The steady erosion of what three years ago was a veteran roster nearly reached a culmination last Thursday, and had the Rockets traded power forward Luis Scola to the Hornets, Rockets point guard Kyle Lowry would have assumed a title that seems unfathomable at first blush.
Had NBA commissioner David Stern not stepped in and quashed a three-team trade agreed upon by the Hornets, Lakers and Rockets, Scola would be in New Orleans and Lowry would be the longest-tenured Rocket. That Lowry, traded to the Rockets by the Grizzlies on Feb. 19, 2009, was one conflict of interest case away from such a distinction speaks to the roster upheaval the franchise has undergone recently.
With Shane Battier (traded to the Grizzles), Yao Ming (retired) and Chuck Hayes (signed by the Kings) gone, these Rockets are Lowry's team. One year ago he entered camp as the backup to Aaron Brooks. As the Rockets prepare for their preseason opener against the Spurs on Saturday night at Toyota Center, there's no doubting who is in charge.
"Kyle is very intelligent," first-year Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "We put a play in the first day and decided to change it to make it a little bit easier for our bigs to make reads. We hadn't run the play in two days and said let's just dry run this and Kyle said, 'Why did we change that?'"
McHale, as it turned out, forgot the play. Lowry is sharp and attentive. His familiarity of his teammates was developed through an awkward transition last season when Brooks' displeasure over his contract status became a distraction. As Brooks sulked while slowly easing back into the rotation following an ankle injury, Lowry offered needed stability.
When Brooks was shipped to the Suns for Goran Dragic last Feb. 24, the transition was complete. Lowry was the starter without debate, and from that point forward he began carrying himself like a starter should.
"I definitely saw it last year when he became a starter," Rockets forward Chase Budinger said. "As more games went on and he kept starting, you could tell his leadership started to grow. It kept continuing to grow throughout the whole season, and coming into this season he knew he had to be the clear leader. The point guard always needs to be the most vocal and always has to lead the team because they always have the ball. He knew that coming into the season and is doing a great job so far."
This compressed camp, particularly with a new coaching staff, has challenged Lowry to deliver in means beyond tangible production. He's serving as the bridge between what is unfamiliar and the returning personnel. He's had to articulate the new offense in a manner that best serves McHale while being cognizant of the strengths of his teammates.
With each practice McHale gains awareness of who can do what, blending his offseason film study with workout results. Lowry has extensive game experience at his disposal, particularly with a core that is largely unchanged. Scola, Budinger, Kevin Martin and Courtney Lee represent four of the Rockets' top five returning scorers. Lowry is the fifth, coming off a breakthrough campaign that included career highs in average points (13.5), assists (6.7), rebounds (4.1) and steals (1.4).
That productivity might surprise some. It was easy to lose sight of what Lowry accomplished with Yao suffering through his last injury-plagued season, both Battier and Brooks being jettisoned, and the Rockets coming up just short of the postseason for a second consecutive season. It almost seemed like Lowry arrived out of nowhere. Now perceptions and perspectives have shifted, both externally and within Lowry.
"Last year you look at it as a backup. You look at it as your unit and what you can do for your unit," said Lowry, who is entering his sixth season at just 25 years old. "Now I have to look at it as a big picture, as a whole, as everybody that can possibly be on the floor together at all times."
That realization came unexpectedly last season. But the 71 starts Lowry made prepared him for what awaits now that he is the unquestioned facilitator on offense, now that he serves as McHale's eyes on the court.
Now Lowry is an emergent point guard with a coveted position as an NBA starter. Prior evidence suggests he'll continue handling the role with aplomb.
"He realizes this is a point guard's league, and that's the No. 1 recipe for success is having a point guard that can lead your team," Martin said. "He has the keys to do that and that's what we need him to do. And he's definitely confident going into this year. He doesn't have to look over his shoulder because it's his time to shine."
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