With every passing day, it becomes harder and harder to take the Houston Rockets seriously as a Western Conference contender.
This is the team that was considered by the pundits and the masses (self included to some extent) as a very legitimate threat to the existing hierarchy in the Western Conference. The Rockets were coming off an excellent regular season and were expected to turn the corner with the help of Rick Adelman and his high-octane offense and a healthy pair of stars. Not only hasn't this happened, but there doesn't appear to be a quick solution on the horizon.
At the outset of the season, one could preach patience with the Rockets as they adjusted to a new offensive system. That plea was even more justified by the fact that the new system certainly appeared to be helping the team's two stars, who both got off to torrid individual starts. The natural presumption was that with time, the supporting cast would follow suit.
Sadly, the opposite has been the case.
The supporting cast got off to a putrid start early in the season, and not much has changed. No one outside of Yao and Tracy McGrady is averaging in double-figure scoring, and the shooting percentages are atrocious across the board. With the exceptions of Chuck Hayes (.543) and Luis Scola (.497), the rest of the non-studs are having all sorts of trouble. Rafer Alston is below 40 percent from the field and below 30 from deep. Shane Battier is barely sitting above 40 percent from the field. Mike James and Steve Francis (in his limited action) are both shooting inside of 36 percent. Luther Head and Bonzi Wells (both sub-44) are on the high end for this bunch. It is the job of those on this supporting cast simply to make shots. They aren't doing it. Not shockingly, the Rockets as a team are just 26th in field goal shooting at 43.7 percent and 26th in three-point shooting at 33 percent. Not encouraging statistics.
Further, while Yao's production has remained rather constant, McGrady has only fallen back toward Earth over the past month. After going for 24.6 points, 5.4 boards and 5.6 assists per game in November, T-Mac has gone for just 19.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game this month. McGrady has battled several injuries and has already missed three games, and both he and Yao left Sunday's game against Detroit with injuries. Not encouraging on a number of fronts. For all of Adelman's new offensive tricks, the team is currently sitting at 20th in the league in offensive efficiency after 28 games. Further, though McGrady and Yao have only missed four games combined due to injury thus far, the myriad of injuries to McGrady and the fact that both players are already banged up barely a third of the way into the season have to be disconcerting.
Two other concerns beyond that, and then we're out of here: The first is that there isn't an immediate solution on the horizon. There isn't necessarily one impact player on the market for this team to acquire who will change everything offensively. Furthermore, the pieces the Rockets have to offer (Battier? Hayes? Head?) aren't all that impressive in the first place. With what should be lots of low draft picks for the years to come, they don't have much to offer in that department either.
Finally, the old fallback that the regular season doesn't mean anything and that just getting to the playoffs will be enough to provide a shot at true contention won't work for this team. Not without having proved itself in the playoffs and not in the Western Conference. After last year's implosion against the Jazz, whether the Rockets have it in them to beat one elite Western Conference team remains unknown. To beat three seems wholly out of the question. If they end up fighting their way into the playoffs with a low seed, that is exactly what they will have to do. More likely than not, they will have to face some combination of San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas and Utah in each of the three rounds in the West bracket. There is no evidence to date that would show that the Rockets have the ability to pass that type of challenge.
So the moratorium on championship talk should be officially on in Houston. If it isn't already, that is.