NBA@2: Houston Rockets’ Center Options Expand?
Last night’s overtime loss to the New Orleans Hornets didn’t mathematically eliminate the Houston Rockets from the playoffs, but the series of events that would have to occur for them to make it now rank somewhere below winning the lottery and being struck by lightning in the world of probabilities.
We’ll take an in-depth look at what’s next for the Rockets in the coming days, but there is some interesting news out of New Orleans today that could impact Houston’s immediate future.
The number one issue facing Houston since the retirement of Yao Ming is what to do about the center position. Their last resort answer this season was to sign Samuel Dalembert, and while Dalembert has been decent, he’s clearly not the starting center of the future for the Rockets. He’s averaged 7.6 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, just under his career averages, and that was good enough to keep the Rockets right about where they were: the ninth seed in the West.
The midseason acquisition of Marcus Camby helped immensely, even helped the team push for the West’s fifth seed, but the reality is that Camby is too old to be the long-term answer for Houston. He’s a free agent this summer, and while bringing him back at a much-reduced rate makes sense, another long-term answer at center is needed.
That’s where the Hornets come in.
The Hornets have two players on their roster who could be of interest to Houston, starting with unrestricted free agent Chris Kaman. Kaman is no Yao, but he is a clear step above Dalembert. Even in the middle of a crazy season that saw him traded, nearly traded again, placed on the inactive list and placed in two different positions in the Hornets’ starting lineup, Kaman has averaged 13.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. Kaman may not be a sexy name that sells tickets, but if he can get back to the way he was playing two seasons ago, when he averaged 18.5 points and 9.3 rebounds for the Los Angeles Clippers, he could be a solid solution for Houston.
New Orleans also has another intriguing name in the mix, that of Emeka Okafor. Okafor has missed more than half of the season with a sore left knee, and as such is considered a strong candidate for the amnesty clause, according to John Reid of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. If the Hornets do amnesty Okafor, the Bellaire High School graduate could be an interesting option for the Rockets. He’s absolutely the best defensive option likely to be available this summer (he ranked in the 91st percentile in half court defense last season), but, of course, there is a big risk involved. If Okafor’s knee doesn’t improve and he can’t play significant minutes, the Rockets are no better off than they are now.
As much as Houston fans are dying for a big-time move that puts the Rockets back in the championship discussion for the first time in decades, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. What the Rockets are looking to do is make a long series of smaller moves that culminate into the equivalent of a couple of big ones. Neither Kaman nor Okafor represent a major move, but if they do represent the kind of tweak that could push Houston to the next level, which would at least mean making the playoffs.
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While the Eastern Conference playoff picture is all but decided, there are still some crucial seedings up for grabs. None carry as much importance as the fourth seed, which carries with it the final home court advantage spot in the first round. The battle for the fourth seed will most likely come down to either the Atlanta Hawks or the Boston Celtics, making tonight’s game between the two critically important to both sides.
“It makes a big difference,” Hawks guard Joe Johnson told WCNN in Atlanta in speaking of home court. “You feed off their energy and it just kind of takes you to another level. For us it will be very important, but knowing and understanding that if we have to go out on the road and get a game, we can do that. We did it last year twice, but just ended up losing two here at home, so we know we can go out and win on the road but we prefer to have home court advantage.
“For us, our main concern is getting home-court advantage honestly,” Johnson continued. “I think we have a young enough team where guys will be able to bounce back and I just think when the playoffs come you’re always a little rejuvenated and ready to play. I wouldn’t want us to have to take too much time off and I think home-court advantage would be a plus for us.”
The Celtics and Hawks have met once in a game earlier this month, in which Boston defended their home court with an 88-86 win. Johnson says Boston’s experience makes them a formidable opponent.
“They’re just an experienced group that has been around the block, know the ins and outs and they do the little things that don’t show up in the stat sheet. That’s what has been getting them over the hump. They’ve caught fire the second half of the season and they know when to turn it up.”
The fact that Atlanta is in the running for home court despite the plethora of injuries that have plagued the team this season is impressive. Johnson admits it’s been a struggle, especially because there has been so little time between games for players to recover from otherwise minor bumps and bruises.
“It’s been tough and the reason I say that is because of the recovery time. If you get a nick-knack injury, normally you can take two or three days of rest before your next game and you can heal up but now you’re playing three games in three nights, four games in five nights, and you have no recovery time so it’s tough. That’s why I think you see a lot of guys being injured. There’s a lot of guys out here with back injuries and it’s definitely made it tough.”
The good news for Atlanta is that one key injured player – starting center Al Horford – could be back in time for the playoffs. For now, however, they have to fight on without him, and home court advantage hangs in the balance.
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