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When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It


NBA teams will rarely shock you.

In between the preseason and postseason, there might be a few surprises. Nothing is totally predictable. Von Wafer is a prime example of this. Joey Dorsey is not. You have to be honest about these things.

On the first day of the season, you have a realistic goal, and then you have an optimistic goal. Realistically, I thought the Rockets could make it to the Western Conference Finals this season. Optimistically, I thought they could win the whole thing. Neither prediction was correct. But losing in the second round was no "shock." The Magic making it to the Finals was no shock either. You knew they'd be good enough to at least compete. There is always going to be some leeway. You can't predict leeway, and thus, it exists.

There is the occasional final-record shock, which is precisely why I used "rarely" instead of "never." Who knew the Toronto Raptors would become so irrelevant this season? Who picked Detroit to finish with a losing record? Who thought the Spurs would end up with the first overall pick in 1997? Sometimes, everything totally deviates from the expected value. I'll be re-taking statistics next year, by the way.

An odd, yet fitting example of how your gut prediction of a team's success rarely fails is the Rockets. Ever since Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming teamed up, championship chatter has spawned by opening night. And yet, nearly every Rockets team has experienced a sickening low before miraculously rising back up to nearly meet the aforementioned expectations. In other words, it all looks grand from afar, until you grab the binoculars.

For the past four seasons, if you glanced at the Rockets' healthy roster before the year began, you'd instantly tag it as a lock for 50+ wins. And if you didn't view a single regular season game or roster update, you'd think that the Rockets had been sailing smoothly to a high seed in the Western Conference playoff picture. Of course, the past four years have been anything but smooth.  

I'm not sure how much longer can this team keep rescuing itself from the depths of mediocrity.  Will the Rockets finally put it all together, or will they fall into a hole too deep to climb out of? What will the ultimatum of this generation of Rockets be?  It just goes to show how truly elusive an NBA title can be, in case you forgot.

As far as expectations go for the 2009-2010 campaign, the Rockets will have none. There are too many unanswered questions. October of 2009 will feel like January of any other year. We're starting in the middle, the presumed period of turmoil for the typical Rockets season. Instead of approaching the season with promise and hope, our Rockets will begin as the underdogs. This squad knows the role quite well, but has never played it from the start. We're not going to have 41 games to respond to critics; we're going to have 82. Isn't that strange?

So to get to the point: I've no clue of what to expect from the Rockets this season.

What if Yao and Tracy McGrady come back healthy?  Could we compete for a title?  What if Yao and Tracy don't come back at all?  Could we be in the lottery?  What if Trevor Ariza explodes into a legitimate scoring threat?  What if he doesn't?  I'm so confused.

Rockets fans have had it easy of late (as easy as holding your breath for eight months can be).  The blueprint for each season: If healthy, we win.  If not, we don't.  But this is the first year in which our health problems are striking early.  We don't know what's going to happen at all.

Thankfully, Daryl Morey has an answer for our blindness.  It's called 'cheap youth', and we have more of it than we think.  Aaron Brooks, Kyle Lowry, Ariza, Luis Scola (he's got plenty of years left), Carl Landry - this is our core of young players, and yet, we're not paying them much at all.  On top of that, Yao Ming should have some good years left, and Tracy McGrady's expiration date will leave us with plenty of money to spend in order to replace him.  In other words, there is a light at the end of the tunnel - in the future.

But as for this season?  I don't know.  Yao's decision will help, but until then, it's impossible to predict our 2009-2010 campaign.  We don't know what to expect.  We can't be shocked, because we have no idea what to label as concrete.

Which might be a good thing.