What if? It’s a simple two-word question that has the capacity to unlock several hypothetical circumstances when facing reality. Unfortunately, this two-word phrase is also the best way to define an era of the Houston Rockets led by Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.
In the six seasons they spent together as teammates, McGrady and Yao had expectations to deliver the Rockets their third title in franchise history, but injuries and a series of unfortunate mishaps prevented the duo from reaching their full potential. An era in franchise history that began in the summer of 2004, nearly every season could be considered a missed opportunity for the T-Mac and Yao Rockets, but none greater than the 2008-09 season.
Before the start of the season, uncertainty and doubt begin to hover around the organization. Despite recording 50 or more wins in three of the previous four seasons, the clock started to tick on Houston’s All-Star pairing after back-to-back first-round exits to the Utah Jazz.
While running thin on patience, second-year general manager Daryl Morey pulled off the first significant blockbuster deal of his career. The Rockets acquired All-Star and defensive forward Ron Artest from the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Bobby Jackson, Donté Greene, a future first-round draft pick, and cash considerations. His unpredictable temperament made the trade an enormous gamble for a close-knit locker room in Houston, but the Rocket’s deal to acquire Artest raised more questions given his pending free agency with one year left on his current contract.
With the addition of Artest, the Rockets entered the season with the seventh-best odds (+1200) to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy and finished the year with a 53-29 record. A rejuvenated Yao became a candidate for league MVP honors, as the 7-foot-6 big man from China led the team in scoring averaging 19.7 points and 10.0 rebounds — while shooting 54.8% from the field, and a career-best 86.6% from the free-throw line. He appeared in 77 out of a possible 82 games, which stood as his first full season since 2005.
While Yao and Artest — who averaged 17.1 points in 69 games — became a quality one-two punch, McGrady’s on-court production took a significant decline. His season came to an abrupt end following microfracture knee surgery in February, as injuries limited McGrady to 35 games, averaging 15.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per contest.
With the loss of McGrady, Houston entered the post-season as the underdog in a first-round match against Brandon Roy and the surging Portland Trail Blazers. Despite not having homecourt advantage, the Rockets dismantled the Trail Blazers in six games, setting up a date in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Similar to their first-round opponent, no one gave the Rockets a chance to upset the top-seeded Lakers (65-17) without the help of McGrady. Houston put the league on notice with a 100-92 Game 1 victory inside the Staples Center, declaring they had a puncher’s chance to advance to the West Conference Finals.
Outside of the All-Star quality play from both Yao (28 pts & 10 rebs in Game 1) and Artest (21 pts & 7 rebs in Game 1), what made the ‘09 Rockets a championship-caliber team was the contributions made on the nightly basis from their supporting cast. Aaron Brooks, Houston’s new starting point guard, added in 19 points, while Shane Battier held Kobe Bryant to a low-key sub-par 32-point performance in which he shot just 14.2% from behind the arc.
After splitting the first two games in Los Angeles, the Rockets trailed 2-1 in the seven-game series, when a familiar tune began to fill the halls of the Toyota Center. Already without McGrady, the Rockets found themselves down another star when a hairline fracture in his left foot forced Yao to miss the remainder of the series.
The role players who solidified the Rockets as a championship-caliber team won two of the next three games to set up a decisive Game 7 back in Los Angeles. Behind 21 points and 18 boards from Pau Gasol, the Lakers took a convincing 89-70 victory over the Rockets to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
In a perfect world barring injuries, the 2009 season very well could have been the year McGrady and Yao led the Rockets to a championship title.
The addition of Artest gave the duo their best-supporting cast, and enough to upset the eventual champs in the Lakers. Had the Rockets moved past L.A., Houston would have been in the position to win it all come June — given their regular-season dominance over the Nuggets (3-1) and Magic (2-0).
Instead of a storybook ending, 2009 marked the sad conclusion to the T-Mac & Yao era in Houston. In February of 2010, the Rockets parted way with McGrady in a three-team deal to the Knicks for Kevin Martin from Sacramento. After missing the entire 2009-10 season, a stress fracture in his left ankle limited Yao to five games and led to his eventual retirement in July of 2011.