The Dream era may have ended, but new-look Houston is soaring
toward a playoff berth
The Rockets are going to make a run at free agent Chris Webber
of the Kings this summer, knowing he could instantly return them
to championship contention. Until then, they are intent on
proving that they can succeed without him--and without Hakeem
Olajuwon, whose 17-year career in Houston might have ended last
week when he was sidelined for the rest of the season with a
Control of the franchise has been taken over by point guard Steve
Francis, who at 6'3" is nine inches shorter than Olajuwon but has
a chance to reach just as high. Despite the Dream's absence the
Rockets remained within a game of the eighth and final playoff
spot in the West at week's end after upsetting the visiting
Spurs, the conference's No. 1 team and owners of a nine-game
Houston's 103-99 victory last Saturday came with Francis, fellow
guard Cuttino Mobley (named Player of the Week on Monday) and
reactivated forward Matt Bullard (who replaced Olajuwon last
Thursday on the roster) knocking down threes. No longer are these
the Olajuwon Rockets, pounding it inside first. Now they play
small ball--with Francis, Mobley and jump-shooting power forward
Maurice Taylor as the primary options--yet still match their
opponents on the boards, a remarkable feat in the West.
Though fifth-year small forward Shandon Anderson is Houston's
most experienced starter, the team seems to have gained years of
wisdom over the past few months. The Rockets couldn't close out
games early in the season; now they routinely pull out wins in
the final minute. After losing 10 of 14 at home in December and
January, they had won 10 of their last 11 at the Compaq Center
through Sunday and improved their road record to 18-15. "Coaches
think it's the biggest challenge to get their guys to win on the
road," says coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "But the way Steve and
Cuttino are, they take on that challenge."
The 24-year-old Francis has seized leadership so quickly it's
easy to forget that he is in only his second season. He is on the
verge of becoming the 18th player in NBA history to lead his team
in scoring (he was averaging 20.0 points through Sunday),
rebounds (7.0) and assists (6.4), joining, among others, Wilt
Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and
Francis also takes responsibility for keeping the Rockets
together off the court. "We want our team to be like brothers,"
says Francis, who arranged a trip to Miami with several teammates
last summer in a rented Winnebago. On the eve of every home game
Francis meets a group of teammates at the house of Mobley's
mother, Jackie, who serves up a dinner of fried chicken, macaroni
and candied yams. "This team has a larger group of guys who hang
together than any team I've ever seen," says Tomjanovich, who has
been with the Houston organization for 31 years. "We've got
something special going."
That feeling grew even stronger last month when the 38-year-old
Olajuwon--who, feeling neglected, had asked in January to be
released--seemed to find his niche in the new Francis regime. Over
a 13-game period in February and early March, Olajuwon averaged
16.0 points (while shooting 56.3%), 10.6 rebounds, 2.31 blocks
and 1.54 steals in 31.2 minutes per game. That run ended on March
7, when Olajuwon felt discomfort in the lower half of his left
leg that was later diagnosed as a blood mass in a vein. He will
be sidelined for three to six months while being treated with a
Buoyed by his return to form before the injury, Olajuwon hopes
to play again next year--perhaps in a different uniform. When
his contract expires this summer, the Rockets will be at least
$11 million under the salary cap, which with minor tinkering
would allow them to offer Webber the maximum $13 million in
2001-02. Houston thus would be the only team with a winning
record and the cap room to sign Webber to the maximum
seven-year, approximately $123 million contract without having
to hammer out a sign-and-trade with Sacramento. Further
sweetening the Rockets' appeal is the absence of a state income
tax in Texas and Webber's close relationship with Francis.
Houston has maintained a cohesive locker room despite the
speculation surrounding Webber. If the team lands Webber, Taylor
will certainly leave as a free agent. "If I were a G.M., I'd go
after Chris Webber too," says the 6'9" Taylor, a friend of
Webber's. Taylor is a gifted ball handler who causes matchup
problems by running the floor and scoring both inside and
outside, but at 5.6 rebounds per game through Sunday he was being
outboarded by his team's point guard.
It's not inconceivable that if the Rockets lure Webber, they
will maneuver to match the $4.5 million offers that Olajuwon,
assuming he is healthy again, is likely to receive from
contending teams this summer. What if Webber doesn't sign with
Houston? "We need a dominant big man," admits oft-injured Kelvin
Cato, now the starting center. "I don't know if my offensive
capabilities are what we need."
In the meantime, the younger, shorter and increasingly relevant
Rockets are going to spend the remaining month of the season
trying to prove they can win without Olajuwon--and not just
against Eastern Conference teams, which were 4-23 against the
Rockets at week's end. Houston had lost 14 in a row to the top
five teams in the West until overcoming a 20-point deficit in the
Saturday victory over San Antonio. "Hakeem was our centerpiece,
but now everybody has to take it upon himself to do whatever it
takes for us to win," says Francis, who intends to keep leading
The Impending Escrow Tax
In '01-02, a Tithe To the Owners
At the start of next season, every NBA player is going to open
his paycheck and find 10% missing. "I'm sure there will be a lot
of screaming and yelling about it," says Spurs guard Terry
"There are going to be some players saying, 'What the heck is
this? I'm missing some money here!'" adds Bulls center Brad
Miller. "I guarantee you, not even half of the players understand
the whole deal."
The players have only themselves to blame. In January 1999 they
voted for the so-called escrow tax as part of the collective
bargaining agreement, ending the lockout that threatened to wipe
out the '98-99 season. In an all-night, do-or-die negotiating
session, commissioner David Stern insisted that his owners would
be in financial trouble unless they received at least 45% of the
income generated worldwide by the NBA. The players agreed to help
the owners balance their books--eventually. "It was four seasons
away," says Timberwolves forward Sam Mitchell, a member of the
union's executive council, of the escrow tax. "Nobody really
thought about it except for the guys on the committee who did the
deal. We knew it would be a different story when the owners start
taking that 10 percent."
The fans are unlikely to feel much sympathy. The escrow tax is
being implemented because the players are reaping a record share
of leaguewide income--the current agreement will provide them with
63% to 67% of revenue next season. The median salary is estimated
at $2.2 million, a gain of more than 50% in just three years. "I
don't see how somebody can happily take the benefit of the first
three years and then be concerned about some countervailing
agreement over the next three," says deputy commissioner Russ
Granik. "The alternative to the escrow tax was to put in a hard
salary cap, like the NFL's, but the players were never willing to
agree to that."
After their pay is reduced, the players may be less willing than
ever to help the owners rebuild the image of the league, which
was severely damaged by the lockout. "To what extent is this
going to impact player attitude and performance on the court?"
asks the union's executive director, Billy Hunter, who believes
the escrow tax will strengthen his hand. "The players are going
to be a lot more strident than they've been in the past, and I'm
going to do everything in my power to ensure that they are."
With that in mind Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggests that the
union offer the owners a deal. "Ask the league to extend the CBA
five years in exchange for getting rid of the escrow," says
Cuban. "I would be willing to give up the escrow in order to add
to the continuity of the league's relationship with its players.
I think the players want the continuity as well."
Hunter has spent this season meeting with players to explain the
escrow tax, which is likely to be imposed through 2004-05
(assuming the owners exercise their one-year option to extend the
agreement). The players should be plenty mad by then. "This is
money the owners were willing to pay the players, and now the
players are giving it back to the owners," says agent Arn Tellem.
"The players need to look at themselves in the mirror for
agreeing to this."
Though Tellem does not blame the union for consenting to the
escrow tax--"Billy Hunter did a remarkable job of holding the
players together for as long as he did"--he believes the union
should consider decertifying in three years and taking the owners
to court. "We've given the owners a team salary cap, a cap on
individual salaries, an escrow tax, a luxury tax and a rookie
wage scale," Tellem says. "None of these things would be legal if
there were no labor union."
Wistful Wizards Guard
Richmond Eyes Return Home
Juwan Howard said goodbye on Feb. 22, and a week later Rod
Strickland left for a better place as well. "They both went to
teams that are going to make the playoffs," says 35-year-old
guard Mitch Richmond, whom the Wizards were unable to trade.
"It's been such a frustrating time, to still be here and have the
other guys gone."
Richmond has spent most of his 13 years with the wrong team at
the wrong time. After a promising start with the Warriors in the
company of Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway, Richmond was dealt in
1991 to Sacramento, where he endured seven losing seasons. The
Kings finally started to win, but only after shipping Richmond to
Washington in the deal that brought them Webber.
Richmond owns a career scoring average of 22.2 points and a gold
medal from the 1996 Olympics, but his career has been tainted by
his time with the underachieving Wizards. Washington had the
fifth-highest payroll in the league and the second-worst record
before unloading Howard to the Mavericks in an eight-player trade
and then releasing Strickland, who signed with the Trail Blazers.
Richmond has missed 29 games this season with injuries to both
knees and at week's end was averaging just 16.2 points on
career-low 40.7% shooting. "It would be easy for him under the
circumstances to not be out there busting his butt, but he has
been a true pro," coach Leonard Hamilton says. "He has accepted
whatever role we need him to play."
Richmond expects the Wizards to release him after the season, in
which case they will pay him half of the $20 million on the
remaining two years of his contract. He has expressed interest in
signing for the $1 million veteran's minimum with the Heat next
season, which would allow him to end his career near his
childhood home of Fort Lauderdale. More important, he could look
forward to advancing past the second round of the playoffs for
the first time in his career.
"I just want to be part of something," Richmond says. "I
definitely don't want to end my career like this, I definitely
have a lot more basketball in me, and I'm definitely frustrated."
Outside the Box Score
The Mavericks are finding out that Juwan Howard is more than just
the low-post scorer they needed. With Dallas leading the Nets
56-54 on March 13, Howard initiated a half-court trap against
point guard Stephon Marbury, forcing Marbury to surrender the
ball. The Mavs went on a 19-4 run en route to a 122-98 blowout.
"Marbury is unstoppable one-on-one," said Dallas point guard
Steve Nash, who helped hold Marbury to 15 points. "With Juwan's
length we got him out of his comfort zone."
For scores, schedules and stats, plus the latest news and
analysis from Phil Taylor and Marty Burns, go to
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN At 6'3", the high-flying Francis is fearless going to the hole, whether as a scorer or as a rebounder.
COLOR PHOTO: NOREN TROTMAN/NBA ENTERTAINMENT
Around The Rim
The select committee on playing rules, headed by Suns owner
Jerry Colangelo, will make its first report to the NBA board of
governors on March 30. The committee will weigh major changes
for next season. "We need to take a full inventory," Colangelo
says. "The illegal-defense rules are key, but we also need to
look at the 24-second clock, how many seconds it takes to cross
midcourt, the three-point line, the width of the lane,
The Nets finally received some good news last week when Kerry
Kittles, out all season after right knee surgery last June, ran
and dunked at their practice facility....
Since Taco Bell pledged to give a free chalupa to each fan after
the Mavericks scored 100 points in any home victory after Jan.
1, the team had come through 11 times in 20 games through
Sunday--that's potentially $181,000 in free chalupas. "Taco Bell
made a bad deal setting the number at 100," says coach Don
Nelson.... In a moral victory for the otherwise moribund Sonics,
they finished 4-0 against the Lakers to become the first team in
seven years to sweep L.A. in a regular-season series of at least
Kings center Vlade Divac was angry about the one-game suspension
he earned for leaving the bench in an attempt to break up a
fight between teammate Bobby Jackson and the Magic's Tracy
McGrady. "Next time you wonder if you shouldn't go all the way
and support your teammates," says Divac, who was out $122,576
because of the fine and the loss of one game's pay....
Flip Saunders of the Timberwolves is the front-runner to be
named coach of the U.S. team for the 2001 Goodwill Games, to be
held from Aug. 29 to Sept. 9 in Brisbane, Australia. The team is
expected to include younger NBA players to groom them for future
Olympic and world championship play.
On the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal:
"As soon as Shaq goes to the bench, Kobe doesn't care about
anybody else. He says, 'It's my team, it's my offense.' It's
just Kobe taking over. But when Shaq is on the floor, Kobe
usually defers to him. You can tell they've come to an
agreement. If there's a play to be made, they make it. At the
same time, if there's another option--if Shaq doesn't have to
pass to Kobe or if Kobe doesn't have to pass to Shaq--the other
option is usually taken....I wonder why the Lakers don't use
Shaq and Kobe more in the two-man game, where they're on the
same side of the floor playing two-on-two. If they were working
together for each other's interests, they'd be unstoppable."
Nets swingman Johnny Newman
"I've always worn low-tops; there are only a few of us left in
the league who wear them. I remember I tried high-tops my first
year in college, but they were too restrictive. Over the years
people have been on me to change to high-tops, but in all this
time [15 seasons], I've never had ankle problems, and I don't
even get my ankles taped before games."