Rafer Alston was on the Raptors' practice floor, preparing for the first day of training camp, when he got the news: He'd been traded to the Rockets for Mike James. Alston wasn't exactly heartbroken. "The first thing that came to my mind was playoffs, championships and playing with the two most dominant players in the game," says Alston, who caught a flight that day to Houston. He joined Rockets camp the next day and, by the end of the week, was comfortable enough with Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and the rest of his new teammates to be seen shirtless in the weight room, roaring in mock--Steve Austin style as he curled 65-pound dumbbells and then flexed for effect.
Alston engaged in considerably less humorous--and less endearing--antics last season in Toronto, where, among other things, he threatened to retire, got into public arguments with coach Sam Mitchell and forward Jalen Rose, and was suspended for two games because he walked out of practice. Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy professes not to be concerned about Alston, saying, "He's intelligent and he loves the game."
From a basketball standpoint Alston makes sense for the Rockets. A pure point guard, he'll go back to being the complementary player he was during his breakout year in Miami two seasons ago--Van Gundy says that it was Alston's play with the Heat, not in Toronto, that caught his eye--and will be entrusted with running Houston's new up-tempo offense.
Provided Alston can focus on passing to his teammates rather than arguing with them, the Rockets should thrive. "So far," Van Gundy says, "I like what I see." --C.B.
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Rockets
"It's amazing the Rockets won 51 games last year with all the changes they made during the season. Their longest-serving player is [fourth-year center] Yao Ming.... I think they need a big, strong complement to Yao to protect him and do a lot of the dirty work inside. Instead they brought in Stromile Swift, an athletic shot blocker who can get up and down the floor. He's always been known as a nonchalant talent, but when he and Yao are in there, it's going to be difficult for opponents to get to the rim.... They played a more wide-open style than we're used to seeing from Jeff Van Gundy. The fact that they signed Swift and traded for Rafer Alston tells me they may be looking to play even more in the open floor.... I don't buy the criticism of Yao. He doesn't back down from challenges. At times he has had trouble with his conditioning because he's had to play year-round, including time with the Chinese national team, but I think people should remember what Tim Duncan's critics used to say about him not playing with enough passion.... Van Gundy developed a trust in Tracy McGrady to make good decisions, and McGrady responded by playing hard and giving his team a chance to upset Dallas in the first round.... They need three-point shooting. We'll see if Derek Anderson is healthy long enough to supply it."
In each of Jeff Van Gundy's seven full seasons as an NBA coach, his teams have been among the league's top five in fewest points allowed.
Projected Starting Lineup with 2004-05 statistics
Record: 51-31 (5th in West)
Points scored: 95.1 (20th in NBA)
Points allowed: 91.0 (3rd)
Coach: Jeff Van Gundy (third season with the Rockets)
BENCH 2004-05 STATS