7 Houston Rockets A tough little coach will put this club back on the playoff track

October 27, 2003

Eric Piatkowski admits he was scared. Scared of what would happen
if he didn't report in shape. Scared of getting off on the wrong
foot at his 10th training camp, after enduring nine with the
Clippers. Scared of a 5'9" guy who looks like he wandered in from
monitoring study hall. "I got that letter from Coach Van Gundy
telling us to report in top condition," says Piatkowski, a 6'7"
shooting guard who signed as a free agent in July, "and I said,
Whoa, I better get busy." So Piatkowski, 33, trimmed his body
fat, cut his weight from 220 pounds to 208 and came into camp
"feeling like a 21-year-old."

Jeff Van Gundy is on that short list of coaches who command
instant respect, his 155-pound physique notwithstanding. Before
he signed a four-year, $18 million contract to coach the Rockets,
he turned down more lucrative offers, including a reported $35
million over five years from the Wizards, plus a 2% stake in the
team.

In Houston, Van Gundy will be charged with 1) making a franchise
center out of Yao Ming, 2) figuring out how to mesh the 7'6"
center's game with that of All-Star point guard Steve Francis and
3) returning to glory a team that won titles in 1993-94 and
'94-95 but hasn't been to the playoffs in four seasons. Van Gundy
believes that the time for revival is now. "We are at a
crossroads. Winning brings stability and monetary rewards," he
says. "Losing brings change."

How much Van Gundy has changed from the sleep-deprived workaholic
who roamed the Knicks' sideline for seven seasons remains to be
seen. Patrick Ewing, whom he brought along as an assistant, has
urged him to take it easier, and Van Gundy says he's trying. But
don't bet on it. "He's a serious man," says Piatkowski, "and we
better be serious, too." --J.M.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Jeff Van Gundy COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH YAO UNCHAINED After playing a limited role in the offense as a rookie, the 7'6" center should have his skills on full display.

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Rockets

"Rudy Tomjanovich allowed his young players a lot of freedom--the
same approach that won him two titles in Houston--but they didn't
accept responsibility for themselves. Now they have to deal with
a hard-liner in Jeff Van Gundy.... The Rockets were criticized
for not capitalizing on Yao Ming's skills, but Tomjanovich did
the franchise a favor by bringing him along slowly. He didn't put
Yao on the perimeter or in other complicated situations; on the
pick-and-roll Yao would always roll to the basket. This year Van
Gundy is going to run the offense through Yao and take advantage
of his variety of skills, including his ability to play out of
the high post and either hit the jumper or pass to cutters and
jump-shooters. I believe Yao can be up there with Bill Walton as
one of the best passing centers of all time: When you double him,
he reverses the ball with snap and rhythm that leaves the
shooters in excellent position to score.... Steve Francis does
well running set plays, but in transition he shows he doesn't
have the instincts of a point guard. You can tell he wants to do
the right thing; sometimes he'll pass when he should have taken
it to the hole. If you move him to the two, though, you lose his
strength as a rebounder. Other point guards have trouble boxing
him out, and Francis is like Jason Kidd the way he takes the ball
off the boards and starts the break himself.... People say
Patrick Ewing was brought in as an assistant to help Yao, but he
might do his most important work with backup Kelvin Cato. If
Ewing can get Cato to work harder, the Rockets could have the
best center tandem in the league.... Eddie Griffin needs to get
his act together. The team suspended him in the preseason, and he
has yet to develop into a more aggressive inside player to
complement Yao offensively."

FAST FACT

Guards Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley combined to play 82.7
minutes per game last season, the most by any two teammates.

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
with 2002-03 statistics

Record: 43-39 (9th in West)
Points scored: 93.8 (21st in NBA)
Points allowed: 92.3 (8th)
Coach: Jeff Van Gundy (first season with Rockets)

YAO MING

POS. PVR PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% FT%
C 22 13.5 8.2 1.7 1.79 0.38 49.8 81.1

[1]JIM JACKSON

POS. PVR PPG RPG APG SPG FG% 3FG% FT%
SF 156 7.7 4.2 1.9 0.49 44.2 45.1 85.5

STEVE FRANCIS

POS. PVR PPG RPG APG SPG FG% 3FG% FT%
PG 15 21.0 6.2 6.2 1.74 43.5 35.4 80.0

CUTTINO MOBLEY

POS. PVR PPG RPG APG SPG FG% 3FG% FT%
SG 62 17.5 4.2 2.8 1.30 43.4 35.2 85.8

EDDIE GRIFFIN

POS. PVR PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% 3FG%
PF 133 8.6 6.0 1.1 1.44 0.68 40.0 33.3

BENCH PVR* 2002-03 KEY STATS

F MAURICE
TAYLOR 165 8.4 ppg 3.6 rpg 1.0 apg 0.33 bpg 43.2 FG%
G[1] ERIC
PIATKOWSKI 175 9.7 ppg 2.5 rpg 0.15 bpg 47.1 FG% 39.8 3FG%
C KELVIN
CATO 224 4.5 ppg 5.9 rpg 1.16 bpg 0.52 spg 52.0 FG%
G-F[1]ADRIAN
GRIFFIN 264 4.4 ppg 3.6 rpg 1.4 apg 1.04 spg 43.3 FG%
G MOOCHIE
NORRIS 281 4.4 ppg 1.9 rpg 2.4 apg 0.67 spg 40.6 FG%

NEW ACQUISITION[1]
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 94)

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)