Monday, December 8, 2008

Tough Enough

The Houston Rockets have been all about their big two the past few years. Ever since they brought Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady together, expectations have soared. And why wouldn't it -- with two otherworldly talents like Yao and T-Mac together?

However, this is what their dynamic duo has given them: a first round loss to the Mavs in 05, missed the playoffs in 06, and a pair of first round losses to the Jazz in 07 and 08. Oh, and 154 missed games between them. I'm talking regular season here - not counting the playoffs.

So far, McGrady and Yao have shown two chinks in their armor. The first is durability. Both players have had to carry the Rockets on their shoulders all by their lonesome for long stretches because of injuries to the other. They rarely ever get any real momentum as a team because one of their stars is always in street clothes. The second weakness is mental toughness. T-Mac is a guy who can do this, but never when it really matters. Yao has a size advantage on maybe about... yeah, 100% of the league and yet he's had issues with agressiveness. He's only averaged double figures in rebounds twice in his career. At his size, he should be putting up Shaq-in-his-prime numbers, not Shaq-at-age-32-or-33 numbers.

In the offseason, the Rockets acquired defensive superstar/rapper/headcase Ron Artest in a trade. Now Artest is best known for his toughness, something they hope he can impart on the rest of this team. But it's been less than 20 games into their season and it looks like T-Mac is already shutting it down. He's missed the last 5 games, and still out indefinitely.

This is what the Rockets starting five looked like before McGrady got injured:

G Alston, Rafer
G McGrady, Tracy
C Yao Ming
F Scola, Luis
F Artest, Ron

and after the injury:

G Alston, Rafer
G Artest, Ron
C Yao Ming
F Scola, Luis
F Battier, Shane

Now, it looks to me that this second lineup looks a lot tougher than the first. NOTE: NOT NECESSARILY BETTER. But tougher. It may be the insertion of the tough-as-nails Battier. Or maybe it's addition by subtraction (sorry, Tracy) but it just looks tougher physically AND mentally. Plus it's not doing a shabby job. When Rockets coach Rick Adelman has used this starting lineup, the team is 2-1 with that one loss being a one point heartbreaker to the Pacers. Sound familiar?

Yao has upped his scoring from about 17 points per game to 21. Artest has raised his from 14.5 to 19. Alston is averaging about 15 points and 6 dimes since Tracy went down. And with the depth this team has (remember their record 22-game winning streak last year with many of the wins without Yao?), well, it looks like it can survive without the talented but frail T-Mac. With him on board, they always seemed like they were a team that could collapse under extreme pressure. The new starting unit (plus bench players Carl Landry, Aaron Brooks, Luther Head, etc) seems like they're tough enough to just want to get the job done in the playoffs. No excuses.

They're the big three now, sure. But should the front office consider trading T-Mac and get some value in return (maybe someone like Detroit's Rip Hamilton, who has struggled to fit in with Allen Iverson)? Or should they just reduce his role and move from the Yao and T-Mac era to the Yao and Artest era. The latter pair seems like it has the necessary toughness to push past the first round, something the former pair has never done. Addition by subtraction? When it comes to mental toughness? Nothing against McGrady but the team might do well in fashioning its personality after newcomer Artest over its resident leading scorer. Then maybe they can finally get something done in the playoffs. It's been long overdue.

They've always been good, but never tough enough. Until now. But can they have T-Mac log heavy minutes without compromising their toughness? Maybe we have to wait one more first round flameout to find out.

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