Skip to main content
Original Issue

10 Houston Rockets Life without Hakeem begins with an outstanding duo manning the backcourt but a void to fill at the pivot

Cuttino Mobley has it made. His reputation as a slashing
all-purpose guard is growing; his outgoing personality has made
him one of the most popular athletes in Houston; he gets along
great with his best buddy, Steve Francis, who happens to be the
Rockets' star; and his personal launderer and cook, Jackie
Mobley, lives only a short walk from his house. "I go over to
Mom's place sometimes to eat, and she cooks a lot for Steve,
too," says Mobley, known as Cat to his teammates, "but she
always comes to my place to do the laundry." He shakes his head
and smiles. "Man, it's great."

Man, how much greater it would be if the Rockets had some players
to take care of their inside game as well as Moms takes care of
Cat and his pal. As the P.H. (Post-Hakeem) era begins in Houston,
the Rockets find themselves hog-tied, trapped in the middle of a
strong Western Conference without an obvious answer to their
pivot problems. They finished two games out of a playoff spot
last season and would seem hard-pressed to improve upon that this
season, considering that, barring a deal, future Hall of Famer
Olajuwon will be replaced by the firm of Cato and Collier.
(That's Kelvin Cato and Jason Collier if you're scoring at home.)
So unpleasant is that prospect that coach Rudy Tomjanovich is
even talking about filling the middle from time to time with
frail 19-year-old rookie Eddie Griffin, eight months removed from
his single college season, at Seton Hall. "We're kind of on trial
with our centers" is the way Francis puts it.

The verdict is in on the backcourt, though. Francis and Mobley
just might be the finest combo in the West (unless that title
belongs to Kobe Bryant and whoever else is in the Lakers'
backcourt with him). "Sometimes having a player whose game is
like yours can be a problem," says Mobley. "You take Allen
Iverson and Larry Hughes--they kind of bumped heads in
Philadelphia. But Steve and I talked about it beforehand, got it
all out. I told him, 'I'm here for you, whatever you want me to
do to make it easy for you.' It's Steve's team. What I want to be
is a Scottie Pippen, there to pick up whatever he can't get

Francis said the chemistry between the two was there almost
immediately after Mobley was installed as a starter midway
through last season. "We just understand things the same way,"
says Francis. "We both got groomed by Hakeem and Charles
[Barkley]. That means we learned how to go inside first, then
back outside; learned how to get our points within the framework
of a set offense." Won't that be different without an established
low-post scorer? "No matter what kind of guard you are," says
Francis, "you've got to have some kind of low-post presence in
there. We'll find it."

One player Mobley and Francis will find inside is improving
post-up power forward Kenny Thomas; one player they'll find
outside is Glen Rice, acquired in an off-season trade with the
Knicks. Rice will be on the wing, as he has been for five teams
over 13 seasons, waiting to release that sweet jumper. "We're
thinking penetration and kick-out," says Mobley. "It'll be a
different sight with Glen's waiting to launch that thing." Mobley
smiles. "Still, we don't want to be kicking out all the time."
Rice, for his part, says he can't believe the quickness of
Francis and Mobley. "Damn, they're good," says Rice. "By the time
this season is over, I'm going to have run out of 'damns.'"

But, damn, what about that center problem? It would have been
partly solved had the Warriors not matched Houston's offer sheet
to free agent Marc Jackson. The Rockets hope that Cato, to whom
they gave a six-year, $42 million deal two seasons ago, will at
last develop an offensive game and more consistently display his
shot-blocking prowess. The quiet hope, too, is that Griffin
develops quickly, particularly since Maurice Taylor will probably
miss the entire season after having surgery on his right Achilles
tendon in September. If Griffin does emerge, don't count on
hearing about it from him. "He hasn't said a word since he got
here," says Francis. Griffin waves that off. "I don't have to do
much talking with Steve and Cat around," says Griffin. True, this
backcourt doesn't need any help with the quotes. They'll even
handle a lot of the scoring and pressure defense. Yet if the
Rockets are going to get to the playoffs, they're going to need
serious contributions from someone other than Moms Mobley.


COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO ROCKET SCIENCE Francis says the chemistry with his backcourt pal Mobley is excellent, but is that enough fuel in the West?

enemy lines
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Rockets

"They'll be better than last season but not a lot.... Losing
Hakeem Olajuwon is obviously big, but he had slowed down,
wouldn't go out and play people on the perimeter at all. If they
can get anything from Kelvin Cato at center, they'll be better
defensively. Long-range, though, Cato's not the answer. Jason
Collier is not the answer even short-range.... Eddie Griffin was
lazy in high school and lazy at Seton Hall, so I see no reason
he won't still be lazy. He has talent, but Walt Williams will
outwork him, and as much as Houston seems to be counting on
Griffin, Williams could end up getting more minutes.... Terence
Morris can do a bit of everything, but he's not a real
difference-maker. Still, Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley will
keep the Rockets in most games. They're among the best one-two
duos in the league. Either one can handle, shoot on the run,
break people down, make standstill shots and defend. Anything
else you can ask of a guard? Both guys, along with Glen Rice,
are willing and able to take big shots. Rice won't win you a
championship, but he's got some gas left in the tank, and he'll
be good with this backcourt, where he'll be able to roam and
find his spot.... Kenny Thomas is an underrated player--a four
with the quick feet of a three. He gets the job done with
know-how.... If the Warriors hadn't matched Houston's offer for
Marc Jackson and the Rockets could have brought him off the
bench, they'd have a nice rotation, but it's going to be tough
for them to get much better in the West."

projected lineup
2000-01 record: 45-37 (fifth in Midwest)
Coach: Rudy Tomjanovich (11th season with Rockets)

PVR* 2000-01 KEY STATS

SF Glen Rice[1] 12.0 ppg 4.1 rpg 1.2 apg 44.0 FG% 38.9 3FG%
PF Kenny Thomas 7.1 ppg 5.6 rpg 0.58 bpg 0.54 spg 44.3 FG%
C Kelvin Cato 4.7 ppg 4.0 rpg 0.89 bpg 57.7 FG% 64.9 FT%
SG Cuttino Mobley 19.5 ppg 2.5 apg 5.0 rpg 1.06 spg 43.4 FG%
PG Steve Francis 19.9 ppg 6.5 apg 6.9 rpg 45.1 FG% 39.6 3FT%

PVR* 2000-01 KEY STATS

F Eddie Griffin(R) 17.8 ppg 10.8 rpg 4.43 bpg 42.9 FG% 32.0 3FG%
G Moochie Norris 6.6 ppg 3.5 apg 2.4 rpg 0.84 spg 44.6 FG%
F Walt Williams 8.3 ppg 3.4 rpg 1.3 apg 39.4 FG% 39.5 3FG%
C Jason Collier 3.1 ppg 1.60 rpg 0.3 apg 38.0 FG% 70.8 FT%
F Terence Morris(R) 12.2 ppg 7.7 rpg 1.9 apg 2.19 bpg 43.2 FG%

[1]New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 117)

"Rice won't win you a championship, but he's got some gas left
in the tank."