12 Houston Rockets A promising youth movement has been launched, but in the West, growing up will be painful

October 30, 2000

Pick up the city of Houston, move it a few inches to the east on
the map, and like that the young Rockets could be entertaining
dark-horse thoughts of making it to the NBA Finals. Alas, no move
to the Eastern Conference is in the works for the Rockets. That
could change, however, if Houston voters reject a November
referendum on the construction of a new basketball arena and the
team chooses to seek a new home. For now, it will take the
Rockets' best effort just to qualify for the playoffs in the
power-packed West.

A good start would be to pick up where they left off last spring,
when they won 10 of their final 15 games. "We weren't sneaking up
on teams, either," says coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "We were playing
teams that needed to win at the end of the year. Things were so
positive for us that we didn't want the season to end." But it
did, with the Rockets missing the playoffs for the first time
since 1992.

To reverse its steady decline since winning the 1994 and '95
championships, Houston has launched a full-scale youth movement,
abandoning the win-now approach that brought high-priced stars
like Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen to Houston in the late
'90s. When center Hakeem Olajuwon retires at the end of the
season, it will clear $16 million from the payroll, putting the
Rockets in position to add a big-name free agent (Chris Webber
or Michael Finley, for instance) to a team that already features
a glut of exciting youngsters like Steve Francis, Shandon
Anderson, Cuttino Mobley and Maurice Taylor.

Taylor is the most recent windfall. During the off-season the
power forward, who turns 24 on Oct. 30, realized that a huge
free-agent contract would not be falling in his lap despite the
fact that he averaged nearly 15 points per game in his three
years with the Clippers. After turning down a three-year, $17.5
million offer from Toronto, Taylor was prepared to sign a
one-year deal with the Sonics and play alongside fellow David
Falk client Patrick Ewing, who appeared headed for Seattle in a
four-team deal in August. But that trade fell through, and Taylor
took the $2.25 million exception to sign with Houston. "I didn't
want to make a decision on my future based on what Patrick Ewing
was going to do," says Taylor. "By coming here, playing in a good
system, people will have a chance to see what I can do. That's
going to help me with my next contract."

Taylor's zeal for rebounding and defense has been questioned, but
Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson sees the makings of a
player who could help Houston make a future title run. That day,
of course, is years away. The young Rockets are impressive when
they're running the all-out full-court sprints that showcased the
talents of Francis (the 1999-2000 co-Rookie of the Year), Mobley
(a second-round pick two years ago) and the surprisingly
explosive Anderson. But when they have to play against the giants
of their conference, the Rockets will continue to struggle.

The Rockets' X factor may turn out to be their signature player,
the 37-year-old Olajuwon. During a tumultuous season in which
Scottie Pippen angrily demanded a trade to Portland and Charles
Barkley suffered a career-ending knee injury, Olajuwon limped
through his worst year, averaging just 10.3 points in 44 games.
After undergoing surgery for a hernia in December, the 12-time
All-Star developed exercise-induced asthma, a condition that
appeared to be under control during training camp thanks to a
prescribed inhaler. "I thank God this happened toward the end of
my career," Olajuwon says. "It could have happened early in my
career, and then what do I do?"

The absence of Pippen, Barkley and Olajuwon last season did allow
Francis and company to seize control of this team. Olajuwon does
not expect his younger teammates to relinquish any of that
control and has told coach Rudy Tomjanovich that he must earn his
minutes this year. Though he is battling yet another ailment (a
strained tendon in his left foot), Olajuwon still holds out hope
that he can return to his form of two seasons ago, when he
averaged 18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds. At the very least, he
should provide the interior presence the Rockets sorely need. For
his part, Tomjanovich wants to make sure that the Dream is happy
on his way out. "He's going to help us," Tomjanovich says. "I
just want the best possible scenario for him, whatever it is. I
know he's had a lot do with my success."


COLOR PHOTO: GLENN JAMES/NBA ENTERTAINMENT THERE'S HOPE The exceptionally talented Francis has already proved that he's a player Houston can rebuild around. COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/NBA ENTERTAINMENT END GAME In his final season, Olajuwon hopes he has rebounded from health problems so he can go out in style.

In Fact

Last season Steve Francis became only the third rookie in
franchise history to lead the team in scoring. Ralph Sampson
poured in 21.0 points per game for Houston in 1983-84, and Elvin
Hayes averaged 28.4 for the San Diego Rockets in '68-69.

Projected Lineup


SF Walt Williams 10.9 ppg 4.0 rpg 2.1 apg 0.64 spg 45.8 FG%

PF Maurice Taylor[1]17.1 ppg 6.5 rpg 1.6 apg 0.77 bpg 46.4 FG%

C Hakeem Olajuwon 10.3 ppg 6.2 rpg 1.4 apg 1.59 bpg 45.8 FG%

SG Shandon Anderson 12.3 ppg 4.7 rpg 2.9 apg 1.17 spg 47.3 FG%

PG Steve Francis 18.0 ppg 6.6 apg 5.3 rpg 1.53 spg 44.5 FG%


G Cuttino Mobley 15.8 ppg 3.6 rpg 2.6 apg 1.07 spg 43.0 FG%

C Kelvin Cato 8.7 ppg 6.0 rpg 1.91 bpg 53.7 FG% 64.9 FT%

F Matt Bullard 6.8 ppg 2.5 rpg 1.1 apg 40.9 FG% 44.6 3FG%

G Moochie Norris 6.9 ppg 3.1 apg 2.3 rpg 43.4 FG% 41.4 3FG%

F Kenny Thomas 8.3 ppg 6.1 rpg 1.6 apg 0.75 spg 39.9 FG%

[1]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 113)

an opposing team's scout sizes up the Rockets

"Here's how much this team has changed: It doesn't make sense to
double-team Hakeem right off the bat anymore. The more shots he
takes, the fewer that Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley get, and
that's the way an opponent wants it. This is the little guys'
team now.... Maurice Taylor is soft for a power forward. He won't
get you the tough rebounds, but he's a scorer and he'll have to
be double-teamed in the low post, which opens things up for
Francis and Mobley on the weak side.... Francis isn't Allen
Iverson, a shooter who will never really be comfortable at point
guard. Francis is being asked to score now, but he has great
vision and anticipation, and he's willing and able to create for
other people. He's a franchise player.... Some say Shandon
Anderson hasn't been as good as he was in Utah, but his role has
changed. He isn't asked to score as much and he's become more of
a defensive stopper.... I'm not big on Jason Collier, the
first-round pick. He's soft for a guy his size, a high-post
passer instead of a low-post banger."