It's not inconceivable that if the Rockets lure Webber, they will maneuver to match the $4.5 million offers that Olajuwon, assuming he is healthy again, is likely to receive from contending teams this summer. What if Webber doesn't sign with Houston? "We need a dominant big man," admits oft-injured Kelvin Cato, now the starting center. "I don't know if my offensive capabilities are what we need."
In the meantime, the younger, shorter and increasingly relevant Rockets are going to spend the remaining month of the season trying to prove they can win without Olajuwon—and not just against Eastern Conference teams, which were 4-23 against the Rockets at week's end. Houston had lost 14 in a row to the top five teams in the West until overcoming a 20-point deficit in the Saturday victory over San Antonio. "Hakeem was our centerpiece, but now everybody has to take it upon himself to do whatever it takes for us to win," says Francis, who intends to keep leading by example.
The Impending Escrow Tax
In '01-02, a Tithe To the Owners
At the start of next season, every NBA player is going to open his paycheck and find 10% missing. "I'm sure there will be a lot of screaming and yelling about it," says Spurs guard Terry Porter.
"There are going to be some players saying, 'What the heck is this? I'm missing some money here!' " adds Bulls center Brad Miller. "I guarantee you, not even half of the players understand the whole deal."
The players have only themselves to blame. In January 1999 they voted for the so-called escrow tax as part of the collective bargaining agreement, ending the lockout that threatened to wipe out the '98-99 season. In an all-night, do-or-die negotiating session, commissioner David Stern insisted that his owners would be in financial trouble unless they received at least 45% of the income generated worldwide by the NBA. The players agreed to help the owners balance their books—eventually. "It was four seasons away," says Timberwolves forward Sam Mitchell, a member of the union's executive council, of the escrow tax. "Nobody really thought about it except for the guys on the committee who did the deal. We knew it would be a different story when the owners start taking that 10 percent."
The fans are unlikely to feel much sympathy. The escrow tax is being implemented because the players are reaping a record share of leaguewide income—the current agreement will provide them with 63% to 67% of revenue next season. The median salary is estimated at $2.2 million, a gain of more than 50% in just three years. "I don't see how somebody can happily take the benefit of the first three years and then be concerned about some countervailing agreement over the next three," says deputy commissioner Russ Granik. "The alternative to the escrow tax was to put in a hard salary cap, like the NFL's, but the players were never willing to agree to that."
After their pay is reduced, the players may be less willing than ever to help the owners rebuild the image of the league, which was severely damaged by the lockout. "To what extent is this going to impact player attitude and performance on the court?" asks the union's executive director, Billy Hunter, who believes the escrow tax will strengthen his hand. "The players are going to be a lot more strident than they've been in the past, and I'm going to do everything in my power to ensure that they are."
With that in mind Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggests that the union offer the owners a deal. "Ask the league to extend the CBA five years in exchange for getting rid of the escrow? says Cuban. "I would be willing to give up the escrow in order to add to the continuity of the league's relationship with its players. I think the players want the continuity as well."
Hunter has spent this season meeting with players to explain the escrow tax, which is likely to be imposed through 2004-05 (assuming the owners exercise their one-year option to extend the agreement). The players should be plenty mad by then. "This is money the owners were willing to pay the players, and now the players are giving it back to the owners," says agent Arn Tellem. "The players need to look at themselves in the mirror for agreeing to this."