8 Houston Rockets A team seeking harmony says its new floor leader, little Stevie, is a wonder

November 01, 1999

He was supposed to come in talking smack, promising to light up
opponents like neon signs and make Houston forget the Astros and
NFL expansion. Wasn't this Steve Francis, the NBA's next great
point guard, the high-flying Maryland magician with the flashy
moves and can't-miss label? Wasn't he the kid who refused to sign
with the Grizzlies, the team that picked him No. 2, forcing
Vancouver to ship him to the Rockets in a blockbuster trade
involving three teams and an NBA-record 11 players?

Yet there was Stevie Wonder at Houston's training camp, preparing
to embark on his pro career, talking not about hammer dunks and
in-your-face threes but rather spandex-tight defense and finding
the open man. "To me it all starts with defense," Francis said.
"We've already got two guys who are going to get you 20 points
and 10 rebounds a night. I see my main job as going out there and
playing good D, pressuring the ball full court, all 94 feet. If I
do that, my big men are going to be happy."

Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich can only hope his prized rookie
wasn't just slinging p.r. hash. With Houston having added guard
Shandon Anderson and forward Walt Williams to Charles Barkley
and Hakeem Olajuwon--and with the peeved Scottie Pippen packed
off to Portland--the Rockets again have a viable NBA starting
unit instead of the world's best three-on-three team. If Francis
can avoid the urge to get on the high wire offensively and
instead look to pass, Houston could leap Francis-like into the
Western Conference title chase. "Last year we'd lose to good
teams by six or eight points," says Barkley, who plans to retire
after this season. "With the guys we've got now, we're going to
be able to compete with those teams."

The Rockets are too old with Barkley and Olajuwon, both 36, in
the frontcourt--and too young with Francis at the point--to win
the championship. But they should at least be more fun to watch.
Recent Rockets games have been harder to sit through than a
Maude marathon, with Houston's dumping the ball into Sir Charles
or Hakeem on seemingly every play while teammates stood around
and watched.

Now, with two slashers in Anderson and Francis and with an eye to
the new rules designed to loosen the flow of the game,
Tomjanovich is vowing to open up the Houston attack. The Rockets
will move Barkley and Olajuwon outside more and either look for
Anderson or the 6'3" Francis cutting to the hole, or for Williams
spotting up. "We'll still use the post-up game with Charles and
Dream," Tomjanovich says. "We'll just add some wrinkles."

Minor tweaking might be all that's needed for the Rockets'
offense. Last year Houston finished seventh in the league in
scoring, and despite Pippen's recent statements to the contrary,
Barkley dragged his ample posterior around the court well enough
to amass 16.1 points (on a respectable 47.8% shooting) and 12.3
boards per game. Olajuwon also showed he could still be one of
the league's dominant players, appearing in all 50 games and
averaging 18.9 points on 51.4% shooting, third best in the NBA.
True, he was manhandled by Shaquille O'Neal in Houston's
first-round playoff loss to the Lakers, but he still has the
low-post moves and midrange jump shot to outplay most other
pivotmen.

Last year, to accommodate Pippen, Rudy T tried but failed to get
more movement in the Houston offense. He'll have better success
with this year's Rockets. The 6'6" Anderson, who turned down
twice as much money from his former club, the Jazz, to sign a
two-year, $4.3 million free-agent deal, is a rugged perimeter
defender and skilled post-up player who has raised his scoring
average in each of his three seasons. Williams, who came over
from the Trail Blazers along with shot-blocking center Kelvin
Cato, forward Carlos Rogers and three others in the Pippen fire
sale, is a skilled ball handler and passer who has never
developed a middle game but is a career 37.0% shooter from
beyond the arc. Overall, the Rockets feel they have a deeper and
more athletic team than last year's.

Make no mistake about it, though, the only player on this roster
who could get Barkley and the Dream to step back from center
stage would be Francis. He came to Houston along with forwards
Tony Massenburg and Don MacLean and a first-round pick in an
Aug. 27 trade that sent Michael Dickerson, Othella Harrington,
Antoine Carr, Brent Price and a No. 1 draft choice to Vancouver,
and fans in Clutch City are drooling over the kid's play. Even
Tomjanovich, normally as excitable off the court as a potted
plant, comes to life when discussing Francis's gifts. "This kid
is special," he says. "Some of the things I've seen him
do...there's nobody like him."

Francis knows it, too, which is why his low-key approach in
training camp was so startling--and so shrewd. Talking up defense
might be a good way for a scrub to impress the coaches, but not
for an acrobat like Francis. Still there he was, prattling on
about improving his footwork and technique, rating his D a modest
seven on a scale of one to 10. "I still have a lot to learn," he
said. "I don't know that much about the NBA game on the court,
and I'm learning off the court as well, just listening to guys
talk about their experiences."

As Francis sat on the gym floor at St. Stephen's Episcopal School
in Austin, after his first day of camp, talking about spreading
the ball around, none of his teammates were close enough to hear.
No matter. They seemed to be getting the message loud and clear.
"He's quick and explosive," Barkley said moments later when asked
his first impressions of Francis. "He made some great passes
today."

--Marty Burns

COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/NBA PHOTOS FRESH LEGS Francis and his 43-inch vertical are a rejuvenating sight for the aging Rockets.

FAST BREAKDOWN

STARTING FIVE [3 1/2 stars]
BENCH [2 stars]
COACH [4 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [3 1/2 stars]
CHEMISTRY [2 1/2 stars]

By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 31-19 (tied for fourth in Western Conference)
Coach: Rudy Tomjanovich (ninth season with Rockets)

1998-99 PER GAME POINTS FG% REBOUNDS TURNOVERS
AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

ROCKETS 94.2 (7) 46.2 (3) 41.5 (15) 16.2 (24)
OPPONENTS 91.9 (15) 43.4 (10) 41.1 (13) 13.1 (28)

In Fact

On March 25 Houston's alltime record reached .500 for the first
time in the franchise's 32-year history. The Rockets went 12-10
for the remainder of the season, leaving their won-lost mark at
1,297-1,295.

Projected Lineup

STARTERS PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

SF Walt Williams [#] 86 9.3 ppg 3.0 rpg 1.7 apg 42.4 FG%
Seventh pick in '92 draft was Blazers' top three-point shooter
(43.8%)

PF Charles Barkley 60 16.1 ppg 12.3 rpg 4.6 apg 47.8 FG%
One of three players in 20,000 point/10,000 board/4,000 assist
club

C Hakeem Olajuwon 13 18.9 ppg 9.6 rpg 51.4 FG% 2.46 bpg
Only player in top 25 in blocks (3,582, first) and steals
(1,977, sixth)

SG Shandon Anderson [#] 69 8.5 ppg 2.6 rpg 1.1 apg 44.6 FG%
Top scorer in only three of Utah's last 265 regular-season and
playoff games

PG Steve Francis (R) [#] 37 17.0 ppg 4.5 rpg 4.5 apg 52.3 FG%
Not just a gunner, he ranked 10th in the nation last season with
86 steals

BENCH PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

G Cuttino Mobley 130 9.9 ppg 2.3 rpg 2.5 apg 42.5 FG%
Only second-round pick on all-rookie first or second team last
year

F Tony Massenburg [#] 217 11.2 ppg 6.0 rpg 0.5 apg 48.7 FG%
Since March 1990 he has played with 14 teams in four countries

C Kelvin Cato [#] 227 3.5 ppg 3.5 rpg 45.0 FG% 1.30 bpg
As Blazer last year, he nearly blocked more shots (56) than he
made (58)

F Don MacLean [#] 243 10.9 ppg 3.8 rpg 0.9 apg 39.6 FG%
Averaged 16.4 points in 10 games in which he played at least 24
minutes

G Bryce Drew 253 3.5 ppg 0.9 rpg 1.5 apg 36.4 FG%
Should see more time than as a rookie with Brent Price having
been traded

[#] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)