(1999-2004) The Francis and Mobley Era
Before the beginning of the 1999-2000 season, the Rockets were in need of some changes. First, they moved Scottie Pippen to the Trail Blazers, in exchange for 6 role players: G’s Brian Shaw and Ed Gray, SF’s Stacey Augmon and Walt Williams, PF Carlos Rogers, and C Kelvin Cato. A week earlier, Pippen made public comments about Charles Barkley, who was still currently a Rocket, and was making it clear that he wanted to be traded. The trade brought the Rockets both youth, and some established veterans, to a team with two Hall of Fame big men, and a slew of youngsters.
In the 1999 NBA draft, the Rockets selected PF Kenny Thomas in the first round (22 overall, out of New Mexico). Although the selection was the Rockets only one of the first round, up in Vancouver, tensions were brewing on the very same night. Guard Steve Francis, who was taken second overall by the Grizzlies, was unhappy with the idea of moving to Canada to start his NBA career. Francis drew criticism for voicing his displeasure, and soon enough, his wish was granted. Francis was traded to Houston, along with F Tony Massenberg, in an 11 player deal, the biggest in NBA history at the time. Houston sent the previous year’s first round pick G Michael Dickerson to Vancouver, along with PF’s Othella Harrington and Antoine Carr, G Brent Price, plus first and second round picks. The trade was officially a 3-team deal, that also involved the Orlando Magic, whom the Rockets sent 2nd year SF Rodrick Rhodes to, getting a first round pick from Orlando in return.
Houston also signed free agent G Shandon Anderson in July, to add another talented player to a team full of them. All of a sudden, it looked as though the Rockets had retooled their roster once again. They added youth, size, depth, and experience, while only parting with two above average players in Scottie Pippen (who didn’t want to be there anyway) and Michael Dickerson. Although it was a tough task for coach Rudy Tomjanovich to figure out where all these guys fit, he had done it before with great success, so it wasn’t hard to believe he could do it again.
The Rockets entered the 1999-2000 season with a starting lineup of Steve Francis, Shandon Anderson, Walt Williams, Charles Barkley, and Hakeem Olajuwon. Houston elected to bring the previous years’ starting point guard, Cuttino Mobley, off the bench, a role he would relish in. Throughout the season, the Rockets dealt with a lot of adversity, and a lot of starting lineups. Charles Barkley played only 20 games all season, before retiring, and Hakeem missed 38 games due to his own ailments. Also, Carlos Rogers and Kelvin Cato missed 17 and 29 games respectively, really taking away the Rockets front-court depth. While the front-court guys were dropping like flies, the Rockets two young guards, Cuttino Mobley and Steve Francis, began to form a bond that lasted through their days in Orlando. Francis, in his first year, averaged 18 ppg, along with 6.6 apg and 5.3 rpg, while Mobley, who started only 8 games all year, added nearly 16 per game. However, new starters Shandon Anderson and Walt Williams both had disappointing years, with neither play averaging more than 13 points per game, or providing little else statistically. Also, Olajuwon had the worst year of his career up to that point, scoring only 10.3 ppg, and pulling down only 6.2 rpg.
Houston finished the season with a disappointing record of 34-48, missing the playoffs. Although the season was somewhat of a failure, Houston was filled with hope knowing that their young players were developing. We knew at that time that we had two very successful gunslingers, and that if we gave them some front-court support, they could find some real success in this league.
In the offseason before 2000-01 season, Houston made only a few minor changes. First, Barkley had retired, leaving a hole in the Rockets front-court that Houston wasn’t comfortable letting the likes of Carlos Rogers (unproven), Kenny Thomas (slightly undersized and also unproven) and Kelvin Cato (more of a center and lacking offensive capabilities) fill. Houston signed former Los Angeles Clippers PF Maurice Taylor to a 1 year deal, bringing the 6-9, sweet-shooter to Houston. The Rockets also made a draft-day trade for C Jason Collier, in hopes that he could develop into a possible starter or top reserve when Olajuwon left.
The boys in red entered the season with a starting lineup of Francis, Anderson, Williams, Taylor and Olajuwon. However, Olajuwon once again missed significant time (24 games), which led to Houston resorting to either Kelvin Cato or Kenny Thomas to fill the void at the five. A little less than halfway through the season, Mobley moved into the starting lineup, relegating Walt Williams to a bench role. Both Francis and Mobley saw their stats rise, with both averaging just under 20 ppg. Francis also dished out almost 7 assists and rebounds a game, and shot nearly 40% from 3 point range, while Mobley increased his rebounds per game to 5. Maurice Taylor experienced the most successful season of his young career too, averaging 13 ppg and 5.5 rpg. Moochie Norris became a bigger part of the team, after playing minimally the previous year, playing 20 mpg and gelling perfectly with “The Cat” (Mobley) and Stevie “Franchise” (Francis).
Houston finished the season with a 45-37 record, but missed the playoffs despite being 8 game above .500 (would have been 7th in the East, only 3 game out of 4th). Again, Houston’s future was looking very bright after establishing a gunslinging crew of guards, but still lacked front-court depth and talent. After the season, the Rockets said goodbye to Hakeem Olajuwon, the greatest Rocket who ever towered, and traded him to Toronto for a first and second round pick in the 2002 NBA draft. Although it was sad to watch Hakeem go, he was no longer useful to the team’s rebuilding efforts, and it was time to move on.
Most NBA franchises have a few players that could be their best ever, but not this one. The Lakers have Shaq, Magic, Kareem and so on. Boston has Pierce, Bird, Russell, Havlicek etc. Along with the Bulls, the Rockets are one of the few NBA teams that have one player who has been better than everyone else: point blank. Here’s a nice homage to the best Rocket ever:
Entering the 2001-02 season, Houston was hopeful that they could make it to the playoffs. They had two budding stars in Francis and Mobley, and had just signed Maurice Taylor to a 6 year 48 million dollar deal to keep him in Houston long-term. They packaged their 3 first round picks for the 8th overall pick, which was Seton Hall standout PF Eddie Griffin, who would have been taken earlier if he didn’t have attitude problems. They had also traded Shandon Anderson in a 4 team trade to get aging once-upon-a-time superstar Glen Rice, whom they hoped would add a veteran savvy to their suddenly very young roster. Looks like a good year, right? Wrong.
Maurice Taylor went down with an achilles injury before the year, and missed the entire season. Glen Rice had an injury plagued year and appeared in only 20 games, during which he averaged a career-low 8.6 ppg while shooting under 40%. Francis missed 25 games due mainly to debilitating migraines. Walt Williams missed 34 games due to injury. Jason Collier was injury plagued, and highly ineffective while playing. Eddie Griffin struggled in his first year as a pro, which was only his second year removed from high school. The result was a 28-54 campaign and a gloomy outlook for the future.
The 2002 draft lottery was very kind to Houston, awarding them with the 1st overall pick in a draft that had a clear number one: Yao Ming. Yao gave the Rockets their center of the future, one year after they traded arguably the most skilled center of all time in Hakeem Olajuwon. Yao, listed as 7-5 early in his career and 7-6 later is his career, was the first foreign born player (excluding Duncan who grew up in the Virgin Islands- kind of America, right?) to be selected 1st overall. Yao allowed Houston’s fan base to grow in Asia, and made a lot of money for the lucky Rockets. It really seemed like fate; a year after losing one great big, they get awarded the first pick for the third time in 20 years to replace him.
Things were looking up in Houston entering the 2002-03 campaign. Eddie Griffin had improved, Francis were in his prime and addressing his health problems through a changed diet, Maurice Taylor had returned from injury (and from a 5 game drug suspension to start the season for smoking that chronic), Glen Rice was healthy again, and to top it all off, the Rockets had a mellow yellow, 7-5, sweet shooting big man to man the middle. After about a month and a half of the season, Houston traded Kenny Thomas to Denver in a 3-way deal, and received SF James Posey from Memphis. Posey provided the Rockets with depth at the three, and a shutdown defender on the perimeter.
Houston played well during that year, and man, were they fun to watch. They were a run and gun team to the bone, and Francis was dominating opposing PG’s while enjoying his best statistical season with 21 ppg, 6.2 apg, 6.2 rpg and 1.7 spg (steals per game, in case you didn’t know). Yao also was a success his first season, despite some expected growing pains, averaging nearly 14 point, over 8 boards, and nearly 2 blocks, playing in all 82 games and starting in 72 of them. However, while some players flourished, Houston had a serious hole at the 4 spot. Maurice Taylor was disappointing to say the least, averaging only 8 points and pulling down less than 4 boards per game. Eddie Griffin failed to improve at all, achieving almost the exact same numbers as the year before. Kelvin Cato and Jason Collier both were downright incompetent, as both were unable to provide anything on the offensive end. Houston finished the season 43-39, failing to make the playoffs for the 4th year in a row. That was Rudy Tomjanavic’s last year in Houston, and he was replaced by formers Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy.
Houston made some very nice roster changes in the summer of 2003, looking to put a talented supporting cast around Francis, Mobley and Yao. They signed Jim Jackson and Mark Jackson (not related) to one year deals, brought in a couple shooters in Eric Piatkowski and Scott Padgett, and a couple of bruisers in NBA vet’s Clarence Weatherspoon and Charles Oakley.
Van Gundy came to town and changed things. While Tomjanovich kind of let the ballers ball, Van Gundy was more strict, and forced players into roles they didn’t necessarily fit in to. This isn’t to say that his moves weren’t successful, because the Rockets had their best season in 5 years this year, but it forced guys to go about the game differently. Van Gundy wanted Francis to play more like a traditional point guard and less like a scorer, and this led to him sometimes clashing with Francis, and Francis’ offensive numbers dropping.
During the season, Houston was very streaky, but much improved. Van Gundy’s defense-first mentality turned Houston into a very successful defensive team, and an ugly offensive team. Houston’s offense dropped off to 89.8 points per game, which was 25th out of 29 teams in the league, from 93.8 points per game the year before. However, they held their opponents to 88 points per game, 5th best in the league, while opponents 92.3 points per game on them the year before. Yao also improved during this season, in part due to the offense, and in part due to his natural progression. The Rockets wanted to play from the inside out, and became better and better at doing so as the year went on. Eddie Griffin, who was waived during the season, must have also clashed in Van Gundy and most likely most of his teammates, and didn’t appear in a game all year.
Houston went 45-37 in the 2003-04 campaign, good for 7th in the Western Conference. Yao led the team in scoring, rebounds, and blocks (17.5, 9 and 2), while Francis and Mobley were second and third averaging 17 and 16 respectively. Jim Jackson, who started all but 2 games of the season at the three, averaged 13 per game, while Mo Taylor averaged 12. Unluckily for Houston, they had to face the two-time defending NBA champion LA Lakers. The Lakers bested Houston in 5 games, with Houston really not putting up much of a fight (I don’t attribute it to their effort- it just shows the disparity in talent).
After the season, Houston traded both Francis and Mobley to Orlando for Tracy McGrady, and a new era began. The gunslingers were gone, along with “The Dream” and Rudy Tomjanovich, and the franchise went in a totally different direction. The years of the gunslingers were some of my favorites, and I will always appreciate the talents of Cuttino Mobley and Steve Francis. They did a lot for the Rockets’ franchise, and always played with great effort and respect for the game. Quick story: in what I believe was the 01-02 season, I went to see the Rockets play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden with my dad. Houston was down 8 with about 4 or 5 minutes left, and my dad turned to me and said “if the Knicks score here we’re leaving.” Allan Houston promptly came down the court and hit a shot. We both stood up and looked down at the court for one last look. Then, Shandon Anderson fired up a three and made it. We looked at each other, sat back down, and watched the Rockets come back and win. Mobley and Francis led the way down the stretch, with Moochie playing big minutes in their ultra-small lineup. I will forever remember that night as the best game that I ever went to. I was saddened to watch Francis and Mobley go, but McGrady was the best scorer in basketball at the time, and my favorite player. McGrady teamed up with Yao to create what I have dubbed “The McGrady and Yao era.”