Few Rockets would tell you a 42-40 season was a success. However, given the tremendous tribulations they had to overcome, to finish on the right side of .500 was an impressive feat.
While it is impossible to mention each and every important story in such a long season, here is a brief rundown of the stories that shaped the Rockets in 2009-2010.
Yao's Season-Ending Injury
This one is pretty obvious. The most important story of the year was also one that broke over three months before opening night, the crushing news that Yao would miss the entire season while recovering from experimental surgery.
Without the dominant center in the middle, the Rockets were forced to start the 6'6" Chuck Hayes, who despite everything, proved he can still play in the league.
Hayes' defense did regress, as his bum knee dogged him and big men learned to shoot over him rather than attempt to bully him in the post. However, his hard work finally paid off, his offense was improved, and he even unveiled some hook shots on occasion.
However, no team starting a 6'6" center will have a chance to be really good in this league where the big men are only getting bigger and better. As a result, the Rockets missed the center that was a foot taller and much more skilled early and often in the season.
Daryl Morey's Offseason
Morey's response to Yao's injury would define his tenure with the Rockets.
Rather than opt for short-sighted moves that could potentially handicap the Rockets going forward (i.e. resigning Ron Artest), Morey chose to move towards the future, acquiring the younger, quicker, but less offensively gifted Trevor Ariza.
Ariza's season has been up and down (more on him later), but there is no doubt that giving him a five year contract rather than the five years Artest got from the Lakers was the right move.
He also acquired Chase Budinger, Jermaine Taylor, and Sergio Llull in the draft, improving the youth of the Rockets while only giving up money from the pockets of Les Alexander.
Next, rather than going out and getting a big center to help in the middle, Morey counted upon Chuck Hayes and others to prove themselves worthy of protecting the paint. This move proved to be less than ideal, as Hayes struggled with his defense all season and David Andersen was not bulky enough to keep opposing centers from the paint.
The Tracy McGrady Saga
The Tracy McGrady saga was a lot of things, but to describe it in one word, it was absurd.
First, he declared he would be ready for opening night despite no assurances from the doctor, and when it became clear that Adelman and Morey were calling the shots instead of T-Mac, he appeared flustered, a shift from the past where it seemed Adelman worked for McGrady.
When McGrady finally made it back on the court in December, he did little to impress, scoring three points a game and shooting 36% in eight minutes a game. And yet he wanted more.
After Adelman decided that he had no use for a prima donna who couldn't play defense or score efficiently, the Rockets banished him, and the team mentality returned to the locker room. Eventually, the Rockets banished him permanently, trading him to the Knicks for quite a coup, which brings us to our next topic...
The Theft of a Trade for Kevin Martin (and others)
With Tracy McGrady out of the locker room, the Rockets put the full court press on teams looking to move longer contracts, with rumors connecting them to everyone from Andre Iguodala to Caron Butler.
One guy who was rumored to be untouchable, Kevin Martin, was eventually the man they acquired in a complicated three-way trade that eventually netted the Rockets Martin, Jordan Hill, Jared Jeffries (and his big contract), and two first round picks.
While Martin certainly headlined the deal, it was the secondary components that were so crucial in the deal. Hill, despite looking like a pretty inadequate basketball player with New York, seemingly improved with every game he played. He gives the Rockets what they have hoped for a player to pair with Yao, an athletic, mobile big man who can block shots.
Additionally, while taking on Jeffries' contract was a tough bullet to bite, potentially gaining to high lottery picks has to be exciting for Rockets fans looking for the next star to come through the ranks for the Rockets.
Trevor Ariza's Jekyll and Hyde Act
Trevor Ariza came to the Rockets with much hype. He was unfairly compared to players like Tracy McGrady because of his athletecism and his breakout potential. Unfortunately, he did not deliver on his star potential, but he did show that he can be an excellent complementary player on a team with strong wing players.
For the first few weeks of the season, the Trevor Ariza experiment was working well. He was hitting threes, playing outstanding defense, and averaging over twenty points a game.
Then a slump hit.
The three pointers stopped falling, and he constantly attacked the basket out of control as his offensive weaknesses were exposed. His shooting percentage plummeted and his effectiveness was crushed as well.
After an injury that was crushing to the team as its lack of wing depth became apparent, Ariza returned to a team that had just added a playmaker in Kevin Martin. His addition preceded one of his most effective stretches of the year, limiting his need to attack the rim and allowing him to take higher percentage shots.
While he had struggled with his shot when he was forced to shoot without his feet set, getting open looks allowed him to find his shot more comfortably, and his shooting finally rebounded.
He proved that he likely will never be a star, but rather a fantastic glue guy who can make the shots when needed. He showed a killer instinct over and over again, making big shots against the Lakers and Denver among others late in games.
What does the future hold?
For the first time in a few years, the Rockets offseason is one full of possibilities. They have numerous assets (Jeffries and Battier expiring contracts), the mid-level and biannual exception, and a lottery pick.
While sign-and-trades are notoriously hard to pull off, the Rockets are certainly in a great position to do one if there is a possibility out there. Chris Bosh would be an excellent addition as would Amare Stoudemire.
However, if they are unable to acquire a star to pair with Yao, the Rockets can target another big man with their mid-level exception such as Brad Miller and Jermaine O'Neal.
Additionally, the possibilities with their draft are endless, and with another big man in the fold, the Rockets appear to have the makings to re-enter the playoffs after a disappointing break from the postseason.
Unfortunately, much like past years, a lot will depend on the health of Yao Ming.
In the next few days, part II of the season in review will be released, containing, among other things, player grades.