Since preseason camp opened almost three weeks ago, Rockets coach Rick Adelman has maintained that there are at least two openings in the team’s starting lineup.
He might be beginning to change his mind.
With all the new faces on Houston’s roster and all the lineup juggling that Adelman has done in the preseason, the Rockets coach could very well end up using the same starting lineup that the team closed the playoffs with last season. Who would have guessed that heading into training camp?
Adelman has opened with the same group of starters from last season in two of the Rockets’ first three preseason games heading into Saturday’s dress rehearsal against the Seattle SuperSonics. The starting five consists of point guard Rafer Alston, shooting guard Tracy McGrady, small forward Shane Battier, power forward Chuck Hayes and center Yao Ming.
The Rockets coach could end up using a different starting lineup against Seattle to evaluate other players, but that doesn’t mean Adelman isn’t warming to the returning group of starters.
“That first group has been really sharp,” Adelman said. The Rockets figured to have two starting jobs open in preseason camp: point guard and power forward.
Since the Rockets acquired Mike James and Steve Francis in the summer, the team entered preseason camp with three veterans capable of being starters. Alston, the returning starter at the point guard, even arrived into camp uncertain about his role. But three weeks later, Alston has started each of the Rockets’ first three preseason games, drawing praise from Adelman for his ability to run the team’s new high-motion, high-tempo offense.
Meanwhile, at power forward, Hayes has been in the starting lineup in two of the first three preseason games. Hayes has been splitting time with Luis Scola, but he has shown that he can play well with McGrady and Yao. Along with that, Scola is still learning the American game since the 27-year old rookie has been overseas prior to this season.
So far, Adelman hasn’t pegged Alston or Hayes as a starter. But the pair do have an advantage in that they’re already comfortable playing with McGrady, Yao and Battier.
“I’m pretty confident with that group,” Alston said. “Now, I want to get my game down with the other guys. That comes with more time. But our starting five has been clicking for a while now and it helps to know where guys like the ball. I know where they’re going to be at and we can play off each other.”
Adelman, though, hasn’t committed himself to that starting lineup because he’s still intrigued by the flexibility of his roster. He eventually went small against Dallas on Thursday night since the Mavs didn’t play most of their big men.
“We have a number of guys that can play the big spot in our offense when we play small,” Adelman said. “That’s a nice mixture to have. We just have a lot of flexibility on this team.”
With that said, Adelman did notice what his first group did in the opening 12 minutes against Dallas. Behind those returning starters, the Rockets bolted to a 26-6 lead, albeit against a Mavericks team that was resting most of their star players. The Rockets’ starting five ended up making 68.4 percent of their shots in the first quarter and had only two turnovers.
Because of that smooth play, Battier could envision seeing the same starting five on the floor that ended last season. But he also noted that last season’s first round playoff exit means that the team will welcome their new additions.
“We had a pretty good unit last year,” Battier said. “We had a great plus-minus ratio with that first group. I like playing on that unit with those guys. But if last year showed anything, that’s not good enough. We feel with the added additions on our bench, it’s really going to enhance our team and make us that much more tough come April.”
For starters, will everything old be new again?
In writing about Rafer Alston’s strong start to this preseason on Saturday, a thought occurred to me that I admit I never, ever would have thought possible.
Could the Rockets have the same starting five this season as last?
What kind of reaction would I have gotten to that notion three weeks ago?
There’s plenty of time to work all that out. Much of this could change several times before Oct. 30. I’m not ready to say that’s how it will be Oct. 30 in Los Angeles. I don’t even know if that’s how it would be if the season was starting Thursday. But it is possible that the Rockets could have the same starting five as last season.
Alston really has impressed. The chances that he would be the starter certainly could change before the opener. If his stock could improve dramatically after less than two weeks of practices and two preseason games, it could change – or others’ could similarly escalate – in the two preseason weeks and five games remaining.
Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are automatic. Shane Battier is close to as certain. That leaves the power forward as the remaining position to consider.
Luis Scola might be a pretty good bet. He’s probably the guess I’d make for the starter at the four, especially after he looked so good on Thursday and I have heard so many good things about practices since the first days in Austin. But Chuck Hayes has impressed, too. We’ve yet to see Scola in a tough defensive assignment. More to the point of the decision to come: If the Rockets are playing a team against which Rick Adelman will want a true center coming off the bench, the rotation might be better served with Hayes starting.
If Dikembe Mutombo comes off the bench for Yao, you probably don’t want Hayes also coming in for Scola. Having Mutombo and Hayes on the floor together is hardly the sort of high-powered offense of Adelman’s past.
If you start Yao and Hayes, when Mutombo comes in, Scola can come with him and stay on the floor when Yao returns. If you start Scola, does he have to stay out there when Yao sits until Yao comes back?
There’s ways to work that out, but one way is to start Hayes. Do that, and you could be looking at the same starting five as last season. And who would have guessed that when the Rockets spent the off-season adding Steve Francis, Mike James, Luis Scola and bringing back Bonzi Wells?