The Houston Rockets visit the Dallas Mavericks
When the Mavs and the Rockets met in the 2005 playoffs, Houston appeared to be on the cusp of elite status. Not only did the wing-center combo of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming make sense on a very basic, basketball level, but McGrady’s offense was an excellent counterpoint to Jeff Van Gundy’s Yao-anchored defense. The rest of the roster was appraised as paper-thin, but solid contributions from a stable of role players sopped up minutes like a Bob Sura-shaped sponge. Houston very nearly downed Dallas in the first round, before an improbable comeback (and a Game 7 dismantling) ended the Rockets’ run before it truly began.
But as people in the future are ought to do, we know now that it was never meant to be. Yao and McGrady have alternated breakdowns, JVG was chased from the head of the bench to the broadcast table, and the rest of the roster has been turned over in its entirety.
What’s even more tragic is that for the most part, the Rockets’ “downfall” was instigated by events almost entirely outside of their control. So much hinged on the knees and back of McGrady and the legs of Yao, and that’s a load those bones were not built to bare. A string of unfavorable and unlucky injuries dropped the ceiling on an entire franchise, left two star athletes in limbo at critical points in their careers, and likely cost Van Gundy his job.
Meanwhile, the Mavs have been to the Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. They’ve won 67 games and brought home an MVP award, a Coach of the Year Award, and a 6th Man Award. They defeated the older brother Spurs, took down deserter Steve Nash, and have yet to win less than 50 games. The Mavs have won and accomplished plenty, largely because Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, the linchpins of execution and chemistry in Dallas, have had sterling health over the last four seasons.
Trade the medical records of Dirk/Terry for that of Yao/McGrady, and the entire Western Conference is radically altered. Not only would the rosters of the Mavs and the Rockets be radically different, but titles would assuredly change hands, reactionary trade moves would be impacted, and who knows what would have happened to Ron Artest.
In spite of all of the injuries that have plagued the Rockets, they’ve won over 50 games in three out of the four years since those fateful 2005 Playoffs. That group of middling peripheral talent was swapped out for a more complete role playing cast under the careful, calculating watch (and maybe calculator watch) of Daryl Morey. The wacky world of advanced statistical analysis has built surprisingly competent teams in Houston, with this year’s outfit being no exception. Despite the fact that most players on the roster shouldn’t be considered a primary or even secondary offensive option, Houston is locked with Dallas for the top spot in the Southwest Division. That’s a hell of a rally for a squad missing their top two players, who also happen to be the floor generals for both ends of the court. With no McGrady or Artest to provide the scoring punch, the Rockets are STILL 8th in the league in offensive rating. And with no Yao inside, the Rockets are STILL in the top half of the league in defensive rating. Those are decent numbers for any team, much less one thought to fall out of the playoff race entirely.
I’d like to think that in the bizarro universe I’ve painted for you, Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson would be able to accomplish the same, or at least a comparable product. Like Morey, both Cuban and Nelson are known for the ingenuity. Combine that innovative side with a willingness to pull the trigger on potential deals, and you have the ingredients necessary to assemble a scrappy, underdog squad. There’s no way of knowing whether Josh Howard and Erick Dampier (and Devin Harris?) could lead a team to the playoffs with a Rockets-esque cast, but I have no hesitation in saying that it would be difficult to put the Mavs and Rockets in better hands.