October 22, 2010
SI.com's NBA Enemy Lines
Houston Rockets
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Rockets

It's simple: They are going to have to keep Yao Ming healthy. All of their hopes are based around him. Yao is such a great ambassador for basketball that I think everybody has to be pulling for him. But his history with injuries is so bad that you wonder, How is it going to get better? I'm more pessimistic than optimistic about his chances.

Rick Adelman is probably going with the idea that they'll have Yao, but also keeping in the back of his mind what he's going to do if Yao goes down again. When Yao isn't in the game, you'll see Adelman going to a completely different style, which is what they'll revert to if they don't have Yao because of another injury.

When Yao is in the game, they're just feeding him and then standing around the three-point line to see what the defense is going to do. If the defense is going to use single coverage on Yao, the Rockets will respond with movement and cutters around Yao. If Yao is doubled, you'll see the Rockets spacing the floor and waiting for him to find the open man. Anytime he gets into the paint, you have to double-team him. If you're doubling him, you've already put yourself in a hole by letting him get into his sweet-spot area in the block. If he catches the ball away from that area, now you're hoping to force him to settle for the turnaround jump shot, in which case it doesn't help you to double him anyway.

So let's say you're single-covering him and he's able to start dribbling in toward the basket. He's probably going to wind up making a high-percentage shot, or else he'll go to the line -- he's an excellent free-throw shooter -- which also is going to put his defender in foul trouble. One way to defend him is to put a mobile guy out there to front him and then bring in help from the backside, which also forces Yao to guard that mobile guy at the other end. When Hubie Brown was at Memphis, he used to do a lot of fronting on Yao, and I remember when Adelman was at Sacramento, he used to try to front Yao with Kenny Thomas. And then you also want to make him run the floor as much as possible.

If Yao had been healthy for all these years, he'd be viewed as the best center in basketball right now. It depends on what you like, but I would take him over Dwight Howard because Yao is more of a skilled player who is going to capitalize on his free throws and get to the spots where he wants to go. Howard is the superior center defensively, though Yao isn't bad. All he has to do is stick his arms up in order to form a wall at the rim. Before these latest injuries, he was getting better at staying out of foul trouble, and he was getting more leeway from the refs.

Luis Scola is an excellent complement to Yao at power forward. Scola is the skilled big man who knows how to punish the defense when they come off Scola to double-team Yao. I wouldn't say he's underrated, but Scola usually outplays his opponent when you look at the overall game, and he has a good knack for drawing fouls. He has a high IQ as far as playing off his teammates and finding spots to get open, and he's obviously a high-effort guy who is giving it everything he has. He's not the most athletic guy and he isn't the biggest guy at his position, but he can shoot it out to the college three-point line and he's a good passer too.

Scola's problem is on defense. He has quick hands and he'll make the steal if his man sticks the ball out. But for the most part, the best he can do is to use his intelligence and play positional defense and hope the other guy makes a mistake. You really saw his shortcomings last year when Yao was out and the Rockets were left with no presence defensively with their big men.

Shane Battier is on the downswing of his career, though I'm not writing him off yet. At his age [32], they're going to have to be more selective with shifting him to the 2. But he remains one of those rare guys who doesn't make dumb mistakes. He is focused on every possession, and he understands the league, the game plan defensively, the rotations offensively in terms of where he's supposed to be in space, and that understanding helps their other players too. So he's valuable in all kinds of detailed ways, by coming up with the key defensive rotation or stop, or forcing and then winning the jump ball, or taking the charge and stealing a possession that way. He'll space the floor because opponents are aware of him shooting the three from the weakside corner.

It was hard for Kevin Martin to be the main guy in Sacramento before he was traded to Houston last February, and now I'm hearing his name in trade rumors again. I wouldn't say Martin is a knock-down three-point shooter -- he's not a spot-up guy to surround Yao. And his history is that he's not going to play all 82 games, because he gets banged up.

Martin has an underrated, quick first step. If you lean, he's either going to go by you or get you to foul him. He also has a little change of speed with the dribble -- he pushes it out ahead, and not every player has that. He's a three-dribble-max guy, but on the second dribble he can push it out and get clearance. Then he can float and score with an unbelievable knack for making tough shots. You'll see him get fouled and he'll still make them while he's squaring up in the air. The good ones have that kind of skill. He's also very good at sneaking behind his man on the back cut. You can't give him ball and expect him to make moves and score on his own, but he's always moving and forcing the defender to keep in front of him when he's moving.

His hands aren't big so he's never going to be a sure dribbler, and when he gets the ball he sees the basket -- the scoring opportunity -- but he doesn't see the total floor and what's going on around him. Defensively, before his recent injuries, you would see him on the ball and staying in front of his man and drawing charges off the dribble, which is hard to do. But he doesn't like to fight through screens. Put it all together and he's a good scorer, but I don't know if he can be a top-three player on a contending team.

Most teams would love to have Aaron Brooks. A lot of coaches don't like small guards, but he's one of the better long-range point guards in terms of dribbling down and pulling up for a three. That means you have to get up on him, which invites him to jet around you. He could be better defensively, but at least he hangs in there on the ball and gets through screens. If Yao is playing every night, you'll see Brooks spotting up around him to make threes, and he can run pick-and-roll with Yao.

Brooks and Kyle Lowry are both small point guards, but they're able to play together at times because Lowry is more chunky and thick. He may not be as big as a shooting guard, but he's strong enough to not get muscled around. When they're playing together, you would think teams would try to post them up, but that can backfire if you're not used to posting up your smalls and you don't have anywhere to put your big men. A more effective play might be to flash your man into the post against Lowry rather than have him down there in the beginning. That's a play you see the Celtics run a lot with Paul Pierce.

I was surprised they gave up on Trevor Ariza, because I thought he would play well with Yao. Courtney Lee is going to be better at shooting the three, but Ariza gave them a lot of easy points off his disruptions defensively, whether he was stealing off the dribble or in the passing lanes. Lee is something of a duplication of Martin in that both are not going to defend, so who is going to guard Kobe Bryant or Carmelo Anthony? You can't put it on Battier to guard all of those guys.

Chase Budinger was a good second-round pick last year. He's a shooter who can also drive and finish up high at the rim.

As short as Chuck Hayes is for a power player, he is able to play excellent positional defense because he has great leverage with his lower body. He has learned how to work the baseline to find holes where he's available to catch and go up. One thing the Rockets don't really have around Yao is a big man to finish above the rim with a dunk when Brooks or Lowry penetrates. Against the longer teams, it's hard for them to get shots off inside.

Brad Miller is almost done. You can get away with putting a small guy on him because Miller has no post game. He has issues with injuries and he's not going to give them the big-man presence they need at either end.

Jordan Hill looks like a big, young athlete with good upside. I don't know why the Knicks gave up on him so early. He and rookie Patrick Patterson are the two guys who give the Rockets some length and athleticism on the front line around Yao, so Adelman will need one of them to come through.

With Yao starting the season on a 24-minute limit, I'm assuming they'll play him mainly in the first and fourth quarters. The idea of playing two distinct styles during each game -- one with Yao, the other without him -- is a strength because Adelman is one of the best at utilizing his team's strengths. He'll give them confidence that they can pull this off.


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