First it was determined that the hairline fracture in Yao Ming's left foot will sideline him for the 2009-10 season. Then free agent Ron Artest, on the short list of the league's top shutdown defenders, took his turbulence (pro and con) to Los Angeles for a better shot at winning a championship. Meanwhile, the enigmatic, often-injured Tracy McGrady remains enigmatic and on the shelf, with no set timetable for his return from microfracture knee surgery and no confident prognosis about how it will affect team chemistry if and when he's ready to play.
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, Rick Adelman. Some might laugh at the notion of Adelman in the Hall of Fame, but he's building a persuasive case: He ranks 12th all time in regular-season wins (860), ninth in playoff victories (79) and eighth in regular-season winning percentage (.616) among those who have coached at least 500 games. Despite never having an iconic superstar on his roster (no Bird, Magic, Kobe, Kareem, Russell or Jordan; Clyde Drexler in Portland was probably the best player he's coached), he's made the playoffs in 16 of his 18 seasons, and won 50 games or more 11 times. Every one of the four teams that hired him improved its record during his first year, and every one of the three that fired him won fewer games the following year.
Yes, it's true that an Adelman-coached team has never won a championship. But neither has a team coached by Don Nelson or Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan. And while basketball pundits routinely genuflect in Nelson's and Sloan's direction, Adelman has a better regular-season winning percentage than both and more playoff victories than Nelson despite coaching 12 fewer seasons.
You want strategic innovation? In Sacramento, Adelman re-tailored the high-post offense he learned while playing in Chicago with coach Dick Motta, stationing slick-passing big men such as Vlade Divac, Chris Webber and Brad Miller near the free-throw line, where they had room to assist on cuts to the basket and kick-outs for three-pointers. Today, most NBA teams have a variation on that scheme, and the jousting among big men is as lively at the elbow as it is in the low post.
You want player motivation and management? Adelman has a long history of turning supposed goofballs and malcontents into productive contributors, from Rod Strickland to Latrell Sprewell to Chris Webber to the volatile Artest. His first season in Houston, in 2007-08, he fostered an esprit de corps that produced a 22-game winning streak (10 of them without Yao) during the second half of the season. Last year, the Rockets were arguably the league's grittiest overachievers, extending the Lakers to seven games in the second round despite losing McGrady and then Yao.
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 Aaron Brooks, Argentine banger Luis Scola at power forward and glue-guy small forward Shane Battier. Free-agent signee Trevor Ariza -- coming over from the Lakers in a de facto swap for Artest -- will join Brooks in the backcourt, and grinder Chuck Hayes, who, at 6-foot-6 is a foot shorter than Yao, is Adelman's first choice to fill the gaping void at center. "I'm leaning toward Chuck because he's by far our best interior defender and one of our best team defenders," Adelman said.
Adelman's choice of Hayes over more offensively skilled options such as Carl Landry or 29-year-old Aussie rookie David Andersen rebuts critics who say he doesn't emphasize defense enough. So does the expert ego massage he provided Artest, which rehabbed the former All-Star's shaky psyche and bolstered Houston's defense at the same time.
"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 Kyle Lowry alongside Brooks on the perimeter. "I like them together because they can both attack," Adelman said. "Kyle is a bulldog and Aaron is just so explosive he can get you 12 points in two minutes."
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] Chase Budinger, too, and were surprised that he drifted [down] to us in the draft. He's a great shooter who runs the floor. So we have flexibility. But we still have to make sure we have people who can defend at the basket, too."
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.