Post-Yao Rockets already here

December, 18, 2010
12/18/10
4:09
AM ET
Hollinger By John Hollinger
ESPN.com
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It's tempting to wonder, "What will the Rockets do now that Yao Ming is out for the year?"

In reality, they were already doing it. In case you hadn't noticed, Houston has completely transformed itself into an up-tempo outfit, playing the league's fifth-fastest pace even with waterbug point guard Aaron Brooks sidelined for most of the year. And they've done it well enough to rank 10th in the NBA in offensive efficiency heading into Friday's blowout of Memphis.

Moreover, while an 11-15 record doesn't sound promising, Houston has scored more points than it has allowed and played a tougher-than-average schedule thus far. No, the Rockets won't be ripping off a 22-game winning streak, but the playoff odds tool gives Houston a roughly 50-50 chance of making the playoffs, and the tool doesn't know how little Brooks has played thus far.

So the Rockets will survive in the short-term. They were two games over .500 without Yao a year ago and may repeat the performance this year.

A second question is what becomes of their status as contenders in the West, but that's something that's old news in Houston, as well. The Rockets have been trying to put together a deal for another star player for eons and rival GMs say they've been among the most active teams again this year; presumably, all that commotion wasn't just so they could land Terrence Williams.

Williams, in fact, is a piece in a larger Houston strategy of trying to convert some of its many red chips into a blue chip. The Rockets have depth to spare at several positions, with the addition of Williams creating a crowd at the wings and first-round pick Patrick Patterson stuck so far down the depth chart he was assigned to the D-League. What they don't have, despite banner years from Kevin Martin and Luis Scola, is an A-list star; while the Rockets have more or less waved the white flag on any Carmelo Anthony pursuits, they're certain to jump in with both feet the next time a player of that caliber comes available.

So on those levels little changes with Yao's injury. However, the more interesting dilemma presented is nearly the exact one facing Portland with Greg Oden -- both players are free agents, and it's difficult to assign a market value to a player who has hardly played in two years. Yao's enormous cap hold creates another confounding element, because it will tie up all of Houston's cap room until either his status is resolved or the Rockets renounce his rights. The Rockets can have enough cap space to sign a max free agent if they let Yao and Brooks walk after the season, so Yao is a huge part of their offseason strategy. It goes without saying that some emotion is tied up in this, as well -- Yao is basically synonymous with Rockets basketball at this point, and I've yet to find a soul with anything bad to say about him.

I don't profess to know what his market value is in the wake of such enormous uncertainty, but I'd be shocked if it was less than the midlevel exception, and it's possible it's considerably more. In other words, it will be virtually impossible for the Rockets to both keep Yao and sign a major free agent.

As a result, the real impact of Yao's injury isn't to affect their strategy with their current roster, because they'd shifted gears on that front a long time ago. It's whether his injury makes it more palatable for the Rockets to make a break with the past and risk losing Yao to take a dip in the deep end of the free-agent pool.

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