IT WOULD be hard to come up with a riskier move this off-season than the Rockets' trade for Ron Artest, controversy magnet. "[His past] came up a lot," says general manager Daryl Morey, whose background check on Artest included speaking with people from Artest's last two NBA stops, Indiana and Sacramento. "But we got pretty comfortable that, while he's had a volatile past, we're getting him at probably the right time in his maturity, and we have much going for us to mitigate some of that risk."
Those mitigating factors include a locker room with strong character guys (Shane Battier, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, among others); a coach, Rick Adelman, who is an Artest favorite (he once offered to give up his salary if the Kings retained Adelman; they didn't); and good timing (Artest, who was acquired as part of a five-player trade, is in a contract year and needs to play—and behave—well to earn a long-term deal).
The 6'7", 264-pound Artest's basketball skills have never been questioned. With his ability to guard anyone from Kobe Bryant to Carmelo Anthony to Amaré Stoudemire, Artest (who said, "I don't have to answer that," when asked about his history) gives Houston the flexibility to go with a big lineup or a small one. He's also a smart passer and a scoring complement to McGrady and Yao. "This is the first time I've felt going into a season that something really special is going to come out of it if we put everything together and understand our roles," McGrady said at the start of training camp. "There's a God that sent help. I've been waiting for this [chance] for a while."
A rival scout on the ROCKETS: When you're winning or the games are competitive, Ron Artest will be engaged. But when you're directionless or the team's not doing as well as he thinks it should, he can be a malcontent. I don't see the latter happening with Houston, so I think he'll be O.K.... They'll be a half-court team because none of the stars like to run. Rick Adelman's system is so different from what most players are used to: Other coaches run sets to get the ball to a player in a certain spot; with Adelman the ball movement depends on how the defense is playing you.... Their biggest vulnerability is Rafer Alston, who makes mistakes when he has to improvise. The best point guards are hard to defend because you never quite know what they're going to do, but Alston is predictable.... Picking up Brent Barry was a good move. At the end of the game they can go really long with Barry, Artest, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Shane Battier. And they don't need a point guard for those situations, because Barry or McGrady can bring the ball up.
On Dec. 31, 2007, Houston was 15--16 and 10th in the Western Conference. From Jan. 1 through the end of the season, the Rockets had an NBA-best 40--11 mark and climbed six spots in the standings.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2007--08 statistics
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: F Shane Battier, F Carl Landry, G Aaron Brooks, G Brent Barry*, G Luther Head
Record: 55--27 (T-4th in West)
Points scored: 96.7 (22nd in NBA)
Points allowed: 92.0 (4th)
Coach: Rick Adelman (second season with Rockets)
BILL BAPTIST/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
RONNIE ON THE SPOT Artest's defensive skills, scoring ability and toughness will be put to good use by Houston.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH