Posted Sep 13 2010 9:03PM - Updated Oct 1 2010 2:28PM
It's understandable that the Rockets are feeling like the Earth finally has resumed spinning again.
After all, since the night of May 8, 2009, this is a franchise that has been living in limbo, in suspended animation, stuck on a hamster wheel going nowhere.
May 8, 2009 was the night that Yao Ming suffered the latest unkind break in his fragile career, another untimely cracked bone that eventually required reconstructive surgery on his left foot and caused him to sit out all of last season.
That the fracture came just a short time after the Rockets had won their first playoff series in a dozen years (beating Portland in the first round) and came smack in the middle of a gutsy effort against the eventual champion Lakers -- losing in seven games -- only made it more difficult to bear.
"It's not like we were going to be favored either way in a Game 7, especially on their home court," said Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. "But we did feel good about ourselves, about the circumstances and, with Yao, we had a legitimate shot. Without him, we had players who competed hard and always gave us a fighting chance. But with Yao, we think it's a completely different story."
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Thus, the Rockets are figuring that with a reconstructed, rehabilitated and recommitted Yao back in the middle, they can resume that tale from 18 months ago that had them as a legitimate force in the contentious Western Conference.
Yes, Houston will be cautious, likely limiting Yao to 25 minutes or less per game, at least for the first several months.
"It's going to be hard for everybody," Morey said. "We have talked in the past about trying to keep Yao's minutes down over the course of the regular season, but this time it's not a suggestion or a wish. It's mandatory. There will be a minutes cap. We will have to pull him out. It is not an option.
"Yao being Yao, he's not going to want to come out. We all know that. But this is the way it's going to be. When he's in a game and he hits his minutes limit, it's going to be like a baseball pitcher on a pitch count. It won't be a judgment call anywhere. He comes out and we go on."
But while Yao, who enters his ninth NBA season having recently turned 30, knows his durability and stamina will be a question, at least in the beginning, the Rockets believe that they have answers in most of the other spots on their roster.
That's where playing last season without Yao actually might have helped in the long term. For while they knew they were not going to be a serious playoff contender without their big man in the middle, the Rockets used the season to gauge the supplementary talent on hand and, for the most part, liked what they saw.
"We had hoped to make the playoffs even without Yao," Morey said. "We had a good run in the beginning of the season, but we got worn down over the long haul of the schedule and came up just short."
Still, finishing at 42-40 convinced the Rockets that they have enough horsepower under their hood to get right back into the race, starting with the backcourt tandem of Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin.
The Rockets had sought Martin for ages and finally brought him in just ahead of the February trade deadline as part of the dealing that at last unloaded the unhappy and unhealthy Tracy McGrady. Martin demonstrated his ability to get to the basket and to the free-throw line and should be more potent with an off-season of workouts and a camp to get acclimated.
Martin steps next to point guard Aaron Brooks, who last season won the Most Improved Player Award presented by Kia Motors.
"Aaron has taken steps up every year, first proving he could play in the league and then proving he could be a starter," Morey said. "Last season we saw the transformation where he became comfortable as the guy who could take shots at the end of games."
After a one-year look at Trevor Ariza, the Rockets swapped him as part of a four-team deal that brought in Courtney Lee from New Jersey. Lee figures to give them another potential scorer as a shooting guard or small forward and a lock-down type defender at any position.
The Rockets wasted no time signing their own two key free agents. Power forward Luis Scola again showed how much of the load he's capable of carrying with his stellar performance for Argentina in the FIBA World Championships. Point guard Kyle Lowry signed an offer sheet to be a starter in Cleveland, but the Rockets matched it and he's quite content to resume his role as a hard-charging, tenacious backup to Brooks.
With Yao back on the floor, but limited in time, the Rockets signed free agent Brad Miller, at long last giving themselves a backup center who can produce on offense.
Shane Battier returns from a season when assorted injuries had him often ailing. Rookie forward Patrick Patterson gives them another solid -- if unspectacular -- talent up front. Chase Budinger will look to take the next step from a rookie season that was often eye-catching for his physical abilities.
"Last season we were still one of the better transition teams and were able to replace all of Yao's offense by pushing the tempo," Morey said. "The trouble was we went from a top five team late in the shot clock -- i.e. Yao Ming time -- to one of the low. The challenge now is to get those early offensive opportunities, a lot like the Spurs. But with Yao back, we should be back near the top when it gets late."
The Rockets are aware that it's getting late in Yao's career, too. They also have one eye on the potential labor strife looming next summer and so are ready to pull the trigger on any major trade that would vault them higher into contention.
"The first step is always to get to the playoffs, so I don't want to be presumptuous," Morey said. "But we would be very disappointed if we didn't get there. I think we should be playing for home court and the truth is our goals are bigger than that."
More than 16 months after that painful break that put them in limbo, the Rockets are ready to move forward again.
Under Contract: F Shane Battier, G Aaron Brooks, F Chase Budinger, G Mike Harris, F Jordan Hill, F Alexander Johnson, G Kevin Martin, F Jermaine Taylor, C Yao Ming (picked up option), F Chuck Hayes, F Jared Jeffries, F/C Luis Scola (re-signed), G Kyle Lowry (re-signed)
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