be in a different role playing behind Artest, though they may decide to start Battier and bring Artest off the bench. I think Artest would be OK with that so long as he knows he'll be a focal point when he's in the game.
Will this team make the NBA Finals? I would be surprised. But I'll also be surprised if they don't get past the first round.
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