For those fans who think the Rockets may not need Yao since they have been playing so well without him having won four in a row, I would like to remind them about what happened during the 1990-91 season that is strikingly similar to what is happening now.
On January 3rd of that season (compared to December 23rd for Yao), Hakeem Olajuwon received an ‘accidental’ Bill Cartwright elbow around the left eye that broke the bones around it. That injury sidelined Hakeem for 25 games, taking him all the way to the end of February before he could return (sound familiar?).
Everyone thought that injury would doom the Rockets, who were a respectable 16-13 at the time.
Instead, with an old veteran and rebounding specialist (sound familiar?) like Larry “Mr. Mean” Smith putting up astronomical rebounding numbers, and role players like Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, David Wood, Otis Thorpe, and Buck Johnson stepping up, the Rockets put together a shockingly nice run of games (sound familiar?). During that stretch of 25 games while Hakeem was out, the Rockets at one point won 11-of-14 games, and were 16-9 overall.
I remember during that surprisingly nice stretch of wins, many fans were asking if Hakeem was really that important to the team after all? Perhaps by the offense revolving around him so much, and his being parked in the low post all the time, maybe he was creating too much stagnation in the offense? Or perhaps the other players’ talents didn’t have a chance to come out since they relied too much on Hakeem to do his thing down low? Now with Hakeem out of the picture, they had a chance to emerge from his shadow, and they were better off without him, right?
I have to admit I was wondering the same thing. Back then everyone knew Hakeem was a great player, but it was before he had shown he could really win a championship, which he proved in 1994 and 1995 he could do. There were also a few questions about his overall ability to win and lead. And he had a few run-ins with the Houston front office questioning his work ethic (if you can believe that). I remember anxiously waiting upon The Dream’s return to see if he would disrupt the chemistry that the other players had developed with him out of the lineup.
Well, everything turned out better than expected when Hakeem came back. After his return, the Rockets ended up winning 13 games in a row, and pushed their 32-23 record to 52-30.
I think the main reason for their success that season was because everyone else had a chance to get some playing time while Hakeem was out, and that bench strength really helped them down the stretch when the rest of the teams in the league were starting to fatigue from the always grueling NBA schedule.
Not to say this season’s Rocket team will do the same, but history does have a way of repeating itself considering we’re talking about two very similar big men like Dream and Yao who are just dominant offensively. On top of that, this year’s Rocket team has an advantage over that 1991 version – they have another superstar in Tracy McGrady who can carry the load (when healthy) for when Yao or the role players have an off night.
Meanwhile, the Rocket players today are sharpening their skills while Yao is out, but they can only go so far without him. Dikembe can’t continue to play long minutes like he has been doing at his age. T-Mac won’t always score 30+ points. Juwan Howard will have bad shooting nights, as will Rafer Alston (too many of those lately). The three-pointers won’t always fall. The Rockets won’t turn the ball over less than 10 times a game each game. And they are going to play much tougher opponents during their next stretch of games, like the following:
Sunday – at Minnesota
Monday – at Chicago
Wednesday – vs. LA Lakers
Friday – at Denver
Saturday – at Sacramento
Jan. 16th – at Dallas
Jan. 17th – vs. Phoenix
Jan. 20th – vs. Denver
So no matter how tempting it may be for the people (e.g. national media) to say the Rockets don’t need Yao because they are 5-1 in games since he hasn’t played, they will be even better with him. Especially if you account for Van Gundy‘s ability to work the lineup so that the players on the floor compliment and mesh with each other to the best degree possible.