After hanging with the Lakers longer than any other opponent in the 2009 playoffs, the Rockets were strip-mined of their key personnel during what could end up being the most damaging offseason in franchise history.
First it was determined that the hairline fracture in
Add in an unbalanced roster that, in Yao's absence, contains as many as eight forwards but not a single natural center, and the question is not if, but how tragicomically far the Rockets will fall from their 53-29 record of a year ago.
Houston's ace in the hole is the NBA's most underrated coach,
Yes, it's true that an Adelman-coached team has never won a championship. But neither has a team coached by
You want strategic innovation? In Sacramento, Adelman re-tailored the high-post offense he learned while playing in Chicago with coach
You want player motivation and management? Adelman has a long history of turning supposed goofballs and malcontents into productive contributors, from
But Adelman has been around long enough to realize that grit without talent only takes you so far.
"We're going to have a hard time making the playoffs this season," he said. "We lost our top three scorers -- 60-plus points. That's very hard to make up. It will be my most interesting season in a long time because there are no stars and a bunch of role players. We have to get them to believe if they play hard they can still win."
A brutal early schedule won't help. Sixteen of Houston's first 26 games are on the road, a stretch that includes three meetings with Dallas, two with the Lakers and matchups with Cleveland and San Antonio. Less than two weeks before the opener, Adelman's projected starters included three holdovers from last season: breakout point guard
Adelman's choice of Hayes over more offensively skilled options such as
"You're not going to treat all the players the same," Adelman said. "You are going to give guys who are skilled more flexibility," an approach that has earned Adelman a reputation as a players' coach.
Ariza, 24, on the other hand, looks to be in for some tough love, as it's not hard to see that Adelman believes, at least in the short run, that Houston got the raw end of the deal in the Artest-Ariza exchange.
"Shane and Ron have been great defenders throughout their careers. Trevor doesn't have that yet, but he's still young," Adelman said. "Right now, he's all over the place. He's not thinking about who he's guarding as much as he's just reacting, whereas Ron and Shane have been there, taking the top guy. For the Lakers, Kobe would usually take that guy when the game was on the line. So Trevor has to step up as the season goes on. But we've also got to remember that as good as Shane and Ron were last year, we also had Yao back there [to deter penetration]. This year, we don't."
Adelman is also counting on more offense from Ariza, who matched his career high of 8.9 points last season with the Lakers. "Realistically, Ariza, Brooks and Scola have to step up, come up with more points per game, and do more things," he said.
And if they don't?
"Then we have to identify who our main guys are and get them involved," Adelman said.
That might include putting backup point guard
Or it might include dipping into the Rockets' deep pool of forwards for more offense. Adelman talks about using the quickness and depth of his front line to get points in transition, not so much from the fast break as in getting into the half-court offense before opposing defenses settle in.
"I strongly believe that if we do that -- our goal is to win this year -- [it] also prepares us for when Yao gets back next year," Adelman said. "David Andersen is gifted for that sort of system. We like [second-round pick]
Then there is McGrady, whose return could radically alter the roles, rotations and expectations for the Rockets.
"Tracy is a wild card," Adelman admitted. "Last year, we didn't know whether he could practice or play from one game to the next, and we could do it that way because we had Yao and Ron. But this year, we can't. Right now, they say he could be back in December or it could be later. I just want to see how he plays at both ends.
"If he can come back and play like he did before, we are a different team, a team others have to worry about. He is a guy we can go to down the stretch, and our other guys can play around him. When he was healthy, he was our playmaker; he got into the middle of the floor and made the game easier for others. But if he can't do that this year, he's not going to help us because of what we are doing with Aaron and Trevor. So, yeah, I'm trying to evaluate how much he can help us, and that's tough."
It's so difficult that Adelman finds himself on both sides of the argument. "Even at 70 percent, he might be more help than hindrance," he said, before later adding, "If he can't go all-out, it affects the way we are competing as a team and we won't get to the spot where we are successful."
Adelman could say only one thing for certain about his seven-time All-Star with the near-$23 million expiring contract: "Tracy is an unknown."
McGrady isn't the only one for the Rockets in this challenging season.