Not many people had heard much about Rafer Alston, the NBA player, when he was acquired from the Toronto Raptors before the '05-'06 season. Being 'Skip to my Lou' was his claim to fame, and the AND1 stigma was hard to shake off; just as others had tried and failed in the past.
Could a flashy guard have a strong enough head to run an NBA offense?
This was the year after our disappointing first round exit to Dallas. That team was filled with veterans: Bob Sura, David Wesley, John Barry at the guard positions, and the organization quietly and quickly realized that they needed to begin rebuilding slowly but surely towards their goal of a T-Mac and Yao-led championship.
Jeff Van Gundy was beginning to recruit his "type" of players and set his sights on a solid passing point guard to defer to T-Mac and Yao - while still playing great defense. Rafer always had the speed and the handles, and over the course of the last 4 years he has proven that he was the perfect man for the job. Thank You, Jeff.
Rafer's success and his spot in our starting lineup is a concrete example of one the very FEW advantages to having an injury-plagued team. Bob Sura went down for good, and David Wesley began shooting himself into retirement; All of sudden Rafer was the best choice and the only choice the Rockets had.
In a year where Yao played only 57 games, and T-mac a mere 47, Jeff realized a championship was not a reasonable season goal. He began to work on the players he planned to use in the future. Injuries, the 40-point game-7 loss and the bad season record were alienating fans. All the while Rafer was showing that he was the best player on our depleted roster. A very important thing to understand is that our record was extremely misleading that year. Almost every single game was competitive and with almost nothing on our roster. Van Gundy's coaching was beginning to shine. In fact, he probably was completely happy with what his team gave him that year.
Heading into the '06-'07 season Rafer was our top runner, and we really felt that with a healthy team and what we built in '05-'06 we were already playoff material. Rafer went on to start ALL 82 games that season averaging the most minutes per game (37.1 minutes) on the team. His durability and reliability really made it possible for him to get better and our team to get completely comfortable with him. Unfortunately, Yao was injured again and only played 48 games. Although we would lose to Utah in 7 games, moving into the playoffs and being a few minutes from advancing was a step in the right direction from what was a rebuilding year just one year before. However, the Houston fans saw this as a huge disappointment and combined the last two years of let down with the previous 6 years - our team was unfairly criticized. Injuries were obvious reasons, but Rafer was always there, by proxy setting him up to be the scapegoat.
He is a very spotty shooter and always has been, but Jeff did not bring him here to be a third option scorer. There were still two positions (SF,PF) that were better suited for that role and Jeff began asking too much from Rafer without much choice. In the offseason Rafer was absolutely murdered by the Houston media and fans. His arrests and the Rockets' acquisitions: Steve Francis and Aaron Brooks, led many to believe that the Rockets organization was as ignorant as the fans themselves. But the facts always overshadow unfounded opinions, and Rafer EASILY beat out all competition. I emphasize easily because Rafer had an advantage. His two years of experience and the continuous lack of respect he received were two driving forces for Rafer's success that training camp - no one came close.
It wasn't until the 22-game winning streak that Rafer was finally absolved from the AND1 stigma, and all the haters really couldn't find anything to complain about. It is true that he was at his best, but his tough NBA journey led him to this inevitable year.
I first noticed how vital he was to this team in a game against New Orleans on Feb. 3 in the '06-'07 season. In the first quarter, Rafer was ejected along with a New Orleans scrub. An unusually healthy Rockets team had no flow or chemistry or any chance to win that game. This wasn't the New Orleans of last year or even the Chris Paul of last year. If that wasn't enough, then everybody could see his impact when a "better scoring" guard (Bobby Jackson) was forced to lead the Rockets in the first two playoff games last season. He led us right into an impenetrable 0-2 deficit.
My final point is understanding the value in terms of money with a player like Alston. Unselfish, intangible-driven players like Alston are usually undervalued and underpaid in the NBA. We now have 3 superstars and a rising star in Scola. Oh, and Battier isn't exactly a scrub either. Who could we possibly get that would be better? Everyone you could name would be either an elite point guard who plays the role of T-Mac for their respective team while getting paid near the same, or a better scoring point guard who is 3 years behind Rafer's experience and chemistry with the our team. Trading Rafer will never work out for the best. We have the best point guard in the league for the roster we have and that we can afford. We are not the Yankees, and this is not baseball.
'05 -'06 was not only the year we found our point guard, but the same year we brought in two rookies that would get a similar opportunity to succeed due to injuries...
...And the Rockets select Luther Head from Illinois to be the next True-Blooded Rocket.
Submitted by Earnie Banks