Sunday, May 04, 2008

Rockets to build on Yao-Tracy foundation after latest playoff defeat

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Rockets owner Leslie Alexander did not hesitate before offering his typical direct, concise response.

The Rockets' loss to the Utah Jazz on Friday ended an eleventh-11th consecutive season before it could reach the playoffs second round of the playoffs. Alexander, as always, was taking the loss hard.

Asked then if the Rockets would continue to build around their foundation of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, veteran All-Stars who have never won a first-round series, Alexander was clear.

"Definitely,'' he said simply. "Definitely.''

When pressed further, he acknowledged that nothing in sports is definite. The plan, however, is.

"We're going to build on the Yao-Tracy foundation,'' Alexander said. "I want to say you never know in this league. We're never going to stand still. We never, never know. Obviously, we have two superstars. We want to build around them. I think if we had them both now, we would have won this series.''

As they often have in recent years, injuries defined and limited much of the Rockets' season. McGrady did not miss a game with the back issues that plagued his first three seasons, but he still missed 16 games, most with a left knee problem that flared up in the playoffs and could require minor surgery.

Yao missed the last 26 regular-season games with a stress fracture in his left foot. Rafer Alston, reliably durable in his first two seasons in Houston, went out with three injuries (a pulled hamstring, pulled groin and sprained ankle) in the last month, including his ankle injury in Friday's loss.

Alston indispensable

Still, the series seemed to reveal or underline several issues. Alston, whom the Rockets worked to replace last offseason, became indispensable, with the Rockets losing the three playoff games he missed or left with injuries. They will have four point guards under contract — Alston, Bobby Jackson, Aaron Brooks and Steve Francis.

The backups at the shooting guard/small forward positions have been undersized or unreliable, with Rick Adelman hesitant or unwilling to play Steve Novak or Luther Head and with Head struggling badly through a second consecutive playoff series.

Backup center Dikembe Mutombo, though a surprising success after Yao's injury, is 41, much more limited offensively than in his prime and again considering retirement.

The Rockets do have young players, particularly rookies Carl Landry and Brooks, whom they believe will grow, and they have always thought the team will be more effective running Adelman's offense in year 2.

"We have players who will continue to grow under coach Adelman," Morey said. "When building around Yao and Tracy, we'll either improve the players we have or have the ability to improve through free agency and trades."

Well over the salary cap, the Rockets can offer free agents all or part of their midlevel exception, expected to start at about $5.6 million per year. They also have a $2.4 million trade exception after the trade-deadline maneuvering. For the first time this decade, the roster is not swelled with bloated, long-term contracts.

With a first-round pick and signing Landry, a restricted free agent, the Rockets would exceed the luxury tax if they spend all the midlevel exception. But for the right player, Morey said, Alexander would permit that move, as he did last summer to sign Francis.

The free-agent market is unclear, with many coveted players such as Gilbert Arenas, Elton Brand, Baron Davis, Corey Maggette and Shawn Marion holding the right to opt out of contracts and become free agents, joining a deep group of restricted free agents. All would expect much more than midlevel contracts, but few teams have much spending room.

"It's going to be a very interesting offseason free agency-wise," Morey said. "This may be the first year there are more players than money. We will look closely at players that might fall into midlevel range and ones that are strategic fits for any amount up to full midlevel line."

Things to come?

Until then, the Rockets believe the accomplishments of the season are signs of hope greater than after many of the previous first-round losses.

"What we really had to overcome throughout the season, losing me for probably about a month of the season, losing Yao for the time we lost him, we really hung in there and had a magnificent year," McGrady said.

Morey said the season that just ended could be the start of something better.

"I'm just really proud of the team and the coaching staff for the incredible effort put in," he said. "We came up a little short, but the future looks bright."

As Alexander would say, "definitely," even if he has learned "you never know."

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