Integrating Martin Key to Rockets Lifting Off Next Season
There is the Rockets' blueprint and his part in it, a plan forged by general manager Daryl Morey in which the outcome will not only dictate the long-term perceptions of the sixth-year player but have a small place in the greater debate on basketball's version of "Moneyball."
Morey is seen by many as the hoops version of baseball's Billy Beane, the Oakland A's general manager who became a diamond hero of sorts to some with his ability to evaluate players in new and innovative ways. Beane optimized a baseball bank account that was relatively bare and a system riddled with old-school dogma -- most notably his decision to value on-base percentage over batting average or home runs. His winning ways were captured in the best-selling 2003 book by author Michael Lewis.
Morey has helped forge a similar movement, one in which player efficiency reigns and Martin's offensive style is expected to help the Rockets maximize each and every possession. It's the antithesis of the chucker method that has long been tolerated and sometimes celebrated in the NBA, with high individual point totals masking the number of attempts or turnovers it took to get there.
And while the Rockets may have just missed the playoffs for the first time in the last four seasons, it's this plan in motion that has them so confident they'll be back in a big way next year.
The best-case scenario vision goes like this: center Yao Ming returns as expected from the left foot surgery that cut his last postseason short and kept him out for all of 2009-10, and Martin benefits from the immense defensive attention paid to Yao while making teams pay with his scoring potency. His penchant for drawing fouls is a major factor, too, with Morey's analysis revealing a huge edge for the Rockets when they get opponents into the bonus.
Meanwhile, the likes of point guard Aaron Brooks, small forward Shane Battier, forward Luis Scola and a reserve unit that includes surprising guard Chase Budinger help maintain the gritty, defensive-minded spirit for which this group has become known.
"I've always been a fan of Kevin's," said Morey, who spent three seasons with Boston before becoming Houston's assistant general manager in 2006 and its general manager in 2007. "We felt like at the wing (position), we needed a scoring option to replace what Tracy (McGrady) was bringing. One of the things we focused on heavily was with Yao Ming, being in the bonus was a real important factor for our winning. With a guy like Kevin being top five in the league in getting to the line, he's a great complement who also has an ability to spread the floor, attack the basket."
Dallas owner Mark Cuban had a similar opinion. But while Morey was able to convince Kings basketball president Geoff Petrie to engage in the final days before the Feb. 18 trading deadline, Cuban was not.
"Very much so," Cuban said recently when asked if he pursued Martin before the deadline. "All teams put (trade possibilities) up on their board or put them in their back pocket, and you hold out for the dream deal. Well, Kevin was probably side by side one of our top deals that we had on the board. But the way it happens is you've got to say yes to the deal in front of you."
For the Mavericks, that ultimately resulted in the trade that netted them Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson from Washington. For the Rockets, the Martin deal was one they were thrilled to deal with.
But as Martin himself pointed out, that's how it plays out on the spreadsheet. On the court and in Houston's locker room, there is much work to be done.
"Daryl had a great vision, and we know all that is going to depend on health next year," Martin said before facing the Kings. "It looks great on paper. It looks like an elite squad on paper. But we have to get together in training camp, to see how things go, see how players hold up, and hopefully we don't have any injuries. But it's a great fit."
Yao remains the most important on that front. While he isn't expected to be fully recovered until the late summer at the earliest, he has started running again. Sort of.
The 7-foot-6, 310-pounder has been running on a treadmill that simulates the user's body being in water, and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said Yao is already handling a load equal to 70 percent of his weight (or 217 pounds). The recent progress has been encouraging, as Yao was running at 60 percent weight just last week. He can walk without any assistance or a boot and has been taking shots for some time as well.
"He's right on schedule as far as being back next year," Morey said.
Martin's ability to stay healthy will be an issue as well, as he has played an average of just 52 games in the last three seasons due mostly to groin, ankle and wrist injuries. He missed five games with the Rockets late this season due to a shoulder injury. But even with full health for all, the task of integrating Martin into the Rockets' all-for-one, one-for-all culture is vital as well.
Enter Shane Battier.
The Rockets' resident leader said he will take the lead when it comes to making Martin feel comfortable with his teammates and his teammates with him.
"I'll talk to him after the year," said Battier, who was featured by Lewis last year in a Moneyball-esque New York Times story highlighting his unique effectiveness. "He's had so much thrown at him, so I sort of want him to take in everything and when it's all said and done, I'll talk to him and say, 'Hey, you got a flavor of what's going on with our team, and now it's your team. You're our main guy now. Here are some things that will help you. Here are some things that will help us.' It would be beneficial for everybody."
While Martin has long since earned a reputation as one of the league's most dangerous scorers, he has played in just one playoff series in six seasons (a six-game loss to San Antonio in 2006). As a little-used rookie in 2005, he was left off the Kings playoff roster by Adelman during their first-round loss to Seattle. The lack of postseason experience and what it will take to get the Rockets back in the playoffs, Battier said, is something that will be part of their discussion.
"While he was the man in Sacramento, he's had to become just one of the guys (in Houston)," Battier said. "We truly play a team game, and that takes an adjustment period. Our trademark over the last couple years has been our toughness and resiliency. We've had an amazing (amount) of injuries between Yao and when Tracy (McGrady) played, and we always found a way to get things done.
"It's a gritty group, and we play hard. Hopefully Kevin can bring his talent and we can get him to that level. I think it would take him to a higher level as a player."
Adding another face familiar to Martin might not hurt, either. Sources close to the Rockets say Houston will pursue former Kings and current Chicago center Brad Miller on the free agent market. The 12-year veteran who played with Martin from 2004 to 2009 was one of Martin's staunchest supporters during their time together, and their chemistry in running Adelman's respected system could add yet another offensive dimension to the Rockets' plan.
As for Martin, he admits he was ready to leave Sacramento. Those close to him say he was confused by the way Kings officials privately questioned him last season when an ankle injury kept him out of 31 games, and frustrated by the way he was de-emphasized by coach Paul Westphal and his staff this season. During his 32-game absence due to a left wrist fracture and subsequent surgery, rookie Tyreke Evans exploded on the scene and became not only the focal point of the young team but the singular selling point for the business types who so badly needed to engage the masses of disinterested fans.
And suddenly Martin -- who was once nicknamed "Face" (as in "face of the franchise") by his teammates around the time he signed his five-year, $55 million deal in 2007 -- was being questioned on the floor too. Sources close to him point to a Jan. 22 game at Orlando as a turning point in how he viewed his situation, as he hit just one of six shots in the first half against the Magic after having four assists in the first quarter. At halftime, the sources said, Westphal chastised Martin for breaking off a play late in the second quarter and effectively accused him of being selfish.
It clearly had a negative effect on his psyche, as the player who averaged at least 13.3 shots per game in each of the last four seasons took just 17 shots combined in the 10 quarters that followed (the second half against Orlando and losses to Miami and Golden State). In the weeks leading up to his departure, Martin's frustrations at his perceived place in the Kings' plans were increasingly obvious. His transparent body language furthered a disconnect between him and some of his teammates and coaches. It was a bridge they would never gap.
"Kevin will be good with the Rockets because he likes (his former Kings coach and current Houston coach) Rick (Adelman)," said Kings assistant and Hall of Famer Pete Carril, the legendary Princeton coach who was once Martin's biggest backer. "He knows Rick, he likes (assistant) Elston (Turner) and all those guys and is familiar with them so that they'll be fine."
Yet as Carril saw it, Martin hadn't been fine for quite some time in Sacramento.
"It didn't seem like he was alive," Carril continued. "He had always had a zest. When I coached him in the summer league (in 2005), he was a live wire. I used to call him 'hotshot.' He would have one tip-in every game, sometimes two. He'd run the floor, and all of a sudden ... he wasn't the same guy."
Yet in Martin's return to Sacramento, there was no shortage of energy. He played at a frenetic pace, dunking as many times in that one game (three) as he had in a span of months during his late Kings tenure while hitting 11 of 20 shots and all 16 of his free throws. It was the kind of performance Morey hopes can help turn Houston into title contenders in 2010-11.
"There's no pressure (on him) at all," Martin said of next season. "I know what I've got inside with Yao Ming, who's a big scapegoat (if he gets into trouble offensively). I know what I've got in the backcourt with me scoring-wise. I've just got to work hard this summer. I'm going to make it the hardest working summer of my career and get back to playing at a really high level."
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