So there I was, randomly stumbling upon Yao Ming highlights the other day, and as you probably have experienced, just one video on YouTube can quickly lead you down a click hole. Somehow, I ended up on Basketball Reference and that eventually led me to the 2008-09 Houston Rockets page.
As I scrolled through all of the numbers and names on the page, my first thought was “It’s a shame that Yao and Tracy McGrady couldn’t stay healthy.”, but then as I glanced at the supporting cast, my more pressing thought was “WOW! This team would have thrived had they had more time together.”
Now of course the success of this team started and ended with the two All-NBA talents, but when you consider that they also had Shane Battier, (at the time) Ron Artest (formerly Metta World Peace and now Metta Sandiford-Artest) and Kyle Lowry, it’s truly a bummer that injuries washed away that window. All three of those players I just named played integrals parts on championship teams.
That’s not even including former Rocket Rafer Alston who was traded mid-season to the Orlando Magic. Alston was instrumental in filling in for the injured Jameer Nelson as the Magic made it to their second and most recent NBA Finals’ appearance.
But seriously, between those three, the two stars, and the other contributors (Luis Scola, Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry, Chuck Hayes and VON WAFER), that would have been enough to compose a legitimate playoff rotation.
After losing a hard-fought seven game series versus the eventual champion, Los Angeles Lakers, Artest departed for those same Lakers and essentially swapped roles with Trevor Ariza. Artest went on to play a crucial role in the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics the following season, cementing himself as a champion, and somewhat alleviating the stigma around him that followed the Malice at the Palace.
Battier eventually turned up on the Miami Heat and went on to become the missing three-and-D wing that truly unlocked the Heatles’ small ball lineup that has become a fixture in today’s game.
While Lowry didn't truly start to blossom until two year’s later, he built himself into a sought after commodity in Houston. He went on to become a multiple-time All-Star on the Toronto Raptors and finally, a champion, in 2019.
Obviously this is just fan fiction at this point, but now knowing that these guys would turn out to become valuable role players on title-winning teams makes it bittersweet to reminisce on. With the combination of defensive versatility (Battier and Artest were Second Team All-Defense that year), size and shooting, it’s not hard to imagine a world where they could have made life difficult on the the Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and LeBron James’ of the world.
Any counterpoint of “what could’ve been” starts off by acknowledging that T-Mac was already on the wrong side of, I can’t believe I’m saying this, 28. All of those minutes earlier in his career really took a toll on his body, but who knows, maybe if load management was more commonplace back then he could have had an extended prime. Just having him out there to battle with Kobe might have been the boost the Rockets needed to win that series. I know, wishful thinking...
And then there’s Yao. He was Second Team All-NBA that year and if not for the hairline fracture that forced him to miss the last four games of the semifinals against the Lakers, it’s not wild to think that they could have beat the eventual champions, even without McGrady! That injury was pretty awful considering it’s the last time any of us saw him as “Yao.” He played 77 games that regular season...after the injury, FIVE...for the rest of his career.
It’s truly a bummer, but one day, you’re gonna wake up, eat your breakfast, brush your teeth, go about your business, and sooner or later, you’re gonna realize you haven’t thought about it. None of it. And that’s the moment you realize you can forget. When you know that’s possible, it all gets easier.
(Shoutout to any of you that watch Better Call Saul and caught that).
Perhaps 2009 still wouldn’t have been the Rockets’ year, even with health on their side, but you can’t say that the composition of the roster wasn’t built for success. In a league where role players can push you over the hump, Houston had the pieces to take them to the top.