The Rockets still have a skilled international center manning the middle. Only it's David Andersen, an Australian, and not Yao Ming, who will miss the entire 2009--10 season after undergoing surgery last month to reshape a bone in his left foot. They still have a defensive maven at small forward. Only instead of the recently departed Ron Artest it's former Laker Trevor Ariza, who signed a five-year, $33 million free-agent contract. And they still have a potentially explosive scorer in the backcourt. Only it's not Tracy McGrady but rookie Jermaine Taylor, who averaged 26.2 points for Central Florida last season and will fill in while McGrady recovers from microfracture knee surgery. In other words Houston is now a pale imitation of the team that took the Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals. "When the previews come out, we'll probably be in the back of the magazines, under the cologne ads," says general manager Daryl Morey. "But we're not going to feel sorry for ourselves."
Primarily a half-court club since drafting Yao in 2002, the Rockets will pin their hopes on an up-tempo attack that was surprisingly effective in the second half of last season. Running it will be Aaron Brooks, the third-year blur of a point guard who became a starter when Rafer Alston was traded to the Magic in February. Brooks was a revelation, particularly in the postseason, when he averaged 16.8 points and 3.4 assists. But after playing off Yao, Artest and McGrady last season, he will have to adjust to being Houston's primary weapon. "He can get by anybody," says a Western Conference scout. "But if he doesn't establish himself as an outside threat, teams will defend him like they did Tony Parker early in his career and back off."
In Andersen, 29, a 2002 second-round pick who has played in Europe since 1999, the Rockets think they've found a round-peg, round-hole fit for coach Rick Adelman. In his read-and-react system the center directs the action from the high post, a role in which Yao sometimes struggled. The 6'11" Andersen—who averaged 11.1 points and 4.1 rebounds for FC Barcelona last season—is an adept passer with an accurate 18-foot jumper. Says Morey, "He's the quintessential elbow big man."
And more help could be on the way. While the Rockets may clear as much as $15 million in cap space after next season, Morey says they will be "very active" in the trade market during '09--10. Houston has a coveted trading chip in McGrady, whose $22.5 million expiring contract makes him valuable even if he only plays half a season. "They'll be able to make a blockbuster deal," says an Eastern Conference G.M., "because a lot of teams will want to wipe that salary off their books after next year."
If Morey can trade for an All-Star, he believes the Rockets will be poised to make a title run in 2010--11, when Yao returns. "We're not naive; we know we need Yao to be a contender," says Morey. "But NBA titles are won by teams with elite talent and good role players. We feel as if we already have some very good young talent."
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The news that Magic forward Rashard Lewis tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone may have linked the NBA to the steroid scandal that has plagued baseball, but don't expect a similar slew of doping violations. Since 1999 the NBA has randomly tested players four times per season for banned substances, and only six players have been suspended. League sources say Lewis, who tested positive for DHEA, a testosterone booster found in supplements, mixed an over-the-counter powder into a protein shake but didn't verify what was in it. The mistake will cost him 10 games (and $1.6 million), but it's probably not an indicator of widespread steroid use in the league.
GREG NELSON (BROOKS)
LONE STAR The fleet Brooks provided a boost in the playoffs but will draw more attention with the team's stars out.
BOB ROSATO (LEWIS)