By Sam Rubenstein

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Last year the Rockets, more specifically Tracy McGrady’s team (his words not mine) had a nice year, survived alternating injuries to their two superduperstars, got to the playoffs, should have beaten Utah, yet they did not.

Tracy McGrady played – dare I say heroically when Yao was injured for much of the season, carrying the Rockets to contention, putting himself in the MVP conversation, and then when the big guy came back, the Rockets seemed poised to play spoiler for the Mavs or Suns in round 2, with only insignificant Utah standing in their way. T-Mac ran his mouth in an interview with Stephen A. Smith, saying “If we don’t get out of the first round, it’s on me.” Okay then. Exhibit A:

SEVEN GAMES LATER…

The age of having everything you say or do caught on videotape can be rough. You can feel his hurt, and it really makes you want to pull for the guy to make it happen. That being said…

T-Mac has never been out of the first round, and that’s on him. But neither has Yao. Neither has Shane Battier. They brought back the damaged goods formerly known as Stevie Franchise. He’s played all of 5 playoff games, winning one of them. The seasoned playoff winners on this team are Dikembe Mutombo, Mike James, and Rafer Alston. That’s right, three of the funniest people in the NBA are your experienced veteran leaders. They do have a fourth experienced playoff series winner, and his name is Bonzi Wells. That group as a leadership collective is… insane.

But real leadership comes from the head coach. The Rockets leader was the ruggedly handsome Jeff Van Gundy, a man who drinks diet soda, finds deep satisfaction in efficient miles per gallon, and hates the joyous moments of life because they make people smile. He’s also bipolar, and when he broadcasts games for TNT, he’s all laughs and should be hanging out with Dikembe, Mike James, and Rafer. Alas, the Van Gundy era is over in Houston. They just didn’t have the playoff success that you’d expect from a former Pat Riley assistant turned New York Knicks messiah. The rational choice was to bring in…

RICK ADELMAN??!?

I will say nothing negative about Jeff Van Gundy. He can do no wrong in my eyes. He was threatening to blow the whistle a.k.a snitch on a referee scandal two years ago, back when Tim Donaghy was still living life above ground, cruising on his yacht, and hosting poker parties. Rick Adelman was the coach of the Sacramento Kings, the team that invented the closing window of opportunity. The most vivid image of his career is Rick standing on the sideline with his mouth open in awe as Jordan did the shrug against Portland in The Finals. That Blazers team and the Sacramento Kings were loaded with talent, and really should have picked up at least one ring each. They did not.

The common thread is Adelman. It’s on him. Nice guy, I’m sure. Keeps his players loose. Playoffs? Yeah, let’s just move on.

Even though this past NBA season proved once and for all that the regular season is roughly 4% more intense than the laziest mail-it-in exhibition game, there is still a regular season to be played. Yao, when healthy, is sometimes the most dominant center in the league. He scores, he rebounds, he blocks shots. Other times he gets his shot blocked by Nate Robinson, and plays like a total stiff that can’t get up and down the floor, and is just begging for little guards to smack the ball out of his slow moving hands. The numbers say he’s one of the few 25-10 guys left in the league, and he’s been getting better every year. Yao is seven foot six, he can hit his jumper and free throws consistently, and the other good centers in the NBA are… let’s see Oden’s injured. Shaq is an old man working at ironic fat camps. Dwight Howard is still more of a raw athlete than a basketball player. Amare is a center, kind of. Andris BiedrinsEmeka OkaforBogut… CambyChandlerEddy CurryPau Gasol… you know what, Yao is the best center in the NBA. But he still has plenty of room to improve. He was on his way to perhaps winning the MVP early on last season when it was T-Mac who missed games with the balky back of my grandfathers (both dead). I said EARLY! Then he got hurt, and the details get hazy.

Tracy McGrady can be the best player in the league, or he can be so afraid that his spine is about to shatter into a million pieces that he launches 28 jumpers and hopes for the best. T-Mac is another nice guy and all, and I respect the anti-LeBronness of his involvement in Darfur and all of the tragedy he’s had to block out in his life, but there are lots of nice, pathos-ridden people in the world that don’t win an NBA playoff series. (cough KG cough Steph).

Super quick aside: so you know, Marbury gets a lot of abuse for abandoning KG cause Steph wanted to be the star close to home. Tracy did the exact same thing, but the hate wasn’t nearly as strong. I suppose that was because he, you know, put the franchise on his back and took his game to staggering heights while Grant Hill began to decompose. God, you people are so fickle. It was like a parallel universe where Pippen said “Eff Mike, I’m Jordan!” and it worked… though huge scoring numbers in the playoffs (30 or more every time with Orlando) never translated into winning a series. Aaaaaaand we’re back.

Yao has to be the main guy. He just has to. Does Adelman do the high post thing with him, let Yao go back to playing to what was one of his strengths early on, court sense and vision? You’d think so. Maybe Yao will become a totally new player, a better version of a high post center like Vlade Divac or Brad Miller. It will be interesting to see if Yao can run for a full season in an uptempo system. But I must stress again, he has to be the guy. As far as two star with supporting cast squads go, The Lakers were Shaq first, Kobe second. The old Rockets were Hakeem first, Clyde second. The Spurs are Duncan first, Manu or Tony second. Miami ended up becoming Wade first, Shaq second, but that meant Wade had to absorb punishment at the hoop that T-Mac simply can not survive. Houston has been a lockdown defensive team, but this coach doesn’t play that way. The Rockets will most likely go to a new style that could boost the offense and hurt the defense. It’s built for bizarro playoff basketball.

T-Mac was in the MVP discussion last year. But his team took a 2-0 series lead and blew it. He is exciting to watch, gross shoulder vein and all. He makes athletically impossible plays, he can get hot and rain threes with anyone, and he’s got arms that are 10 feet long for defense. But look, he’s not winning a playoff series as the #1 guy. He has tried many times, and failed each time. This is a Yao-Mac partnership with complementary parts moving around them. They are like two monster planets and the rest of the Rockets are little moons.

The Rockets brought back Steve Francis. Now, maybe he will have a miraculous recovery and become a superstar Mr. Franchise again. Don’t do it, Stevie. Don’t walk down that road. Do not join the elite Randy Moss/Vince Carter club of choosing when and where to be or not to be dominant. If Steve Francis plays well, it will be most upsetting. Steve, I would personally prefer it if you just continued to walk your way through a fat paycheck than to see you lighting it up.

Either way, the Rockets have a lot of talent and promise for the regular season. A loaded roster, even in the West. Other than year in year out givens like the Spurs, Mavs, Suns, and now the Nuggets, they might have the most talented roster.

Rafer Alston is still around. He was charged with misdemeanor assault and public intoxication. Then in a separate incident, he was charged with allegedly slashing a man on the neck during a nightclub altercation. He spoke up though. “I’m not afraid to talk about it. I’m not running around here stabbing people, I’m not here shoving, spitting on people. It’s amazing, the accusations. They had me in court and the judge almost laughed. They told me to go home.”

Ha ha. Case closed then? Either way, Rafer’s grip on an NBA job is not as tight as it once was.

I recently was interrupted in the midst of a heated gchat because I had to speak to Mike James for work. I told this friend of mine that I had to talk to one of the crazy guys of the NBA. He asked me what’s so crazy about him? I thought about it and told him it’s cause he always says his team is the best in the league no matter who they are. So, I asked Mike what he thinks the Rockets will do this year. I was correct. He has a high opinion of the Rockets chances. On paper, they are the very best. Now they have to do it on the court and prove it. Mike is back for a second time in Houston, just like Steve-O, and he is the kind of player that can swing a tough playoff game or series. But then again, he was there when they lost a game 7 to the Mavs by 40 points.

So in conclusion, the ’07-’08 Rockets will have another nice regular season. Come playoff time, T-Mac will hopefully keep his mouth shut. Rookie Aaron Brooks will give them energy and explosiveness and should thrive in the free flowing offense if he gets his chance to. Chuck Hayes will bang around possibly injuring Hall of Famers in the process, Jackie Butler will continue the proud tradition of “that’s who the Rockets got to play power forward?”, Kirk Snyder will get his points, Luther Head will hit shots that come when two All-Stars have to give up the ball. Shane Battier will do everything right and nothing wrong. Mike James will play hard and steal shot attempts from Yao, especially in the fourth quarter. Adelman will lead another happy trip through a fun-filled yet doomed to fail season. They could win anywhere between 50 to 60 games, maybe even sneaking in to the 3 seed spot.

The playoffs? It depends on the match-up. But even if the Rockets jump out to a 2-0 lead, can you really trust them? Call me SKEPTICAL! I can see the Rockets losing in the first round as this year’s less surprising version of the Dallas-Golden State upset.

OKAY FINE LUIS SCOLA ADDENDUM!!!

Yes the Rockets stole Luis Scola from the Spurs, who have been channeling an international pipeline of “hidden” talent into the league like Tony Parker, Ginobili, Oberto, to a lesser degree Beno Udrih, through their shrewdness. On one hand, Scola adds to a LOADED roster of talent, making the Rockets on paper deep enough to compete with anyone in the West. He can be their solution at power forward. This is either a good thing if it takes pressure of Mac and Yao, who will have a real supporting cast to help out.

Or….

The pressure of having so much talent around them is a feeling that could cause a team that has underachieved, now placed in a position of supposed dominance to feel the heat of expectation and come undone in the playoffs. Either way, the Rockets are stuck in that unfortunate Arod/Peyton pre-2007 playoffs zone where they will not be fairly judged until the playoffs come around.