NBA CUSTOMdictates that a team's marquee player be the last one called onto the courtduring pregame introductions. It's an honor bestowed on All-Stars, on scoringleaders—and almost never on defensive-minded small forwards who average singledigits. Yet there was Shane Battier, trotting out as the final starterannounced in the Rockets' preseason opener. "I have to talk to [teamexecutives] about that," says Battier with a laugh. "I haven't been thelast guy introduced in nine years."

Renowned for hissavvy, the 6'8" Battier has some perspective on the challenges facing hisclub. "Everyone thinks we're going to be a punching bag this year," henotes. "We have got to figure out a way to not let that happen." ButBattier's last-man status is telling. The defection of Ron Artest to the Lakersand injuries to Tracy McGrady (knee) and Yao Ming (foot) have robbed Houston of52.4 points and 19.5 rebounds per game. McGrady is expected to miss at leastthe first month, while Yao is most likely out for the season. In their absenceHouston will use an up-tempo attack led by point guard Aaron Brooks. Lastseason, in Brooks's 35 games as a starter, the Rockets averaged 9.1 fast-breakpoints. "Easy baskets," says Brooks. "That's going to be thekey."

But nothing willcome easy, especially when Houston is forced to play in the half-court. WithYao out, the Rockets will go with a center-by-committee approach that includesforwards Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry, as well as David Andersen, aslender 6'11" rookie from Australia who prefers to play on the perimeter."We still have to figure out what we have with this group," admitscoach Rick Adelman.

What the Rocketsdo have is an opportunity to develop their young talent. That might allowHouston to contend for a title when it has a full complement next season, whenBattier again rightfully can be introduced, as he says, "somewhere in themiddle."

PROJECTED STARTINGFIVE with 2008--09 statistics

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

PG AARON BROOKS PPG: 11.2 APG: 3.0 RPG: 2.0 FG%: 40.4 3FG%: 36.6
SG TREVOR ARIZA PPG: 8.9 RPG: 4.3 APG: 1.8 SPG: 1.67 FG%: 46.0
SF SHANE BATTIER PPG: 7.3 APG: 2.3 RPG: 4.8 FG%: 41.0 3FG%: 38.4
PF LUIS SCOLA PPG: 12.7 RPG: 8.8 APG: 1.5 SPG: 0.83 FG%: 53.1
C CHUCK HAYES PPG: 1.3 RPG: 3.5 SPG: 0.48 BPG: 0.27 FG%: 37.2

KEY BENCH PLAYERS:G-F Tracy McGrady, 15.6 PPG; F Carl Landry, 5.0 RPG; G Kyle Lowry, 3.6 APG; F-CJoey Dorsey, 0.7 PPG • New acquisition

COACH: RickAdelman (third season with Rockets) • 2008--09 RECORD: 53--29 (second inSouthwest)

POINTS SCORED:98.4 (17th in NBA) • POINTS ALLOWED: 94.4 (seventh in NBA)



Percentage of apossible 410 games that either Tracy McGrady or Yao Ming has missed sincebecoming teammates in 2004--05. McGrady has missed 113, Yao 93; they were out16 times together.


They go into theseason without [an injured] Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, who is out for theyear, and Ron Artest, who left for the Lakers. But I don't see them droppingall the way to the top of the lottery. They've got a good coach in RickAdelman, and they run a good system, plus they're not devoid of talent—thoughthey'll have to be really committed defensively to make up for the offensiveweakness.... No question Luis Scola is their best and most important playerwhile Yao and Tracy are out. You can tell how much he enjoys the game becausehe plays with a smile on his face.... Kyle Lowry is not big, but he can defendthe ball against a bigger guard like Deron Williams without it being a completemismatch, and offensively he doesn't force a lot of plays the way Aaron Brooksdoes.... David Andersen is a skilled big guy who has proved himself at thehighest level in Europe. The offense is a good fit for him.... They were smartto give [forward] Chase Budinger a two-year deal as a second-round pick. Ithink more highly of him after watching him in summer league. He has a goodfeel, he can put people on their heels by driving, and he shoots it wellenough.

PHOTOGREG NELSONAARON BROOKS He'll push the pace, hoping for easy hoops. PHOTOGREG NELSON