Let me qualify that - is it wicked not to care as much? (Let me also remind you that I'm a season ticket holder as well.)
I still care pretty deeply about the Rockets or I wouldn't allocate so much of my copious time to writing about them. But the tone of this season changed for the worst when Yao went down for the count without really ever having gotten back up. Now my interests can be broken into about four areas.
1. The Two Rockets Teams
2. Can The Rockets Swing A Trade That Gets Them Into The Playoffs?
3. The Limits of Analysis.
4. The Justification of My Pet Theories
Today let's look at 1- "The Two Rockets Teams".
I suggest that the Houston Rockets are, in fact, two basketball teams striving to exist in the same space. There is the team that was built to contend with Yao. There is also a team that is being rebuilt with quality young players, just like the Clippers, or Kings. When you consider that both of these teams have wildly different parameters of operation and demands, it is easy to see how difficult Rick Adelman's job is.
Contending teams are rarely made up primarily of players in their first 5 years of service. Such players might be present, even necessary, on a contender, but look at any recent champion. You'll find a little young blood, but mostly you'll find players at peak, or late-peak years. Sometimes you'll even find a team of players way past a traditional peak with one shining young, yet experienced player, like Boston. Until OKC, with its youngsters, wins a series, I think my theory is safe.
So to contend the Rockets built a team (Team One) of Yao Ming (30), Kevin Martin (27), Shane Battier (32), Luis Scola (30) and Aaron Brooks (25) / Kyle Lowry (24). If healthy, I like the odds of such a team in most playoff matchups. We all know the story there, of course.
Let's look at the above players and their "career position". By that I mean, where players are in typical performance peak years. The concept is borrowed from baseball analysis, and posits that a player has a number of years where his skill and experience are high, and his athletic ability has not yet begun to decline notably. A player may add more skill and experience on the mental side after that, but the decline of physical performance due to age, and the toll of injuries serve to reduce his effectiveness.
There are outliers - players whose addition of skill makes up for their physical decline to such an extent they maintain near peak-level performance well past typical peak years. Some example are Hakeem, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Steve Nash. There are also players who simply "fall off the cliff" shortly past or at their peak. Examples are typically players who rely very heavily on jumping ability and other "young player" attributes, or players who neglect conditioning, are frequently injured, or have other problems. There are more examples of this than of maintaining peak performance into late career and you can no doubt supply your own examples.
"Old Player Skills" at a young age are, I think, a sign of longevity in basketball, rather than a warning of an early collapse as they often are in baseball. In basketball old player skills include (to me): scoring without much jumping, driving or dunking, scoring without breaking down defenders off the dribble, scoring from the post, good FT shooting, ability to draw fouls, ability to rebound from the floor, moving without the ball for easy scores, ability to convert "trash" from the floor, consistent defense, good set 3pt shot, efficient passing.
Both Scola and Martin possess many of those skills (minus the defense) and the skills are not exclusive to older players. But nearly all effective older players have some of these skills. If all a player has is a high-flying athletic game, he's soon to exit the league. Look at late career Jordan, Kobe, Hakeem and Duncan and you'll see almost all those abilities. Boston's core group fits the description well, too. Sometimes just having a high level of one or two of these skills is enough. Nash? I have no explanation for Nash. Anyhow, you don't want a team of nothing but those skills (unless you're Boston), but if you're looking for longevity, those are some traits to look for. Being 7ft and not a complete stiff is another one.
So, with that in mind here is Rockets Team One again. Yao, a seasoned vet at maybe late-peak, Martin an early-peak player, Scola at mid-to-late peak player, Battier a late peak player, and Brooks and Lowry the fresh faces (with experience). On the bench, a crafty late career player in Miller (35), an experienced defensive stopper in Hayes (27), and lots of fresh legs to run the opponent's bench into submission.
I think that this was a pretty good plan, given that Yao was thought to be finally healthy and the Rockets were going to have to pay him regardless. One MRI later and that plan was in tatters. But the team, with a gaping hole in the center where its best player was supposed to reside, plays on. A few more losses, and no immediate turnaround in February, and we can rightly ask, plays on to what purpose?
Mind you, I think last year's record might well get you into the playoffs this year, so don't give up too soon. It's a down year for the West, with injuries marring two teams, some others not being ready for their close up, and the dissolution of not-quite-good-enough teams in Denver and Phoenix. Only San Antonio and Los Angeles seem unstoppable and either could be beaten with the right matchup. Dallas' injuries hurt them terribly, and Utah simply doesn't have the horses to slow either SAS or LAL. From the Rockets fan perspective, if no answer appears for the interior defense, (either internal or external) then cultivate another team to watch in the playoffs.
So there is a veteran team of very capable players surrounding an absent superstar. That's team number one.
Team Two is a rebuilding team. It consists of Patrick Patterson (21), Terrence Williams (23), Jordan Hill (23), Courtney Lee (25), Chase Budinger (22), Ish Smith (22), Kyle Lowry (24) and Aaron Brooks (25). Not one of these players can be thought of as being at peak years (26-30). Kevin Martin (27) and Chuck Hayes (27) could well be part of Team Two's future as well, considering that I think their respective primary skills (shooting, defense) will age rather well. Scola could be too, depending on how well he ages. Given his ground-bound crafty game, and very clean injury record, I think he'll maintain effectiveness into his early to mid 30s.
So, there are young Rockets and Rockets who looks to hang around a long time in the league, and a couple of Rockets who are mostly valuable to a contending team (Battier, Miller, Jefferies). Which team should be playing? And if the answer is "Team One" at what point should the answer become "Team Two"?
There are two ways of looking at it. First, the young players are already the Rockets second unit, and Adelman usually gives them a long leash if they're playing well. This is a time-honored way of integrating new players without a full rebuild effort and the pain it brings. Also, if you're primarily in the business of winning games, rather than training players, (and I think that's the business Rick Adelman is in), how do you keep players you know are better and less mistake-prone out of close games? How do you tie Scola or Martin to the bench if a game is within reach so you can watch Williams try another impossible drive, or Hill fumble another rebound out of bounds? I'm not sure it's in Adelman to do that, and I'm not even sure if we should ask it of him. Unless.
Unless there comes a point when the Rockets have no realistic shot of making the playoffs. At that point, I think suffering through the foibles of the young players becomes a priority. The starting group is notable for being a very professional and intelligent unit. I don't think the locker room will rise in revolt if the young guys are getting the bulk of the PT as the Rockets play out the string.
My fear is that the Rockets will suffer through this sadistic January, and then recover with a softer schedule in February to be within striking distance of the 6th-8th seed. That presents the real dilemma. I believe this Rockets team can only challenge any other contender, (especially the top 3 that a low seed would match us with), with a real center. Not by using player with 6 years of basketball experience in the midst of converting from PF to C. Not by using a 6'4" guy giving it his best shot (and who has been our best overall center, sad as that may be), and not with a specialist like Brad Miller in a full-time role.
So I'd say let's see what the trading season brings. If the Rockets get the center they need, or even a reasonable facsimile, then full-speed-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes, go-for-broke, and all that. If they don't, time to play the kids, even if we might get to the playoffs without a center. That's because I think that only the full Rockets bench has any shot of winning a playoff series without a center, and the only way it will be ready is if the older players are fresh and the young ones are more experienced.
Somehow the two Rockets teams must become one, the question is, which one?