When you think of the Rockets during the 2000s, you think of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Both of these guys are Hall-of-Famers, and rightfully so. When both of these guys were at their prime of their careers, they were some of the best players in the league.
Yao made seven straight All-Star Games from 2003-2009, and T-Mac made seven straight from 2001-2007. T-Mac won two scoring titles and Yao was one of the best centers in the league during his time in the league.
When the Rockets brought Yao aboard in 2002, they knew they were taking a risk, but even with some early bumps in the road, the Rockets quickly realized they had something special.
It only took Yao two seasons to take the Rockets from the top pick in the draft to the playoffs, but when the team acquired Tracy McGrady in the 2004-05 offseason, the Rockets were approaching a new level.
Pairing the top center in the league with the top scorer in the league seemed like a recipe for success in the NBA. But in their Houston tenures, Yao and T-Mac only won a single playoff series while they were both on the roster. How is this possible? What makes these two “Could Have Beens?”
The short answer: injuries.
Yao and T-Mac missed a combined 179 games from 04-05 until 08-09. At least one of them would miss over 20 games in each season after their first season in 2004-05. The plan was to have them form the most formidable duo in the game, and when both were on the floor, they posed that threat. However, they weren’t on the floor together enough to establish their presence as one of the top pairs in the game.
Now, here’s the longer answer.
T-Mac and Yao headed the top of the Rockets roster for years, but the rest of the rosters during that era weren’t all that impressive.
Rafer Alston and Shane Battier headlined most of the supporting casts during this era and in the playoffs, the team simply was not deep enough to contend with the likes of the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns.
The team found themselves up 2-0 in seven-game series that the team would eventually lose in heartbreaking fashion in Game 7 on two separate occasions. In 2005, the team won its first two games on the road but still dropped the series in seven games. In 2007, they went up 2-0 at home and were hosting Game 7 at home, but dropped Game 7 in a 103-99 defeat.
Had the Rockets gone on to win Game 7, they would have faced the Warriors in the Conference Semifinals. The “We Believe” Warriors defeated the top-seeded Mavericks in a huge first round upset. This means the Rockets would have hosted the second-round series and would have had a very good chance to advance to the Conference Finals.
The Rockets would finally get past the first round in 2009 with a six-game series win over the Blazers, but they would fall in the second round to the eventual champion Lakers in seven games. However, T-Mac only played 35 games that season and did not play in the playoffs. But the team had improved its supporting cast with the likes of Ron Artest, Luis Scola, Carl Landry, and Chuck Hayes. With the injuries and supporting cast in their prime, this was as far as this iteration of the Rockets could go.
2008-09 was the last full season for both T-Mac and Yao in Houston. McGrady would play six games in 2009-10 before being traded to the Knicks. Yao would miss the entire 2009-10 season to nurse a broken leg suffered in the playoffs against the Lakers and would only play five games in 2010-11 before retiring.
Yao and T-Mac individually are both very deserving Hall of Famers. Both of them deserved to be enshrined in Springfield, but their potential together was not fully realized with several factors going against them. The Rockets could never get both of them on the floor or the team around them to support them enough. Both Yao and T-Mac are Rockets legends, but they could have been on the same level as The Dream if things went the right way.