Rockets wishing they played in the East
By Mike Monroe
Special to ESPN.com
For openers, let me say that for once I agree with NBA East columnist Jeffrey Denberg, or perhaps it is more that he finally is agreeing with me. I've been telling you for weeks that the West rules. Denberg finally has recognized the fact.
Why, even the Houston Rockets would probably have a winning record if they played in the East, or at least one of those 4-6 records that makes an Eastern team believe it is a contender for a division title.
In the West, the Rockets are 3-10, in last place in the Midwest Division.
And things don't figure to get better any time soon for a team that most of us believed had done a decent job of re-tooling championship teams of the mid-1990s. They got back from a winless road trip to the West coast to play the Mavericks, but then have to go right back to the Great Northwest to play the Trail Blazers.
Looks to me like they're going to be 3-11 before you can say "Rudy Tomjanovich." Plus, they'll have to listen to Scottie Pippen telling everyone he told them so.
What is happening in Houston thus far this season is nothing short of shocking, though Pippen tried to warn all of us the collapse was coming.
I admit I thought the Rockets had blended a nice assortment of athletic, young players to go along with the heart and soul of their team, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley. But the fact is, Olajuwon is the one and only player left from that 1995 championship squad, and his physical skills have eroded to the point he could get used by Sean Rooks in a blowout loss to the Mavericks that preceded their winless trip to Seattle, Sacramento and Los Angeles.
The Rockets' problems are pretty clear. They make mistakes down the stretch. Players unaccustomed to doing anything more than watching in the fourth quarter are playing key roles. Players used to carrying the load no longer can. They have led in six fourth quarters, only to collapse and lose down the stretch. Even when they mounted a nice comeback in Seattle on Saturday, they broke down in the final two minutes and suffered another loss that served mostly to point out their glaring deficiencies.
Until a week ago, when the Mavericks embarrassed them, they had played well defensively, holding four consecutive opponents to 40 percent shooting or worse. But their offense had been pathetic. They hit the road having made only 42 percent of their shots, and though they went into Tuesday night's game against the Mavericks having improved that marginally, their offensive efficiency is far from the standards we have come to expect from them in the Olajuwon era.
They have finished a season with such a poor shooting percentage only twice and not since the 1970-71 season, when they were still in San Diego. In 1982-83, when they began the season with 10 consecutive losses and finished 14-68, they made 44.8 percent of their shots.
Further, the Rockets rank 22nd in the NBA in scoring, a fact their record clearly reflects.
"The game is not all about shooting, but we've historically been a high percentage shooting team, especially when you factor in 3-pointers," coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "This year we're not even close. Our regular shooting percentage is way down. Guys are in the low 40s, Guys are in the 30s.
"Our margin of error is so small because we haven't been able to score like I thought we would."
|"When everybody doubts us, we can do it. When everybody criticizes us, we can do it. But we have to work together."|
**— Hakeem Olajuwon
One of the problems, of course, is that two of the key Rockets may shoot in the 40s, but they are in their 30s. Olajuwon and Barkley are in their final days as dominating NBA players. Barkley has acknowledged as much by promising this is his final season. Olajuwon ought to consider retirement himself before he is embarrassed too many more times.
It is clear both players are affected by the NBA's new rules. Olajuwon has even been called for traveling a few times while executing his "Dream Shake" maneuver, heretofore an unstoppable low post move that made him the NBA's most dangerous big man in crunch time. Tomjanovich wanted the Rockets to run, run, run this season, but Olajuwon said he needed more touches in the low post, so Rudy T. downshifted just a bit.
Conflict between the old and new has been more bizarre than expected. Barkley has argued the ball needs to be in rookie Steve Francis' hands
Says Sir Charles, "He's our best player," and methinks Sir Charles speaketh the truth. Francis was Houston's only viable option in the final minutes of that loss up in Seattle on Saturday.
Barkley? He still got the ball in the low post and tried to back in, dribbling and looking for a cutter or an open shooter. But this season he has only five seconds to do something with the ball when he starts such a ploy, and he is struggling to figure things out.
Shandon Anderson, no doubt wishing he had stayed in Utah, where he could have made more dough, doesn't like the slow-down Olajuwon has dictated.
"When you play that way, it's just too predictable," Anderson said. "Teams work the whole day on how to defend the post, defending three-point shooting. So when you get down to the fourth quarter, they really have the game plan down. If we had different options, it's really hard to defend.
"They (the coaches) make the decisions. You have to run the plays that are called. You can't go on your own and go one-on-one and try to beat them one-on-five."
Olajuwon believes everything will turn around if only the Rockets remain unified.
"We have to work together and stay in there," Olajuwon said. "When everybody doubts us, we can do it. When everybody criticizes us, we can do it. But we have to work together."
Trouble is, the Rockets play three more on the road coming up. Hanging together is going to get tougher and tougher, unless they can somehow figure a way to transfer to Denberg's Eastern Conference.
Out to prove Scottie Pippen will
apologize at gunpoint.
[This message has been edited by Clutch (edited November 25, 1999).]