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Nightmare Season Sets Table for Critical Summer
THURSDAY, MAY 9, 2002   8:00 AM CT
By Clutch
Copyright 2002
Rudy T and Rockets fans endured a hellish year
It's good to be back. I recently returned from vacation in Beantown, where playoff basketball has finally been restored to Celtics fans after years of painful and frustrating seasons.

You know, like the unbearable season we just endured.

Make no mistake, the Rockets organization is well aware that the 2001-2002 season was a hideous one for everyone involved. The injuries started early, the losses mounted and the end product was embarrassing.

For that reason, don't be shocked by any changes this summer. Though there's always a lot of talk, the word has been since the season ended that anything's possible and really no one is safe (though you can place strong bets on Steve Francis and Eddie Griffin).

Bottom line: Nothing is set in stone.

The biggest change for next year, right off the bat, will be the expected returns of Glen Rice and Maurice Taylor. There has been little word thus far on Rice's situation and how he's doing, but word on Taylor has not been encouraging.

According to a source close to the team, at season's end, Mo was seventy pounds overweight. Seventy. It's not new to hear he put on poundage after seeing him on the bench this year, where he was stretching those turtleneck sweaters beyond tested limits, but now we know how much he has to shed. There was also a rumor that Mo had suffered a setback in his knee rehab, but that is unconfirmed at the moment.

It's amazing how fast things went south for Taylor. Last offseason, Taylor had done just about everything that could have been asked of him. By all accounts he got in great shape, improved his game with offseason workouts and was ready to step it up this season. Then he signed a contract for 50 million bones, tore his Achilles just three weeks later and it's been downhill since.

Mo has a lot to do -- this summer will speak volumes about him and his career.

The Rockets themselves have a ton to do as well. What cards are they holding? They have a fearsome duo of guards, able to easily put up bunches of points but seemingly unable to play team ball, or bring out the best in their teammates. Meanwhile, their front court is one of the weakest in the Conference while they have three young guys all expecting to be the power forward of Houston's future.

Expect Kenny Thomas to be the odd man out. He's the hardest working of the bunch and has improved his game tremendously, and that coupled with the fact he's still got a year left on a cheap contract will make him a relatively valuable commodity on the market.

Considering the Rockets need at small forward, and with some big names potentially on the market, speculation could center around (from top left, clockwise) Odom, Kwame, Rashard and Robinson
A market which the team will play. Speculation will run rampant about the Rockets' chances of acquiring a Rashard Lewis, Lamar Odom, Wally Szczerbiak or Glenn Robinson ... and as odd as it may sound and as little sense as it may make, at least one top Rocket exec has a strong interest in pursuing Kwame Brown, last year's top pick of the Washington Wizards. Brown has been a bit of a disappointment, but there's no indication the Wizards are going to give up on him nor would it really make too much sense on paper from a Rockets standpoint. But oddly, Brown's name has come up more than once regarding possibilities for the Rockets.

Still, we won't know if they will be looking at these players nor who their focus will truly be on until we get closer to the draft.

Ahh yes, the draft -- the best cards the Rockets hold this offseason. The Rockets hold the 15th pick in the draft courtesy of the Hakeem Olajuwon deal to Toronto, but could still send that pick to Memphis to meet the requirements of the Steve Francis deal in 1999. If they don't send that pick, the Rockets have to cough up a first rounder next season to the Grizzlies: either their own, a first round pick within two selections of their own or a pick in the top 15.

It's a tough call, so no doubt the Rockets will use all their alotted time to study this draft before making that decision.

On May 19th, we find out what kind of luck the Rockets have with their lottery selection when the NBA lottery is held (and be sure to join in the Clutch Chat room as the order is announced). The Rockets could end up picking anywhere from first, second, third, fifth, sixth, seventh or even eighth in a worst case scenario.

Yao Ming is the prize as of now, and I would be stunned if the Knicks don't come away with him. It's simply too good of a match for David Stern with way, way too much at stake here. This is China we're talking about, and it's an untapped market for Stern. Big Yao not going to the Big Apple would be a surprise, but I would be floored if Golden State, Chicago, New York or Washington don't end up with the #1 pick as all four locations have large Chinese populations and Ming playing there would be the appeasement the Chinese government apparently needs.

Simply no way the Rockets could pass on Ming if they come away the top selection, but after that it's going to be a tough call. I expect the Rockets to wear out the phone lines listening to and making offers. They "should" be in a good position to get a very good player, and teams looking for a point guard may give up something worthwhile in the hopes of getting a Jason Williams or a DaJuan Wagner.

Drew Gooden and Chris Wilcox will be enticing prospects in the paint, but word continues to be the Rockets view the three as the biggest need to address here, and according to one source, JUCO player Qytnel Woods' athleticism has been descibed as "sick" more than once in Rocketville. UCONN's Caron Butler also will get a strong look. We will know more after all players declare for the draft before the 13th of May.

Interestingly, got word recently that Rockets scouts made their trip to Europe to scout some prospects and upon returning, Rudy Tomjanovich flew off to Italy almost immediately. Now we know why. 19-year old Nickoloz Tskitishvili has splashed on the draft scene. Tskitishvili is a 7'0" small forward cut from the Dirk Nowitzki/Pau Gasol mold. Not a strong defender, but like Gasol last year, the potential is very high on this prospect. Rudy wanted Nowitzki in '98 and there was all kinds of talk about the Rockets' interest in Gasol last year ... if they like his skills, they may not pass on this kid.

There's still so much that will happen though between now and June 26th ... we'll be here all the way. Full draft coverage at will begin next week.

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