When the Rockets convinced veteran guard Steve Francis to return home to Houston and sign with them as a free agent this past summer, they hailed it as more than just a happy homecoming.
Francis, 30, was the kind of proven NBA scorer who could complement stars Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady -- and perhaps help the Rockets get beyond the first-round blues that have plagued the team in recent seasons.
So far it hasn't worked out as planned. Francis, a three-time All-Star, did not even play in the first 10 games. He finally got in last Saturday night against the Suns, contributing eight points and two assists in 23 minutes, but only because Tracy McGrady was out with a strained elbow.
Still, Rockets GM Daryl Morey says he has no regrets about bringing the former Stevie Franchise back to Houston.
"We definitely feel like he's going to help us at some point this year," Morey said Tuesday. "He just needs some time to get his game in shape."
Some Rockets fans believe Francis should be playing more already. After a 6-1 start, Houston had lost four straight heading into Wednesday night's showdown against the Mavs. Their point guards, Rafer Alston and Mike James, have been inconsistent.
Yet Rockets coach Rick Adelman has thus far been reluctant to turn to Francis, who showed up for camp in less than perfect condition and quickly fell behind on the depth chart.
On Tuesday Adelman called Francis' increased playing time against Phoenix "a one-game situation" and said he expected to return to his normal rotation with McGrady back in the lineup.
But if Houston continues to sputter on offense, Adelman might have to rethink his strategy. Despite his tendency to pound the ball, Francis is a proven scorer who can shoot the 3 and set up teammates. Against the Suns he hit just 3 of 11 shots, but played fairly well overall given the rust factor. He made some nice passes, including a beautiful wraparound feed to Yao for a bucket.
"Our guards are all different. They do different things," Morey said. "Steve gives us someone who can attack the basket. Tracy is our only [regular rotation player who] has that skill on our team.
"I don't know how Rick is going to handle things from here, but Rick will go with whoever helps the team win."
Francis' disappointing start so far has led to speculation the Rockets could seek to move him at some point after Dec. 15, the date when most of last summer's free agent signees become eligible to be traded. The Heat, Nuggets, Cavs, Pacers, Kings and T'wolves are among the clubs that could use some scoring help in the backcourt. But Morey said he has no plans right now to shop Francis.
"We wanted to give Rick a lot of options at that spot," Morey said. "It's a spot where we were behind other key Western Conference opponents in terms of Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Jason Terry, Deron Williams, Chris Paul. So far our play overall [at the point] hasn't been great. Rick is looking at all options. But I don't think he's looking for change right now."
As for Francis, he is saying all the right things while trying not to show too much frustration. Though he turned down more lucrative offers from the Clippers, Heat and Mavs to sign a two-year, $5 million free agent deal with the Rockets (he holds a player option on the second year), he clearly isn't hurting in the pocketbook. After all, he did receive a buyout in excess of $31 million from the Blazers last summer after being traded to Portland by New York as part of the Zach Randolph deal.
Still, Francis is a player who wears his emotions on his sleeve and he's got to be hurting. After a dismal season in New York in which he was plagued by knee problems, he wanted badly to show he could still play. He also wanted to do it in Houston, where he keeps a home and where the Stevie Franchise tag still carries some cache.
"I think it's too early [to write him off]," Morey said. "The season is 82 games. Obviously things haven't started out like Steve would have liked, but we've got a new coach, a new system and some new players. It's just going to take some time."