For the Rockets, the decade of the 2000s began with Hall of Fame legend Hakeem Olajuwon starting at center. It finished with 6-foot-6 Chuck Hayes, the shortest listed starting center in NBA history.
It started with promising rookie sensation and No. 2 pick Steve Francis at point guard, and concluded with the short, scrappy, late-first rounder Aaron Brooks, who at 160 pounds is the lightest (listed) player in the entire league.
Yet somehow, the Rockets are far better off in that timeframe, culminating last May with a trip out of the first round for the first time since 1997. Here's a look at the top 10 moments that shaped the Rockets over the past 10 years:
1) The hiring of Daryl Morey.
In April 2006, the Rockets hired a little-known stats guru from the Boston Celtics as assistant general manager with the intent of promoting him to GM a year later when Carroll Dawson retired. In barely over two-and-a-half years, Morey has earned a reputation as one of the best minds in the game. He's made the discovery of diamonds in the rough look routine, with gems such as Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, Carl Landry and Aaron Brooks arriving in Houston with little market investment and no changes to what was supposed to be the team's star-studded core of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. In his hands, Rockets' fans finally feel secure about the future, no matter how many times Yao Ming breaks his feet.
2) Jeff Van Gundy's refusal to tank in 2006.
The 2006 Rockets were far more tied to the injury statuses of McGrady and Yao than the current group. And in the 2005-06 season, McGrady and Yao fell apart. McGrady had numerous recurring back issues, while Yao suffered the first of many foot breaks to come. As such, the team fell to 34-48 and lost eight of its last 10 games. But if one win -- an 86-83 triumph in Denver on April 17, 2006 in the second-to-last game of the season -- were changed, the fortunes of this franchise would be oh-so-different. That extra win, in which then coach Van Gundy refused to pull a Jim Caldwell, cost the Rockets two positions in the draft order and allowed Brandon Roy to go to Portland. Sure, the Rockets ended up dealing their pick (Rudy Gay) for Shane Battier, a move that undoubtedly helped the Rockets advance in the postseason. But Roy is one of the top guards in the game, and the Rockets were one (lost) game away from him playing in Houston.
3) Rockets win the 2002 draft lottery and select Yao Ming.
By this point, signs were becoming more evident that Francis couldn't lead the team to the postseason and beyond by himself. He was a complimentary player, not a star. In the absence of Hakeem, the Rockets needed that anchor. Perhaps more importantly, with the team's future having recently been in turmoil, they needed a better relationship with the community. The selection of Yao Ming addressed all those issues. He's introduced an entire generation and continent of fans to the NBA, and when healthy, has been a star on the court who has taken the Rockets to the postseason repeatedly. It wasn't an all-time great No. 1 pick, like Tim Duncan, but the selection of Yao put the Rockets back on track and gave them their foundation.
4) Rockets trade for Tracy McGrady.
In 2004, the Rockets finally returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Yet all wasn't cured. The Rockets under Van Gundy were scrappy and beat teams on defense, but the isolation styles of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley didn't mesh with the post presence of Yao. But when McGrady complained (boy, is this a familiar theme) and wanted out of Orlando, it seemed the perfect fit: a superstar talent with fantastic court vision to pair with the star big man. It also gave the Rockets' their current identity. With the exception of the first season (2004-05, which resulted in a seven-game heartbreak series loss to Dallas), however, health never allowed the McGrady/Yao Rockets a realistic shot at seeing whether the blueprint would work.
5) Rockets beat the Blazers, advance past first round.
Twelve agonizing years of playoff frustrations finally came to an end this past May, when the Rockets defeated a talented Portland team in six games and advanced to play the eventual champion LA Lakers. Yao called it the best night of his career, and it finally put a winning identity on an organization that had been mired in mediocrity amidst countless first-round heartbreaks, often to the Utah Jazz.
6) Yao Ming's foot fracture against the Lakers.
It had happened twice before, of course. But his latest break largely took away any realistic shot the Rockets had of pulling an upset and winning the series with LA. More importantly, it completely changed Houston's 2009-10 season as well. The Rockets and Yao opted for a complete re-align of his left foot, much like Zydrunas Ilgauskas did in Cleveland, in hopes of keeping him healthy long-term and avoiding the annual injury bug. But to do that procedure means a year of rehabilitation, leaving the Rockets in a season of transition and awaiting his eventual return.
7) Hakeem Olajuwon traded to Toronto.
The unthinkable happened in the summer of 2001 as the Rockets let Olajuwon -- still the top sports icon for the city of Houston -- leave. It wasn't all their decision, of course. Olajuwon was a free agent, and somewhat like McGrady in 2009, had an overinflated view of his current value and the touches he deserved on the floor. But it was still shocking to watch unfold, and completely closed the door on the championship era. It also left a disconnect with many fans that was not filled until the presence of Yao a year later.
8) Rockets let Van Gundy go, hire Rick Adelman.
Van Gundy brought a defensive mindset and intensity to the Rockets that had been missing for a decade, but his offenses were less exciting than watching paint dry. But in May 2007, following a heartbreaking Game 7 home loss to Utah in the first round, the Rockets opted to take a more offensive mindset and hired Adelman. Adelman was known for his motion offenses, which resurrected Sacramento Kings basketball and almost toppled the mighty Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers. (And would have, if not for 2002 Game 6 and the officiating conspiracy of all time) In Houston, Adelman has worked wonders, becoming the first coach since Rudy Tomjanovich to take the Rockets beyond the first round. His offense also allowed under-the-radar players such as Brooks and Landry to flourish and has kept the Rockets afloat despite continued absences from McGrady and Yao.
9) McGrady and the Rockets call it quits.
Yes, the developments from just this week are important enough to make the list. A player once considered among the game's greats apparently ended his Houston career with a whimper, scoring 3.2 points in eight minutes a game off the bench before leaving the team. McGrady still will play a vital role in Houston's future, though. His expiring $23 million salary will either net a significant trade return before the February 18 trade deadline, or the Rockets will simply let it expire and use that money in free agency next summer.
10) Rockets win 22 in a row. The amazing 2008 streak was the second-longest in NBA history, and most impressively, more than half of it came after Yao Ming was lost for the season. While the current Yao-less Rockets certainly look different than that group led by McGrady and Rafer Alston, that winning streak set an important tone in which the Rockets showed they would not be fazed by an injury (even a big one) to a star.
Honorable mention: Morey swindles San Antonio's R.C. Buford in trade for Scola, Yao-Shaq meet for first time, Rudy T replaced by Van Gundy, Morey takes gamble on Ron Artest, Rockets move to Toyota Center (and secure their future in Houston).
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