The post-Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets have made their acquaintance with the lottery. The team's resume includes five appearances since the 2000-2001 campaign, when management shipped Dream to Toronto via a sign-and-trade. A year without a playoff berth is an alien experience for head coach Rick Adelman.
The sideline chief's squadrons have failed to qualify for the postseason just three times since 1989. A number of developments prompted Houstonians to talk playoffs again. Here are 10 reasons the Rockets will dance again in late April after a one-year layoff.
Yao Ming's Hardwood Revival
Even 24 minutes of the 7'6" center will make the difference. The Rockets finished eight victories shy of a playoff appearance sans Yao. His lane occupation figures to account for that gap.
Yao must re-adjust to the 82-game grind after a forced one-year absence from basketball. He has not competed in a meaningful contest since May 2009. The rust will show early and often. Opposing defenses, however, will also need to re-adjust to Yao and his rare skill set. A few things will translate from that Lakers series to now: his ability to eat space, drill his patented Shanghai Shake, and swish free throws.
Rick Adelman's Tutelage
His 61 percent winning percentage and 902 career triumphs confirm his NBA nobility. Adelman channels Fleetwood Mac and goes his own way. Clyde Drexler calls him the ultimate player's coach, and his supporters rightfully tout him as an expert sculptor.
He molds misshapen rosters into winners and brings out the competitive best in his assistants and millionaire students. If his players commit to a playoffs-or-bust mentality, he helps them get there.
Adelman will maximize this group's strengths and figure out how to make Yao's minutes restriction work.
Aaron Brooks' Dizzying Speed
The Rockets' starting point guard brings NASCAR to NBA arenas each week. He is so fast that a few seconds spent looking away might mean missing him altogether. His career, thank goodness, will last a bit longer. The league's reigning most improved player can still get better in those many remaining years.
Yao's interior presence will open up driving lanes and a buffet of uncontested three-pointers for Brooks. He led the NBA in made triples last year (209) and smashed the Rockets' single-season record previously set by Rafer Alston. If that was the mouthwatering appetizer, what will he serve as an entree? Will he parlay his All-Star potential into a Hollywood invite?
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said this of Brooks last year: "He's already an All-Star player." The continued development of his often suspect decision-making will key the team's postseason fortunes.
The Bench Brigade
Brooks, Kevin Martin, Shane Battier, Luis Scola, and Yao will start. A cast of spirited characters will spell them.
The Rockets boasted one of the five most productive benches through February, a laudable feat given the absence of the anchor. The jaw-dropping firepower available off the pine augmented this summer. Chase Budinger can bag long-distance looks and soar for spectacular flushes and alley-oop finishes. Kyle Lowry led all point guards for most of the year in charges taken.
Chuck Hayes can cool off an opposing four or five with his adhesive, stingy defense. Brad Miller knows Adelman's system like a family member and will offer veteran leadership, in addition to saving Yao some wear and tear. Jordan Hill, the athletic superfreak and eighth pick in the 2009 draft, will get all the opportunities he can handle to nail down a spot.
Jermaine Taylor can fill it up in a hurry. Courtney Lee's sedulous defense will limit penetration and cause a number of miserable shooting nights. Rookie Patrick Patterson can contribute right away.
The budding youngsters dropped plenty of close contests thanks to egregious mistakes and dismal half-court execution. Yao will calm the rushed end-game offense, and Adelman will make sure when the center sits that players do not repeat the same errors.
The Rockets blew late eight-point leads against the New Orleans Hornets and Utah Jazz. There were plenty of other Xerox-like tank jobs. It is not difficult to find at least eight among the 40 defeats that should have gone in the other column.
Details matter. So does beating the bad teams. The list of playoff outfits the Rockets dispatched is impressive: the Boston Celtics at TD Garden, the L.A. Lakers at Staples Center, the Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Jazz, and San Antonio Spurs. The list of duds against cellar dwellers is lengthy and nauseating.
More talent, experience, and Yao means more laughers and less costly mistakes.
We Ming Defense
One way to make Secaucus a habit: allow an average of more than 100 points and surrender 125 points a piece to the stumbling Indiana Pacers and Hornets at Toyota Center. Too often against putrid opponents, home was where the stink was. Blown assignments, missed coverages, blow-bys, and too many high-percentage looks.
The Rockets must regain their defensive identity, wherein they suffocate foes instead of trying to outscore them. This group is athletic and determined enough to rank as one of the league's top defensive units. If that re-dedication comes to fruition, so too will a postseason berth.
Kevin Martin's Ascendancy
Morey continues to pursue Carmelo Anthony, but nothing would satisfy the GM quite like an early star turn from Martin, one of the most efficient players of the previous five years. Is this the year he makes like Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas and decides he wants to run the joint instead of shining shoes?
The NBA's other K-Mart, 27, is running out of opportunities for an invite to that exclusive superstar club. With several 30-point outbursts under his belt, including 39 against his former club, he has flexed that tantalizing potential in his brief Houston tenure. No player will benefit more from Yao's return than Martin. His shot economy will kill.
Morey surrendered Carl Landry and took back a mammoth contract to make Martin a Rocket. Why give up now?
He possesses all the physical gifts and shot fakes necessary to become a last-second hero, but his defense is duller than a plastic knife and more of a nuisance to the Rockets than the opponent. If his slim-down summer regimen pays off, Morey might forget, at least for a moment, about Anthony or Chris Paul.
Talent and Depth
Depth keeps legs fresher, but sheer talent wins more games. The Rockets roster boasts both in spades. Two deep at every position, with bodies to spare, Adelman will scowl when he whittles down his rotation. It will rank as one of the toughest tasks of his career.
Will the high-flying Budinger back up Battier at the three, or will he share minutes at the two with Martin and Lee? What lineup finishes games most often? Should Adelman impose a minutes limit on 34-year-old Miller, too? Who would benefit most from that additional abbreviation? Will Patterson play at all? If so, how much? Is there room at the three and four spots for defensive pest Jared Jeffries?
A team with an embarrassment of riches can afford to smile and ask these questions. If Morey adds Erick Dampier or another center, that will further complicate this mysterious rotation equation.
Those who watched Luis Scola lead the world in floor burns for several weeks in Turkey know his activeness is infectious. He carried a depleted Argentina team to the brink of medal contention before Lithuania stamped out the improbable dream. He will not take a night off for the Rockets, either.
Hustle defines this now Tracy McGrady-less roster. The players understand that intensity matters as much as preparation. A performance without both is a lost cause.
Battier spends hours before each game scouring scouting reports on that evening's matchup. Hayes gives up a few inches to each of his power forward or center foes, but that does not stop him from eliminating their room to breathe. Lowry takes more hits than most centers do. The pint-sized Brooks drops 30 on bigger, stronger point guards.
A Sense of Urgency
If a looming lockout does not scare this bunch, Alexander's watchful eye will do the trick. He will spend whatever it takes to win, but he expects his investments to produce. He may not growl and grumble like the late George Steinbrenner (he fired staff members if the Yankees were losing and then re-hired them after victories) or fuss like Mark Cuban (he said this of team in early February: "we suck right now"), but his voice matters.
When Alexander promised to pay the necessary price to keep Scola and Lowry this summer, Morey made it happen. When Alexander tired of Jeff Van Gundy's dreary slogs, and annual first-round exits, he demanded a coaching change. The front office hired Adelman, a favorite of the owner, five days after giving Van Gundy the 'ol heave-ho.
No, he does not bark at referees from a courtside seat, or deliver routine critiques of his players in the public sphere, but do not mistake his frequent silence for indifference. He wants results, and it says here the veterans closer to retirement than a career peak desire the same.