As someone who bought his first pair of Rockets season tickets roughly 48 hours before Yao's playoff injury, I can safely tell you that lowered expectations are painful. I thought we could take the Lakers before Yao went down.
Then it got worse - Yao out for the season. Wait - maybe - no definitely - possibly - no, really, out. Out all year. Those tickets started to look a bit expensive, something of an indulgence, rather than a very reasonably priced way to see a real contender in action and experience the fun, and education, of seeing the game live.
Now, instead of watching a contender, I get to watch an experiment, albeit a fascinating one. Now I get to see how good the supporting cast is, and who might be ready to step into a starring role. Early odds are for Brooks, Lowry, Scola and Landry, but our genuinely enlightened owner opened the checkbook to buy some interesting picks as well. Budinger looks like he belongs. Taylor? Nothing to go on yet, and I promise, I'll get over not taking DeJuan Blair at some point. (Maybe soon, maybe in 15 years.) In any case, I honestly think this team will prove itself, and will form the supporting cast of an eventual NBA champion.
But the one thing I have had to abandon this year is expectations. My hope, and I believe it is a valid one, is that Houston makes the playoffs. If TMac returns in good health, and soon (by Jan 1, 2010 lets say), those hopes get a lot brighter. We could reach the playoffs and if we were in the East, I'd confidently say we would make them.
My reasoned expectation, however, is that we won't reach the playoffs, that the West is just too tough for it to happen in a year like this. I expect we will be watching the bouncing balls, perhaps hoping we get a ball with Wall's name on it.
Dynasties are founded on such hopes, and seasons like this one - marred by injury and marked by low expectations. We know it from experience, and San Antonio, I expect, knows it even better. The Robinson injury, and Duncan draft pick could be a direct analogy here, with some lucky bounces.
But no matter what happens, no one should lose heart. Why? Here is some perspective: Brooks, Lowry, Scola, Ariza, Andersen, Landry, Budinger, Taylor, Mensah-Bonsu, Dorsey. Combined seasons of NBA experience for all 10 players? 18. Eighteen years of experience for 10 players. 1.8 years on average, but Ariza skews it - being in the league a whopping 5 years.
Yes, I know Andersen and Scola are international pros of long standing, but the NBA is the pinnacle, and years in Europe, while valid, aren't the same. Four players have effectively no NBA experience at all.
I'm not going to talk a lot about veteran leadership, or locker room presence, or having a "proven winner" on the squad, mainly because I think 90% of such talk is utter crap. But what I will say is, experience matters. At the end of the year, the best supporting cast in the NBA will have a lot of experience, a lot minutes, and will know how to shoulder the load of winning. The 2010-2011 Rockets surrounding a healthy Yao, and perhaps TMac, perhaps, (I dare to dream) Kevin Durant, will be tested and savvy. That's not the worst perspective to have on this year, I think.
Back to those season tickets. They are going to be something of an ongoing storyline throughout the season for me - what I am learning watching (a lot of) games in person. Why? Because you can focus on one player - you can actually see how Battier locks down an opponent, see, in a way that TV can't capture, what a blur of speed Brooks and Lowry are with the ball, see how Luis Scola constantly harasses and annoys an opponent. Or see who moves well without the ball, who dogs it, or who covers for a teammate best when an assignment is blown. I hope it will prove worthwhile reading.