The Houston Rockets proved last year that you can reinvent yourself ... to a point. They were an average team, and for a while, they were even a very good team. But at a certain point, talent wins out, and the Rockets' lack of top-flight stars ultimately cost them a chance to make the playoffs.
Not that it was their fault, of course. Forced to play all year without their two highest-paid players (Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady), the Rockets did more than many expected. As January rolled around, they were in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase, playing an up-tempo style that was a major change from how they played with Yao healthy. Rather than slow down the pace and limit possessions, which is what most teams that lack top-level talent do, the Rockets pushed the ball and shot a ton of three-pointers. They knew they would have trouble scoring in half-court sets, so they ran, funneled to the three-point line and took aim at one of the more efficient shots in basketball.
That probably explains why the Rockets really didn't fall off offensively last year even without Yao. Point guard Aaron Brooks and power forward Luis Scola had career years picking up the slack, and they got help too from Carl Landry before the trade deadline and Kevin Martin after it. But ultimately, their defense suffered, causing them to finish with just a 42-40 record. Without Yao patrolling the middle, the Rockets' ball pressure broke down, which caused them to tumble to the middle of the pack once you adjust for pace.
In a way, this year is the hard part for the Rockets. The good news is that Yao is back in the lineup. The bad news is that he's on a strict 24-minute limit, at least until the Rockets are sure his fragile feet are in good shape. This means the Rockets essentially need to play two different styles. When Yao is in the game, they will slow the game down and work cutters off him. When he is out, though, the Rockets may need to go back to the up-tempo style that they had last season.
For what it's worth, the Rockets are deep enough to potentially make this work, as SB Nation's Rockets blog The Dream Shake notes:
This is a roster that is built with the intent to distribute and work together, fittingly under a coach who excels with such a scheme. Yao Ming has already shown during the preseason that his passing skills have improved, perhaps indicating that the offense will be equally effective with Yao shooting or simply drawing attention in order to free others for shots. Kevin Martin, Aaron Brooks, Shane Battier and Luis Scola can all shoot the basketball, and they've each got a convenient place around the court from which they are most comfortable. Scola has always been effective on the elbow. Battier loves to spot up in the corner, and Brooks and Martin can shoot it from just about anywhere. As far as starting lineups are concerned, the Rockets have an incredibly cohesive bunch. This bodes extremely well for Yao's comeback attempt.
The bench certainly won't let off once the starters need a break.
Still, reintegrating Yao will require others to sacrifice shots they earned last year. That's probably why Rockets GM Daryl Morey dealt away Trevor Ariza in a salary dump this summer. Ariza was Morey's big free-agent signing last year, but he struggled in a featured role. Morey elected to admit his mistake and trade him for New Jersey's Courtney Lee. The Dream Shake actually believes this is an upgrade.
I'm all about fundamental basketball players. I like guys who can control the ball and play in a manner that doesn't require too much help from the other four players on the court. I like players who are smart, who study, who make plays that aren't necessarily practiced or coached. Trevor Ariza isn't one of those players. He needs someone to hold his hand and tell him what to do. He, by all means, is an underachiever who relies on his athleticism far more than he relies on fundamental basketball talent. Those types of players, amidst the highlight reel dunks and occasionally big plays, can be quite a headache for coaches and fans alike.
Ariza could play great team defense. He could rack up a few important steals per game and knock down a three if he was open. But too often we saw him try to do too much. We saw him force the action, force shots, force passes. In all fairness, he was asked to do this due to the absences of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, and he wasn't ready for it. Perhaps he could have been of greater value in a reduced role. We can't forget, however, that Courtney Lee was asked to do the same last season in New Jersey. As far as efficiency is concerned, Lee performed much, much better.
The Dream Shake is also excited about first-round pick Patrick Patterson (he's "going to be the most overlooked gem in the 2010 NBA Draft class," says Tom Martin), and believes Morey still has enough assets to make a big move. But when we're talking about the Rockets' chances, we're really talking about only one thing: Yao Ming's health.
When Yao is healthy, he's right up there with Dwight Howard among the best centers in the NBA. He's certainly more skilled offensively than Howard, and while Howard is the league's best defensive player, Yao is pretty outstanding himself. His achilles heel (pun intended) is that teams can take advantage of his lack of mobility by fronting him, but it's a far less fatal flaw than Howard's poor free-throw shooting. But Yao is rarely healthy, and that's the case even this year. Putting him on a 24-minute limit is probably a necessity, but it's hard for anyone to be great playing just half the game. The Dream Shake postulates that the Rockets are simply keeping Yao on that minute limit to save him for the playoffs, but with the depth of the West, the playoffs isn't a certainty.
Make no mistake about it, the Rockets need Yao in the regular season. As The Dream Shake writes:
He needs to stay healthy to make a run in the playoffs. It's as simple as that. I don't want people to be thrown off by the lack of words in the weakness paragraph as compared to the strengths paragraph, because Yao's health outweighs all of that. The Rockets can truly be a great team if Yao is on the court and playing at a reasonably high level. They can similarly find themselves victim to another first-round exit if he isn't there.
Will Yao be healthy enough to make Houston a contender? The Dream Shake predicts a 51-31 record, which is nine games better than last year. I'll split the difference and say the Rockets finish 47-35, putting them right on the edge of the playoffs.