They were the NBA's sleeper team, a keep-your-eye-on-them pick that came up when the discussion turned to NBA title contenders. The Houston Rockets won 42 games last season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006, but the return of Yao Ming to the lineup had many believing the Rockets rise in the Western Conference could be meteoric in 2010-11.
That hope is gone now. It was lost with Yao, who will miss the season after doctors discovered a stress fracture in his left ankle. That ankle, of course, is just above the surgically repaired foot Yao has fractured three times, the last of which cost Yao the entire 2009-10 campaign.
The loss of Yao cut deep through the organization, which could not have done more to ensure his return this season. The Rockets hired two specialists: Director of Strength and Conditioning, Darryl Eto, and physical therapist Jason Biles, for the express purpose of working with Yao. They imposed strict restrictions on Yao's minutes and told him to forget about playing in back-to-backs. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on state of the art medical equipment, cutting-edge gizmos specifically designed to help a man with his problems.
"We have lots of equipment that won't be needed now," said Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.
Morey was braced for this. He didn't need his degree from MIT to know the odds were against Yao making a full recovery. Players have recovered from the type of surgery Yao underwent in 2009 -- a surgery that included a bone graft and a realigning of Yao's foot to reduce stress on the injury -- but none of those recovered players carried 310-pounds on a 7-foot-6 frame.
"We're not naive," Morey said.
Which is why Morey carefully constructed the roster with players who could thrive alongside Yao as well as contribute without him. Players like Luis Scola, who developed into a reliable first option last season (16.2 points per game) and who is comfortable occupying positions on the floor (high post, baseline) that Yao usually avoids. Players like Kevin Martin, a volume scorer in Sacramento whose ability to draw fouls was coveted by the Rockets because it would make teams reluctant to clutch and grab Yao on the post late in quarters.
It's also why the team has kept the roster flexible. When Aaron Brooks and Shane Battier asked about extensions, Houston declined. Why? Brooks and Battier look good around Yao but remove him from the equation and locking them up now makes little sense. The Rockets could still re-sign both in the offseason -- when the payroll drops from $72 million to $40 million -- or deal them before the deadline for players who might fit better into the team's future.
So what is that future, exactly? Morey dismisses talk of rebuilding -- "I don't really know what that means," he said -- and believes that even without Yao the Rockets can stay in the mix in the west.
"We're focused on winning championships," Morey said. "We need players playing at an All-Star level. Yao was always one of those guys who always did that. We either need our current players to play at a very high level, or find ways we can upgrade the team."
A trade seems likely, one perhaps more significant than the minor deal that brought Terrence Williams to Houston. Morey ranks among the most aggressive executives in the league and has made no secret in the past of his belief in upgrading a team through trades.
And the Rockets have some interesting assets. They have applied for an injury exception for Yao (valued at $5.7 million) and have a trade exception acquired from deals involving Trevor Ariza ($6.3 million) and David Andersen ($2.5 million). Brooks and Battier are in the final year of their contracts and Houston has replacements (Kyle Lowry, Chase Budinger) at the ready. They aren't going to give either player away but if a franchise-altering player comes on the market (see Anthony, Carmelo) they would not be shy about pulling the trigger.
And what about Yao? His latest injury has created an uncertain future. The Rockets will support him as he weighs his options over the next couple of weeks (surgery is likely) and will provide him with everything he needs as he begins his recovery. But Yao will be a free agent on July 1. Despite his injury history Houston wants to help him see this through, which is why Morey says the team hasn't ruled out giving Yao an extension into next season. Even if Yao is not under contract, Morey says the team will do what it can to assist in his rehabilitation.
"We see him as being different than a normal player," Morey said. "He is an essential part of the Rockets. Whenever he's done [playing], we want him to be involved with the team as long as he will have us. And if you look at our team, our biggest need is someone in the middle. We hope Yao will be an option there for us."
A bigger problem could be a lockout, something many team executives view as an inevitability. The league prohibits players from using team facilities during a work stoppage, which puts the pressure on Yao and his agent, Bill Duffy, to enlist top-shelf medical treatment.
There is a lot of work to be done in Houston, whether Yao is part of the team or not. The championship window is closed and it will take some creativity to pry it open again. The decisions the Rockets make the rest of this season will have a measurable impact on the direction this team goes in the future.