Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Third Man Finally Deserves the Hype

Are you excited yet? Say what you want about the Rockets past few 1st Rd exits, the brass has done a good job of getting Rockets fans excited before every season. Essentially, that's really GM Daryl Morey's job... to build a team that will compete with the imperative goal of bringing the fans back. Especially after a disappointing finish. Daryl Morey has done his job (as well as Carroll Dawson) by giving Houston fans what they think the Rockets need... that final piece of the puzzle in the T-Mac-Yao era. The Third Man. First came Stromile Swift, then Shane Battier, then Bonzi Wells, then the exciting Rockets rookies and even maybe, somewhere in that hopeful inner child part of our brains, Steve Francis... but no, all of those players were just chewing gum in the cracks. Ron Artest is super glue; he makes all the others pale in comparison. He's highly flammable, of course, especially under the wrong conditions but Houston, with the easy-going nature of Mac, Yao and Adelman, may be just right.

Say what you want about Ron-Ron, the man's a force of nature and no one has ever questioned his heart. Yes, he marches to the beat of a different drummer, hell, he has his own rhythm section. Yes, he is emotional and volatile, yes, he speaks his mind but he's also the first player to come to Houston in the McGrady-Yao era talented enough--good enough--to single-handedly cover for T-Mac or Yao. There's still a lot to figure out, injuries to overcome, but the foundation is solid. For the first time in a long time, it's okay to be excited.

So, NBA League Pass ready to go despite the warnings of domestic anguish from The Basketball Jones' J.E. Skeets long ago... It's pushing it I know. To be fair, my girlfriend has been very understanding. But if she thought Monday Night Football was getting carried away, she's in for one helluva surprise. Wonder if she can be plied with dinner at a 5-star from all my fantasy league winnings.

Originally posted at Yao Ming Mania on 2008-10-28 12:41:59

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Yao's 5 Toughest Matchups: Booze & Memo (No. 1)

Carlos Boozer (UTA)
6-9, 266 lbs | 6 years pro

Mehmet Okur (UTA)
6-11, 263 lbs | 6 years pro

Head-to-head in '07-'08, Record 0-1
CB: 30 pts, .520 FG%, 16 rebs, 5 TOs
MO: 16 pts, .500 FG%, 3 3FGs, 10 rebs
YM: 11 pts, .357 FG%, 7 rebs, 6 TOs

DIAGNOSIS: The amount of sheer hatred that these two Jazzees inspire in Rockets fans is enough to place them in the no. 1 spot. The Jazz are strongest where the Rockets are weak. Point guard and mobility/versatility in the front-court. Boozer may be undersized at 6-9 but unlike Dwight Howard, Booze is bottom heavy and consistently able to force Yao to post up further from the rim than he likes. And his lower center of gravity mixed with excellent footwork, gives Yao fits.

Mehmet Okur is a different look, kind of like how NFL teams like to change it up with their backfield. Don't know if Steve Slaton & Ahman Green qualifies yet but you get the picture. Mehmet is just old school in the low-post. Meaning he's a hack. He even looks a little like Bill Laimbeer.

Okur will push, shove, knee, trip, elbow and hack until the refs call it. He leaves it up to them. If Yao can get square, solid position, Okur has no answer. And for that matter, neither does Boozer, but both do a hell of a job to prevent that.

Then there's defense by offense. Yao just can not stick Boozer. He's too powerful, too agile and too crafty. Spins, hooks, up-and-unders... you name it, Booze does it. And he hits the mid-range jumper off the pick & roll. He's Yao's personal nightmare on defense.

Then there's Okur, who's big but won't take one step inside the 3-pt line with Yao on the court. Okur's range from the arc hurts Yao because he doesn't have the mobility to challenge and get back to the paint to protect. Not many front-court players do. This is how the Jazz have lived in the West with theoretically less talent than other Western Conference powerhouses but the toughest thing for Yao is these guys are as young as he is and don't look like they're going anywhere soon.

PROGNOSIS: Once again, Artest saves the day. We might not all agree as Rockets fans that T-Mac gave everything he could in last season's first round exit at the hands of the Jazz, but we should be able to agree that it wasn't enough to get Houston to advance.

Enter Ron-Ron. If for some freak of odds or grand joke of destiny brings the Jazz back to a first round with Houston, Artest will of course, take defensive pressure off of McGrady and Yao. And even if Boozer and Okur (with Kirilenko and Harpring on double help) manage to keep slow Yao significantly, McGrady won't have to carry as much of the scoring load which should keep him from running out of the gas the way he did at the end of the Utah series.

Ultimately, the Jazz are the benchmark on how to play the Rockets in the playoffs. Make their supporting cast beat you. Double up T-Mac and Yao with physical play and wear them down. The difference of a Ron Artest won't really be felt until then, when teams are singularly focused on winning, which is why Houston needs Ron-Ron to make it there.

There's a formula for the regular season, one that is keyed on teams running their stuff and defining the rotation. Then, there's the playoffs, where you tighten up the reins and do whatever it takes to win. Artest changes the way teams can hunker down on the Rockets offense. If Yao can get consistent one-on-one match-ups against the Jazz, it won't matter who's back there.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Yao's 5 Toughest Matchups: Amare Stoudamire (No.2)

Amare Stoudamire (PHX)
6-10, 249 lbs | 6 years pro

H2H in '07-'08, Record 1-1

AS: 23 ppg, 11 rpg, 5 fpg
YM: 21.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 3.5 fpg

DIAGNOSIS: No player has more consistently given Yao fits since they both entered the league in '02. Amare certainly has benefited from a creative and effective Suns scheme that included heavy doses of running and Shawn Marion but those days are gone.

Now, Amare has Shaq, which in theory should give the Suns a solid defense against Yao (Shaq was no. 5 after all), but Amare's best defense against Yao is his offense. He's added the 15-footer to his repertoire off the pick & roll, he still attacks the basket as well as any big man in the league and as long as he has Steve Nash looking for him, he'll be almost impossible to stop. Which usually spells foul trouble for Yao.

It's almost as if Phoenix was built to stop Houston. But no, the Suns were thinking about the Lakers and their front-court of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. And now all three of these Western Conference powerhouses, and in some respects the Utah Jazz, are looking awful traditional in the new NBA.

PROGNOSIS: With Scola, Landry, Hayes, Joey Dorsey and surely at some point, Ron Artest, available to fill in at the PF position, Yao won't have to guard Stoudamire. But count on Shaq playing less minutes than Yao and if Stoudamire finds success against the scrappy but undersized Rockets forwards, Yao may have to switch back in spurts and Stoudamire has no fear of guarding Yao even if he never has quite slowed Yao in single-coverage.

And when Nash inevitably goes back to the pick & roll, the Rockets' backside help defense should be that much better with Artest and Battier available to drop down in the paint. The benefits of adding a third dynamic player of Artest's class keeping popping up everywhere.

Originally posted at Yao Ming Mania on 2008-10-17 01:28:00

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Yao's 5 Toughest Matchups: Dwight Howard (No. 3)

Dwight Howard (ORL)
6-11, 265 lbs | 4 yrs

Head-to-head '07-'08

DH: 18.5 ppg, .500 FG%, 9.5 rpg
YM: 22.5 ppg, .472 FG%, 13.5 rpg

DIAGNOSIS: You may be wondering why D-12 only comes in at no. 3, especially considering most NBA analysts and bloggers have now solidified Howard as the no. 1 center in the NBA. It's mostly because Orlando is one of the few teams that will let their center try to match-up one-on-one with Yao. And Yao has had some of his best games against Howard. Like most centers in Howard's mold, Yao is just too big for him.

When healthy, Yao really hasn't been contained in the last two years one-on-one by anyone in the league. With the arrival of a rookie center (Greg Oden) with true center size and uncommon explosiveness (and who frighteningly resembles a young Shaquille O'Neal) and the continuing evolution of Andrew Bynum, that might soon change, but for now, if teams want to single up on Yao, it means they're satisfied with letting him get his.

For Howard, that's proven to be a humbling experience for the most part but D-12 is a humble guy and has a great deal of respect for Yao. Almost too much, if you're a Magic fan. Howard doesn't seem to take enough advantage of his considerable mobility on defense and seems to try to beat Yao in the low-post with his strength. As strong as Howard clearly is, a 45 lb weight advantage just wears you down. But credit Howard for never playing dirty and taking his lumps with pride. And in that, he may not only be (arguably) the best new center in the league but like Yao, also one of the best sportsmen.

PROGNOSIS: Orlando will let Howard single-up on Yao again this season and will double when needed. With the Rockets new line-up, the Magic can't be too satisfied with just letting Yao get his numbers because they won't be able to double T-Mac as much with Ron-Ron around. Then again, they'll only play each other twice anyway so the implications of the match-ups has less to do with standings or the playoffs than with the "best center in the league" hype. Both match-ups last season were just too entertaining to leave this one off the list.

Originally posted at Yao Central on 2008-10-15 09:21:10

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Yao's 5 Toughest Matchups: Al Harrington (No. 4)

4.) Al Harrington | 6-9, 250 lbs | 10 yrs

Head-to-head ‘07-’08*
AH: 16.5 ppg, .439 FG%, .409 3FG%, 8.3 rpg

YM: 20.7 ppg, .487 FG%, 11.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg

*Harrington played one more game than Yao but NBA.com's Game Logs is not working at the moment so stats have been taken from Game Splits.

DIAGNOSIS: When you look at the numbers, they're not too shabby, 20 and 10, can't ask for more, but when you consider Yao's considerable size advantage up and down the roster, the fact that Yao doesn't always completely dominate the Warriors is why Harrington makes the list.

Richard Justice has a nice story on Joey Dorsey and how he "has given Yao Ming fits in practice." As Justice observes, Yao dominates true bigs, it's the smaller, more athletic post players who have sometimes done better against him. Al Harrington falls into that category but not so much with Dorsey's Ben Wallace-like physique and athleticism but with his versatility. Harrington is strong enough to make Yao work to get position on the low-block and fast enough to beat him down court in transition.

The Warriors ran a defensive scheme somewhat like the Phoenix Suns used to in that no matter who guards Yao in the low-post, everyone in the vicinity is going to harass him and go at him hard once he touches the ball. And when they get it, they run. Harrington will almost always beat Yao down the court; and in half-court sets, he uses his 3-pt range to pull Yao out of the paint. The Warriors come at you so fast that it's often make or break with a player like Yao.

In the days of true big men, a center could get a few touches, get it going, get his timing but with the speed of some teams now, a big man like Yao has to be on his game from the tip off. He has to be quick, decisive and dominant. And he was in some games and not in others. The point is, increasing the speed of the game against Yao and throwing double and triple teams at him diminishes his ability to settle into a game. The scheme worked well for the Warriors.

PROGNOSIS: With Rocket-killer Baron Davis gone it's difficult to tell how effective the run & gun style of the Warriors will be this season. As much criticism as Davis may have gotten in the past as a leader, he was the perfect kind of explosive, do-it-all guard to lead the Warriors' offense. Monta Ellis could develop into this kind of guard but he's still unproven as a leader. The lack of offense should translate into a slower pace, which will benefit Yao.

With the Rockets more versatile line-up this season, they can go with Yao when he is on his game and sub for him when he's not. I'll take Ron Artest on Al Harrington any day. Count on the Warriors to go at Yao hard again with a swarm and force him to make quick decisions from the low-post but again, with the Warriors' offense likely not as potent as it used to be, Yao should get plenty of looks if the Rockets dictate the pace. Then again, you never know what Nellie is going to come up with. He has a knack of keeping the unlikeliest of teams competitive.

Originally posted at Yao Central 2008-10-09 09:41:55

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Yao's 5 Toughest Matchups: Shaq O'Neal (No. 5)

In an era that claims with increasing validity the true center is dead in the NBA, Yao Ming is a throwback. But being old school means having to resist an overwhelming trend of NBA teams going smaller, faster and more athletic at the center position; essentially, playing power forwards at center. It's been no easy feat for Yao to keep up, as 3 seasons of missing 25+ games may attest, but then again, that size advantage or disadvantage, however full you see your cup, cuts both ways.

When healthy, Yao is the the best offensive center in the league (yes, this is arguable with Amare Stoudamire thrown in the mix but he's officially a PF again this season) but the list isn't restricted to centers but to those players assigned to guard him. This is a breakdown of the match-ups that should not only be the most entertaining to watch, but also the ones that may be the toughest on Yao.

Really, none of these players has proven they can defend Yao man-to-man and contain him--there's few teams in the league that won't double him right away (Hornets, Spurs, Detroit, Boston?)--but in defending Yao, offense is the often best defense. So this list takes into account the best combination of a player's ability to contain Yao and make him work on defense.

5.) Shaquille O'Neal
Ht: 7-1 | Wt: 325 lbs | 16 yrs

Head-to-head '07-'08, Record: 0-1
SO: 26 pts, 14 rebs, 3 blks, 4 fouls
YM: 20 pts, 7 rebs, 1 TO, 6 fouls

DIAGNOSIS: You can call last season's little one-shot "Shaq's Revenge." After losing his "best center in the league" title as far back as '06, the Big Aristotle had to be more than a little pleased to gain some relevance again last season only to have it fizzle as as trade claptrap. But he still makes the list. Shaq is still very big and very powerful (if not quite as much as his prime) and even his offense has trickled down the drain, he's really the only true center that's proven he can still give Yao trouble establishing the low block.

PROGNOSIS: When the Rockets roll into Phoenix, November 12th, Shaq might be there. By March 6th's match-up maybe not, but come April, he'll probably be back. Whatever the case may be, Shaq's role with the Suns is to be big, rebound and pick up garbage points. Which certainly makes it possible that with his focus directed entirely on the defensive end--especially against the Rockets--that he'll put all his energy into giving Yao hell. Yao may be more nimble now than the aging Shaq but don't underestimate the will of a former MVP trying to make a point.

It would behoove the Rockets then to move Yao out of the paint and work from the high post, which if Adelman's game-plan is indeed gaining in its implementation, should be no problem. But we'll have to wait and see, the high post was one of the best selling points of the new offense last season but Yao didn't get to work from that spot as much as a lot of fans, at least now, will prefer.

More to come...

Originally posted at Yao Central 2008-10-08 09:38:57

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

It's Rockets Time Again

Yesterday was Houston Rockets media day; which means its time (at least for bloggers, early birds and now Astros fans) to refocus our energy on the upcoming NBA season. So my heretofore all-consuming fantasy football team to which hours a week had been dedicated to ensure a repeat Championship will be put in the sidecar as we burn on into Rockets '08-'09 season.

Let's start off with some links...

Obviously, expectations are high with the arrival of Ron-Ron and the general consensus is the Artest deal is the epitome of high-risk, high-reward. Morey is no Gus Hansen but anyone with enough pressure to win can be pushed to take uncharacteristic risks; not that this is that. No one in Houston is second-guessing the trade... yet.

Lakers blog, Forum Blue and Gold, has one of the best objective (or close to it) assessments of the new Rockets in their new series, "Know Your Enemy," a team by team breakdown of the Lakers biggest threats. And from looking through the comments, Lakers fans at least, are concerned about the match-up. Which should be encouraging I guess but as with every other analysis of the Rockets this pre-pre-season, the one caveat is health. And as if on cue, McGrady has announced his slower than originally projected recovery from knee and shoulder surgery. Yao, however, attests to 100% health.

And accordingly, Tom Ziller from AOL Fanhouse has Yao ranked #10 in his NBA's Top 50 players for the upcoming season. He has an interesting take that we may all need to consider. Yes, the pressure of the Beijing Olympics is off and his commitments to China should lessen for at least through this season but perhaps fans shouldn't expect this to be a particularly dominant statistical year. It's more important for Adelman has to find a way to limit Yao's minutes and still win. As a result, this may be the season that Dwight Howard overtakes Yao in the stat boards offensively but if Yao makes it through the entire season and enters the post-season healthy, I'll take it. And so will the Rockets.

Originally posted at Yao Central 2008-09-30 09:25:25