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Better Without All-Stars?

Do the Rockets really need Tracy McGrady? Do the Wizards really need Gilbert Arenas? Do teams even need their stars anymore?

I thought I'd ponder those questions after I saw the Houston Rockets beat the New York Knicks to improve to 6-2 in their past eight games without McGrady. The Rockets have won four in a row overall, including a win over the Arenas-less Wizards on Tuesday.

The similarities between the Rockets and Wizards this season are startling, given how both teams have lost their star players to left knee injuries but have managed to find success with improved ball movement, more balanced scoring and inspired play from former supporting cast members who have stepped into leadership roles.


Our teams need us, really. (adidas basketball)

It's no secret that the absence of McGrady and Arenas had debilitating effects on their respective teams in the past. The Rockets entered this campaign with an 11-39 record sans McGrady since he joined the franchise before the 2004-05 season. The Wizards were 17-28 without Arenas the previous four seasons.

Maybe their teammates have gotten used to stepping up while they were down. Maybe the schedules have been favorable. Or maybe it is just one of those strange things that happens during the course of the season. Remember when the Los Angeles Clippers started the season 5-2 without Elton Brand? Then teams started to figure out the Clippers. Know what the Clippers' record has been since? 5-19.

Now the Rockets and Wizards are both better teams than the Clippers. I'm just saying, unless you're Minnesota - which has yet to win consecutive games since it traded Kevin Garnett - most teams can get on a nice run every now and then.

The Wizards' 14-11 record since Arenas had surgery to repair a torn left meniscus is discussed daily in these parts, and now that the Rockets are winning without their leading scorer, some pundits are wondering if the respective teams of Arenas and McGrady are better without them.

The answer is no.

I know opinions vary with regards to Arenas. I recall a conversation with a respected NBA head coach who thought the scoring of Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison combined with Daniels' floor leadership made the Wizards a pretty decent team. He said that he thought the Wizards were definitely better with Arenas on the floor, but added that the team could still be just as dangerous, if not more, if they traded him and/or used the money spent on Arenas to address their other pressing needs (depth, athleticism and interior defense).


Man, if I was healthy, we'd be one of the best teams in the East. Oh, wait. We still are? (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

I was sort of shocked to hear this coach say it, but he had me thinking for a minute. I concluded that I'd still rather have Arenas, assuming he comes back as the same Gilbert.

It's easy to say trade a superstar, but the last few mega deals (McGrady to Houston, O'Neal to Miami, Iverson to Denver and Garnett to Boston) have left the teams that traded their stars 50 cents away from having a quarter. The Garnett deal is the latest glaring example, given how the Celtics are the most improved team in the league while the Timberwolves have made the steepest decline from last season.

Plus, Arenas is one of the toughest players in the league to defend. He's a game-changer. You need those kind of players, especially in the playoffs. I just think it would be better to see a healthy Gilbert playing alongside the vastly improved Butler and the steady Jamison. I know the Wizards went 3-5 with that trio this season, but it was obvious that Arenas wasn't himself, the knee was still wobbly.

People tend to forget that when those guys were in the starting lineup together - and healthy - the Wizards went 30-21 in 2005-06, and 33-21 last season. Maybe I'm wrong, but 63-42 looks like a pretty decent record to me. A .600 winning percentage plays out to a 49-win team over 82 games.

There is a difference between being good enough to beat bad teams and good enough to beat good to great teams consistently. For the Wizards and Rockets, that difference is Arenas and McGrady, respectively. Reason being, the perception of those teams changes with their best players on the floor. With a healthy Arenas or a healthy McGrady on the floor, the Wizards and Rockets are scarier. Those guys have the potential to go off at any minute and demoralize the opposing team.

As Ivan pointed out in his story on Thursday, the Wizards don't have a win against a team with a winning record since a Dec. 1 victory over Toronto (and on that night, the Raptors didn't have Chris Bosh or Andrea Bargnani). It's not like the Wizards would've struggled against the LeBron-less Cavaliers, Sacramento, Minnesota, Miami, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Seattle with Arenas. You also have to assume that a healthy Arenas would've helped a little in losses against Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago and Indiana.


Did you forget what I did to the Lakers last season? Zero to 60. . .and back to zero? C'mon. I'm sort of a big deal. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Like Arenas said in his blog a few weeks ago, "We're playing the teams that we're supposed to be beating, with me in the lineup or without me in the lineup."

It's not like two years ago, when the Phoenix Suns won 54 games, the Pacific Division and advanced to the Western Conference finals without Amare Stoudemire. At least not yet. And, I don't think anyone will argue that the Suns are better without Stoudemire.

Starting tonight with Atlanta, these next 19 games before the all-star break are a critical stretch - and not just because they could determine whether or not Arenas decides to make his return. The Wizards have Boston twice, Dallas, Toronto twice, Cleveland (presumably with LeBron), San Antonio, the Los Angeles Lakers, and a four-game West Coast trip against Denver, Phoenix, Golden State and those tricky Clippers. This will determine what kind of team the Wizards really are.

This isn't meant to diminish what the Wizards are accomplishing without Arenas - only to put it in perspective. Coach Eddie Jordan, Jamison, Butler, Daniels and the rest of the players deserve props for keeping the team competitive throughout this stretch (and you have to consider the carryover from how Jamison and Daniels made that first-round loss against Cleveland a more hotly contested series than most expected).

The same can be said for how Yao Ming, Rafer Alston, Luther Head, Shane Battier and Luis Scola have helped the Rockets turn it around after losing their first three games without McGrady this season. They are 6-5 overall with McGrady in dress suits. During this latest run, the Rockets have two wins against the Knicks and another against Memphis (no big deal there), but they've also won on the road in Orlando (although the Magic is looking a bit shaky of late).

"We haven't won as many as games, maybe, as we have liked, but we're playing much better than we were," Rockets Coach Rick Adelman said. "I just think if we can get everybody back with their confidence at a higher level when he comes back, we're at a higher level as a team."

McGrady is expected to be evaluated on Friday to determine when he will make a return, but he wasn't optimistic that it will be this weekend. The knee injury has kept him from being able to run, thus limiting his ability to get back in shape. "It's going to take me awhile to get back to where I need to be. I came into camp and the season great, but now I have a setback that is probably going to set me back a while," he said. "Probably two weeks."


Another win, huh? I wish you guys played like this when I was on the floor. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

But when McGrady comes back, he will have to realize that the Rockets look better when the ball swings more. Watching the past few games on the bench, you figure that he's getting a better idea about how Adelman's new offense works. Sometimes this season, McGrady didn't show enough trust in his teammates and was quick to launch ill-advised jumpers rather than set them up. Now, he sees that some of these guys have skill.

He said he wasn't worried about fitting back in when he returns. "Why would I adjust?" McGrady said. "It is something positive that came out of this. Guys have gained confidence. They gained some sort of rhythm. Hopefully I don't come back and ruin that."

"That's what I tell the guys, 'You guys are out here playing extremely well and when I'm out on the basketball court, [you] don't look like that,' " McGrady said this week. "I hope they continue to play that way when I'm [back] on the basketball court. Don't look for me on the offensive end. Myself and Yao, we're going to get the ball, we're going to make plays and we're going to make shots. [Everybody else needs to] stay aggressive. Those guys are making shots and there's better ball movement. We look better that way."

McGrady's complaint is understandable. It's really easy for teammates to lean heavily on their stars to bail them out of tough situations. When that star is gone, they don't have that safety valve anymore, so they have to discover other ways to get it done. That usually requires more ball movement and better balance. And don't forget, every player in the league made it this far because they were the man at some point in their career - the problems usually start when guys don't realize they aren't the man any more - so they relish the opportunity to step up and have plays called for them. But I digress.

No doubt Arenas is keeping tabs of how the Wizards are playing and will adjust his game accordingly when/if he comes back this season.

To answer the latter question about stars. Well, it depends on the team. I went through and looked at the records of several teams without their star or one of their stars this season. Some teams have had success, most haven't. Here's the list:


I don't know what gives, Jarrett. I'm not an all-star yet, but we're winning without Greg Oden, too. (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

Portland: 5-0 without LaMarcus Aldridge (plantar fasciitis)
Why they win: Portland is truly a special team this season. To me, Nate McMillan is the easy choice for coach of the first half of the season. If the Blazers keep it up, Brandon Roy is an all-star.

Indiana: 5-1 without Jermaine O'Neal (left knee)
Why they win: Pacers offense runs more fluidly without O'Neal. They run, they gun, have fun. Wide open works for the personnel.

Milwaukee: 3-1 without Michael Redd (deep left thigh bruise)
Why they win: This is odd. But Charlie Bell finally awoke from a season long funk. Playing the Bobcats, Sixers and Heat helps, too.

Washington: 14-11 without Gilbert Arenas (left knee surgery)
Why they win: The Wizards still have two all-stars on the roster. They may have lost their best player, but they didn't lose their leader(s).

Houston: 6-5 without Tracy McGrady (left knee tendinitis, bone bruise)
Why they win: The Rockets still have Yao. Rookie Luis Scola is finally finding his groove.

San Antonio: 3-2 without Manu Ginobili (sprained left index finger); 2-2 without Tim Duncan (right ankle sprain, knee)
Why they win: Let's see. Um, Gregg Popovich is a pretty good coach. He's only won four championship rings. The Spurs have three all-stars. . .

Not so bad. On the other hand:


Our team is awful if we're playing or not. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Miami: 0-7 without Shaquille O'Neal (hip); 1-7 without Dwyane Wade (shoulder, knee)
Why they lose: Pat Riley has surrounded his all-stars with a roster that might - might - do well in the D-League.

New Jersey: 0-5 without Vince Carter (right ankle sprain)
Why they lose: Jason Kidd is great, but he is not a scorer. Richard Jefferson can't score all of the points.

Cleveland: 0-5 without LeBron James (sprained left index finger)
Why they lose: How can they win without the best one-man show in the league?

Golden State: 1-5 without Stephen Jackson (suspension)
Why they lose: Captain Jack plays with unbridled passion. He puts everyone in their proper positions.

Chicago: 1-4 without Luol Deng (lower back, left Achilles' tendinitis)
Why they lose: The Bulls have trouble scoring with Deng, when he's gone, it's all on Ben Gordon.

New York: 3-8 without Stephon Marbury (AWOL, father's death)
Why they lose: They lose with Stephon Marbury, too.

Sacramento: 4-9 without Ron Artest (suspension, daughter's illness, elbow surgery)
Why they lose: Mike Bibby is out, too. Artest's intensity is missed on both sides of the floor.

Toronto: 2-3 without Chris Bosh (groin injury)
Why they lose: The Raptors have done okay without Bosh, but they don't have many options when he's gone.

By Michael Lee  |  January 11, 2008; 8:00 AM ET
 
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