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Pick up the city of Houston, move it a few inches to the east on the map, and like that the young Rockets could be entertaining dark-horse thoughts of making it to the NBA Finals. Alas, no move to the Eastern Conference is in the works for the Rockets. That could change, however, if Houston voters reject a November referendum on the construction of a new basketball arena and the team chooses to seek a new home. For now, it will take the Rockets' best effort just to qualify for the playoffs in the power-packed West.
A good start would be to pick up where they left off last spring, when they won 10 of their final 15 games. "We weren't sneaking up on teams, either," says coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "We were playing teams that needed to win at the end of the year. Things were so positive for us that we didn't want the season to end." But it did, with the Rockets missing the playoffs for the first time since 1992.
To reverse its steady decline since winning the 1994 and '95 championships, Houston has launched a full-scale youth movement, abandoning the win-now approach that brought high-priced stars like Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen to Houston in the late '90s. When center Hakeem Olajuwon retires at the end of the season, it will clear $16 million from the payroll, putting the Rockets in position to add a big-name free agent ( Chris Webber or Michael Finley, for instance) to a team that already features a glut of exciting youngsters like Steve Francis, Shandon Anderson, Cuttino Mobley and Maurice Taylor.
Taylor is the most recent windfall. During the off-season the power forward, who turns 24 on Oct. 30, realized that a huge free-agent contract would not be falling in his lap despite the fact that he averaged nearly 15 points per game in his three years with the Clippers. After turning down a three-year, $17.5 million offer from Toronto, Taylor was prepared to sign a one-year deal with the Sonics and play alongside fellow David Falk client Patrick Ewing, who appeared headed for Seattle in a four-team deal in August. But that trade fell through, and Taylor took the $2.25 million exception to sign with Houston. "I didn't want to make a decision on my future based on what Patrick Ewing was going to do," says Taylor. "By coming here, playing in a good system, people will have a chance to see what I can do. That's going to help me with my next contract."
Taylor's zeal for rebounding and defense has been questioned, but Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson sees the makings of a player who could help Houston make a future title run. That day, of course, is years away. The young Rockets are impressive when they're running the all-out full-court sprints that showcased the talents of Francis (the 1999-2000 co-Rookie of the Year), Mobley (a second-round pick two years ago) and the surprisingly explosive Anderson. But when they have to play against the giants of their conference, the Rockets will continue to struggle.
The Rockets' X factor may turn out to be their signature player, the 37-year-old Olajuwon. During a tumultuous season in which Scottie Pippen angrily demanded a trade to Portland and Charles Barkley suffered a career-ending knee injury, Olajuwon limped through his worst year, averaging just 10.3 points in 44 games. After undergoing surgery for a hernia in December, the 12-time All-Star developed exercise-induced asthma, a condition that appeared to be under control during training camp thanks to a prescribed inhaler. "I thank God this happened toward the end of my career," Olajuwon says. "It could have happened early in my career, and then what do I do?"
The absence of Pippen, Barkley and Olajuwon last season did allow Francis and company to seize control of this team. Olajuwon does not expect his younger teammates to relinquish any of that control and has told coach Rudy Tomjanovich that he must earn his minutes this year. Though he is battling yet another ailment (a strained tendon in his left foot), Olajuwon still holds out hope that he can return to his form of two seasons ago, when he averaged 18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds. At the very least, he should provide the interior presence the Rockets sorely need. For his part, Tomjanovich wants to make sure that the Dream is happy on his way out. "He's going to help us," Tomjanovich says. "I just want the best possible scenario for him, whatever it is. I know he's had a lot do with my success."
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