Handicapping Houston without Yao
by Trevor Whenham - 03/06/2008
The instant panic that arose when Yao Ming went down with an injury was so strong and fearful that I could smell it three thousand miles away from Houston. The Rockets were incredibly hot and increasingly legitimate, but the loss of their star center would seem to be an instant downer. It got worse when word came out that the injury was a stress fracture in his foot, that Yao had opted for surgery, and that the season was over for him.
I'm sure that the public has lost a pile of money over the last three games since Yao has been out. A serious injury to a superstar is the most surefire way there is to drive money towards a team's opponent. The problem is that the Rockets have easily won and covered all four games they have played without the Chinese giant. that success is just part of a ridiculously strong current trend - they have won 16 straight, and have covered 14 of those 16. They are obviously deep in a zone, and they won't be able to keep that up. The question, then, is how well they will be able to do down the stretch without the big man, and how to deal with them as a NBA handicapper. Here's a look at six factors that will contribute to what happens to this team from here on:
Dikembe Mutombo - When you lose a big center there are worse fates for a team than being able to replace him with a guy who is only slightly smaller, especially when that replacement is a four-time defensive player of the year. Now no one is going to mistake Mutombo for Yao, and he is as old as your grandpa, but he still has a few key things going for him - he is a respected veteran who will keep the team calm and focused, and he is as fresh as a 41-year-old man can be after appearing in only 14 games before Yao went down. He is far from his best, but he has done it all before, and the team knows exactly what they will get from him. That confidence is a big factor in the early success without Yao. He still has the occasional big game in him, too - he had 13 rebounds and four blocks against Memphis. He won't eat a lot of minutes, but he's a stabilizing force.
Depth - Yao was definitely the best player on the team, but he wasn't the engine that drove it. This bus runs from the backcourt. Tracy McGrady is masterful still, and Rafer Alston is the floor general. It's hard to believe that McGrady is only 28 because it feels like he has been around forever. He's had an outstanding year, and he has taken this team upon his shoulders since Yao went out. When a team has two true superstars on the roster they can survive the loss of one if the other one steps up. McGrady is doing that. Beyond T-Mac, though, this team has been marked by its depth. Losing Yao is not like Cleveland losing LeBron James because Yao doesn't have to do it all. Alston has been good. Luis Scola is a discovery, and he has really elevated his game during this winning streak. Shane Battier eats minutes, and he's playing well of late, too. Luther Head is good when he is on his game, and he is showing more consistency of late. As long as the team is playing together they have enough options to cover for the absence of Yao. Obviously they are better with him, but they can make due without him.
Momentum - If we have learned anything in the NBA this year it is the importance of momentum. We have seen several teams reel off impressive streaks - Boston, the Lakers, Portland, San Antonio, Houston and on and on. These streaks seem to be self-sustaining for as long as they last. The fact that Houston was in the midst of a franchise-record streak when Yao went down was probably the best thing that could have happened. Their chemistry and focus was so strong that they were automatically ready to work together and rally to get past this huge obstacle. For as long as their confidence is at this height the future is bright. The problem, as we have learned from some of the other streaky teams this year, is that when things end they can really end. That problem could be exasperated by the ridiculously tough West. They are in sixth right now, but a couple of losses would drop them out of a playoff spot, and would increase the pressure on what has to be a fragile team significantly. That could prove to be disastrous.
Coaching - Having Rick Adelman on the bench is a lucky break. Under Jeff Van Gundy the offense was centered almost entirely around Yao and McGrady. Adelman favors a far more democratic spreading of the workload, and that is perhaps the singular explanation for the success here without Yao. Adelman has been around forever and he has seen it all before. He'll be able to keep the team calm and focused. Obviously his message is working with his new team, and it should continue to.
Schedule - If you are a pessimist by nature, the schedule is the best argument to be down on this team. As impressive as the streak has been, it hasn't come against the best lineup of teams. There have been some big wins, with none bigger than winning by 20 in New Orleans. There have been a whole lot of dogs, though - Indiana (twice), Memphis, Chicago, Miami, Sacramento, Portland, Atlanta, Minnesota, Milwaukee. A long streak is always impressive, but it would have been just as notable if the team hadn't piled up a ton of wins over this stretch with opponents like that. It gets much, much tougher from here on. The next three weeks include games against New Orleans (twice), Dallas, the Lakers, and Boston. We'll have a much better sense of what kind of team this is after that stretch, but it's a pretty safe guess that they will crash down to earth at least a bit against those opponents.