A tough little coach will put this club back on the playoff track
By Jack McCallum
Team Page | Conference ranking: 7 | Overall ranking: 9
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, $17 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."
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."
Issue date: October 27, 2003