Wednesday February 27th, 2008

This was a first for me. As I was standing in line at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport preparing to board a flight to Houston to begin reporting a feature on the Rockets for Sports Illustrated, my cell phone began buzzing. It was my brother, Andy, calling to tell me that Rockets center Yao Ming was out for the season. A quick e-mail to the Rockets' PR department confirmed his timely report and I was left to beg the guy at the JetBlue counter to go out in the pouring rain and get my bag before it went on the plane.

There was no reason to go to Houston anymore. The Rockets' season, for all intents and purposes, is effectively over.

"A season with surging promise seems lost," opined the Houston Chronicle and it's a shame that's the case because the Rockets had become one of the feel-good stories of the NBA this season.

There were great expectations when offensive guru Rick Adelman took over as head coach last summer, but confusion stemming from the transition from Jeff Van Gundy's more traditional offense to Adelman's fluid, read-and-react system contributed to a sluggish first two months of the season and had fans longing for the days of Van Gundy. Yao, who has never been outspoken, declared his team "soft" while Tracy McGrady, in what seems to be an annual event, nursed a variety of injuries. The season appeared lost.

Miraculously, the Rockets were able to pull their team together. Rookie Luis Scola morphed into a legitimate NBA power forward. Another rookie, Carl Landry, became an energizer off the bench. Adelman made adjustments in his offense, most notably leaving Yao in the post more and the team responded: Houston is perfect in February and riding a 12-game winning streak, beating up on Cleveland (twice), Portland and New Orleans with frightening efficiency. The Rockets were the NBA's best team since the calendar turned to 2008. McGrady was healthy and playing well. The maligned Rafer Alston was making people wonder why Houston was shopping for point guards in the offseason. They were rolling.

Now they are not.

The Rockets have little shot of making the postseason without Yao. Why? Well for starters Yao was the lynchpin of the Rockets defense. Never the most athletic player on the floor, Yao has an uncanny feel for defending in Houston's system. Whether he is trapping on the perimeter or sagging back as Houston's last line of defense, the Rockets have no suitable replacement, unless you think 67-year-old Dikembe Mutombo is ready to log significant minutes.

On offense, Yao is arguably one of the most dominant low-post scorers in the league (he is averaging 22.8 points and 10.8 rebounds this season) and was the primary reason Houston had registered seven games where it scored 50 or more points in the paint. The Rockets have no alternatives there either; McGrady is solid in the low post but as one scout told me Tuesday night, "you can't count on Tracy McGrady to carry your team." Scola is a perimeter player and Mutombo is, well, an offensive liability.

Houston's competition won't be feeling sorry for them. The cheers could be heard from Denver to Oakland, as the Nuggets and Warriors stand to benefit the most from Houston's misfortune. While the Rockets have a favorable schedule in the second half (nine games against sub-.500 teams), a three- or four-game skid could catapult them into the draft lottery.

It's probably going to happen. The West is too good and the margin of error is too slim. It's time to start thinking about next year.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.