Toronto Raptors Houston Rockets December 30, 2010

I’m sick as a dog, so this will be a short one…

Tonights game will mark the second time this season the Raptors and Rockets throw down. The first time around, Bargnani came up huge, and the bench had his back as the team played as close to a perfect game as the Raptors possibly could against a Rockets team that has been playing rather well considering they were missing Yao and Aaron Brooks.

I spoke with Jacob from Red94 about the Rockets:

So the Yao Ming era is over for the Rockets huh? Given his history of injuries (and the potential of never playing again), and all the expiring contracts out there, what is a realistic trade scenario you see happening?
While it warms my heart to know the Rockets’ marriage to Yao has been one of basketball-related devotion (and not commercial), the opportunities out there for Yao’s contract to be dealt sit somewhere between slim and none. The most attractive part of his deal will be the $8 million of the $17 million he’s owed that will be covered by insurance (though the entire contract will still count against the salary cap any team in possession of it) thanks to his most recent season-ending injury, an almost-panacea for this league’s poorer millionaire owners. The problem with dealing such relief remains that it’s hard to find a team so broke that it will simply give up $17 million worth of assets, expiring contracts or not, for some money and a broken icon who will likely never play a game for said team. Rockets fans will bring up Andre Iguodala (because doesn’t everybody at this point?), but unless Morey suddenly takes an interest in Rashard Lewis or Brandon Roy or Elton Brand, that large man and his large expiring deal will likely run out in Houston.

Kyle Lowry has been pretty solid this season (I own him in my fantasy league); with Aaron Brooks coming back from injury, can the two of them play together in the back-court, or will we see Kyle’s minutes slashed?
There had been a pretty healthy debate over who would be the ideal starter among the two before the season began, so after Lowry’s success as the primary point man, the discussion has only gotten more heated. Brooks seems so perfectly suited to the role of the 6th man, an offensive sparkplug who could ideally share the court with Lowry to close out games (although that would likely invite a three-guard-lineup featuring Martin that would mirror Dallas’, except for the whole not-having-Tyson-Chandler thing), but Aaron Brooks has earned his role as the starter. He’s the team’s best offensive option in crunch time and bid his time while watching Rafer Alston fling up errant threes his first couple of years, making any transition back to the bench after the work he’s put in seem like punishment for success. I expect the two point men who have shared the backcourt quite ably over the last two years to do quite well together given the added confidence on Lowry’s part from his successful run starting, but if you’re a fantasy owner of Lowry, I hope your league is Sarlaac-Pit-deep because Brooks will likely be starting by the end of January, especially if the Rockets hit any kind of rough patch.

So how’s that Ariza/Lee trade working out for you?
Well… the moves for both prove Daryl Morey may not be infallible, but the deal sure seems quite prescient on a financial level at least. Lee’s shown promise as a defensive stopper/energy player (and his three-point shot off of the catch is gravy, a lot more than I can say for Ariza), but that deal looks more and more like the salary dump every pundit claimed it was when the deal was made as the days go by.

Scola is having a career year, after signing a massive contract, at 30 no less. He has been improving year over year, but this is a dramatic jump; what’s changed? Will he still be contributing at a high level?
My opinion diverges from the majority of the Rockets fanbase here, but I think Luis Scola has always been this good (his numbers after Carl Landry was dealt last year are equally impressive). And by this good, I mean perfectly fine and the exact kind of player that a team like the Rockets cannot afford to have on contract for three years after this (the last year of his deal is partially guaranteed, ensuring his trade bait status in 2014-15). His production comes from abusing mismatches and finding his spots on the court, excellent skills to have if the player in question is one of a team’s lesser options; unfortunately, he has been the Rockets’ second-best player in 2010, a big reason for the team’s mediocrity. Scola himself has done nothing but produce at full-tilt all year, but his age already raises concerns (and his defense can only get more excruciating) while four years remain on his chunky contract. He exemplifies the all-world role player, and the Rockets should be glad if they find the all-world team that needs to add one of those and seems willing to send back some youth, draft picks and/or cap flexibility in return.

Other than Yao potentially getting traded, what else is in the cards for the Rockets?
Aaron Brooks looks to be the most likely Rocket to be traded, well before Yao or Scola. His contract expires after this year as he thinks extension, meaning Houston will be looking to get some kind of value for his contract before the deadline. There has also been a lot of talk including Anthony Randolph as the Knicks vehemently try and stock up draft picks (even their old ones that Morey took from them as recently as last year) in order to bring Carmelo to the Mecca; let’s just say that I would be more than enthused to try and let Randolph develop his superhuman skillset in the H. Otherwise, um, we’re getting Chris Paul and Melo, and watch out in 2012, suckas (I figure Bill Simmons and Peter Vescey try to will such trades via nonsensical rumors; I am no better).

Injury Report

Toronto
Andrea Bargnani – Out
Reggie Evans – Out
Peja Stojakovic – Out
Jose Calderon – Day-to-day
Sonny Weems – Day-to-day

Houston
Yao Ming – Done
Chuck Hayes – Out
Kevin Martin – Day-to-day

Match-ups

Point Guard
The Rockets are currently 2nd in the league in assists per game, this starts with the PG’s and Kyle Lowry has been solid in Aaron Brooks’ absence. Between the two of them, they average about 12 dimes a match, with the everyone else on the team chipping a couple a game. Brooks will be coming off the bench for a few more games, so his energy and scoring from a 6th man role. With Calderon potentially out for tonight, Bayless needs to do better than the 2-10 performance he turned in against the Mavs. I’d feel a lot better if Jose was around to bring some stability to the point, but Barbosa’s speed and aggressiveness will go a long way in countering Brooks off the bench.
Edge: Rockets

Shooting Guard
DeMar’s been playing really well over the last 5 games, averaging 16.2pts a match; but he needs to get to the line much more than 5 a game he’s averaging. He can take some notes from Kevin Martin tonight (if he plays, he should), who gets to the line almost 9 times a game – easy/cheap points. So since both these guys don’t play much defense, it’s going to come down to who scores more, and my money is on Martin. Although his shot is ugly, it’s deadly, and he does a great job of getting to the line and getting folks into foul trouble.
Edge: Rockets

Small Forward
I’m not sure which has been my saving grace: Weems being injured or Kleiza playing up to potential? Regardless, the venom I’ve been spewing at the both of them has dropped considerably. With Weems out of the picture, I’m liking Kleiza’s Yin to Wrights Yang; lame I know, but it’s a nice 1-2 combo that covers a lot of angles. Battier and Budinger are basically the same player, but one is younger. They can knock down open threes, play solid defense and smart basketball. Gotta go with Kleiza/Wright on this one, since neither have the size/strength to defend Linas in the paint.
Edge: Toronto

Power Forward
Ed Davis is coming off a ridiculous career game that has let him crack the Top 10 rookie ladder for the first time. While he wont be averaging 17pts 12rebs 3stl 3blks for the rest of the season, we can expect a significant contribution from out boy; at least while he gets increased minutes while Bargnani’s out. As for Amir, AltRaps said it best:

Playing hurt, he turned in 42 minutes of simply inspired play. Hard nosed off the ball, attacking on both ends of the floor, playing with smarts. You simply couldn’t have asked for a better game from a wounded soldier.

We will need both these guys playing a high level against Scola, who’s playing huge. The last time around, the Raptors had the luxury of great performances from Bargnani, Evans, Johnson and Andersen (the latter two off the bench). Even with wave-after-wave of Raptor big man coming at him, Scola still put up a solid 19pts 6rebs 3ast. Tonight, the depth isn’t there, so Amir/Davis will have to dig in tight.
Edge: Even

Center
Neither Dorsey or Hayes are real centers in the league, but they’ve been thrust into this position. Both these guys are brutes in the paint. Expect one of them to die by halftime.
Edge: Even

The Line

Houston is 8.5 point favourites with an over/under of 212.5. Expect a fast paced, up and down match.

Happy New Years Eve.

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