Rockets want to make splash after missing playoffs

HOUSTON "I've still got time to put my jersey on," Yao said with a smile.

"Don't tempt me," Adelman cracked.

If only.

Yao was wearing a giant protective boot at the time, still several months from recovering from reconstructive surgery on his left foot. Houston finished a respectable 42-40 without it's 7-foot-6 All-Star center, but missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

Lacking a shot-blocking presence in the middle, Houston struggled defensively, dropping to 22nd in opponents' field goal percentage (47.5) after ranking among the top 5 in the previous three seasons. Three of the team's best defensive players -- Trevor Ariza, Shane Battier and Kyle Lowry -- also missed a total of 38 games with injuries.

Everyone expected this to be a transitional year for the Rockets anyway, and general manager Daryl Morey didn't wait until the end to start preparing for next season, when he expects Yao to anchor a playoff-bound team.

Houston orchestrated the biggest deal at the midseason trade deadline, dealing troublesome Tracy McGrady to New York and acquiring sharpshooting Kevin Martin from Sacramento. The Rockets had to ship popular forward Carl Landry to the Kings, and they went 14-14 with the new-look roster over the last month and a half of the season.

But Morey said Thursday he feels confident in the foundation laid for next season after seeing the progress of several players this year:

-- Point guard Aaron Brooks led the NBA and set a single-season franchise record for 3-pointers made (209). He reached 20 points in 39 games and topped 30 points in 10 games.

-- Power forward Luis Scola recorded 32 double-doubles and scored at least 20 points in 26 games.

-- Rookie Chase Budinger averaged nine points and three rebounds per game, providing reliable scoring off the bench.

-- Guard/forward Trevor Ariza averaged 15 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and ranked sixth in the NBA in steals per game (1.75).

"We did what we had to do to get the wins we got," Morey said, "and we feel like a lot of what we learned this year will carry over to next year when we get Yao Ming back."

The final piece could come in the draft or free agency this summer. Morey vowed that the Rockets will be active buyers looking for a top-tier frontcourt player, a so-called "quality big," to take pressure off Yao.

"Even though we're proud of a lot of what we accomplished this year, we weren't a playoff team and we do feel like we're short of having the roster to compete at the highest level," Morey said. "We feel like we need to be aggressive. I think a lot of teams make mistakes, where they try to do everything in the offseason prior to the season and then they lose their flexibility to upgrade their team during the year.

"So it may not necessarily be something that happens during the offseason," he said. "It could be that Yao Ming is our big acquisition during the offseason, plus maybe some minor free agent pick-ups. But that doesn't mean we're not going to be constantly looking at free agents."

Morey expects to re-sign soon-to-be restricted free agents Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry, two more vital components for next season. The 6-foot-9 Scola averaged a career-best 16 points and 8.6 rebounds, and the 6-foot Lowry was a tough, physical complement to Brooks.

Morey said Rockets owner Leslie Alexander instructed him to offer whatever it takes to bring both players back.

"They're going to be back," Morey said. "Mr. Alexander said we've got all the resources. Kyle and Luis are two of his favorite players on the team -- for the obvious reasons that they help us win and they're both hard working guys -- and we're going to have them back. Mr. Alexander said we're keeping them, no matter what."

Morey estimates that the Rockets need to improve by 13-15 victories next season to become legitimate contenders again.

"To win the title, you have to be somewhere around 55 to 57 wins. So we've got to get there," he said. "I think if we get Yao Ming back, we're close. And I think if our guys on the team can take a step forward defensively or a step forward overall, or if we make other acquisitions, we'll be right there."

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