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The Rockets are going to make a run at free agent Chris Webber of the Kings this summer, knowing he could instantly return them to championship contention. Until then, they are intent on proving that they can succeed without him—and without Hakeem Olajuwon, whose 17-year career in Houston might have ended last week when he was sidelined for the rest of the season with a blood condition.
Control of the franchise has been taken over by point guard Steve Francis, who at 6'3" is nine inches shorter than Olajuwon but has a chance to reach just as high. Despite the Dream's absence the Rockets remained within a game of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West at week's end after upsetting the visiting Spurs, the conference's No. 1 team and owners of a nine-game winning streak.
Houston's 103-99 victory last Saturday came with Francis, fellow guard Cuttino Mobley (named Player of the Week on Monday) and reactivated forward Matt Bullard (who replaced Olajuwon last Thursday on the roster) knocking down threes. No longer are these the Olajuwon Rockets, pounding it inside first. Now they play small ball—with Francis, Mobley and jump-shooting power forward Maurice Taylor as the primary options—yet still match their opponents on the boards, a remarkable feat in the West.
Though fifth-year small forward Shandon Anderson is Houston's most experienced starter, the team seems to have gained years of wisdom over the past few months. The Rockets couldn't close out games early in the season; now they routinely pull out wins in the final minute. After losing 10 of 14 at home in December and January, they had won 10 of their last 11 at the Compaq Center through Sunday and improved their road record to 18-15. "Coaches think it's the biggest challenge to get their guys to win on the road," says coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "But the way Steve and Cuttino are, they take on that challenge."
The 24-year-old Francis has seized leadership so quickly it's easy to forget that he is in only his second season. He is on the verge of becoming the 18th player in NBA history to lead his team in scoring (he was averaging 20.0 points through Sunday), rebounds (7.0) and assists (6.4), joining, among others, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
Francis also takes responsibility for keeping the Rockets together off the court. "We want our team to be like brothers," says Francis, who arranged a trip to Miami with several teammates last summer in a rented Winnebago. On the eve of every home game Francis meets a group of teammates at the house of Mob-ley's mother, Jackie, who serves up a dinner of fried chicken, macaroni and candied yams. "This team has a larger group of guys who hang together than any team I've ever seen," says Tomjanovich, who has been with the Houston organization for 31 years. "We've got something special going."
That feeling grew even stronger last month when the 38-year-old Olajuwon—who, feeling neglected, had asked in January to be released—seemed to find his niche in the new Francis regime. Over a 13-game period in February and early March, Olajuwon averaged 16.0 points (while shooting 56.3%), 10.6 rebounds, 2.31 blocks and 1.54 steals in 31.2 minutes per game. That run ended on March 7, when Olajuwon felt discomfort in the lower half of his left leg that was later diagnosed as a blood mass in a vein. He will be sidelined for three to six months while being treated with a blood thinner.
Buoyed by his return to form before the injury, Olajuwon hopes to play again next year—perhaps in a different uniform. When his contract expires this summer, the Rockets will be at least $11 million under the salary cap, which with minor tinkering would allow them to offer Webber the maximum $13 million in 2001-02. Houston thus would be the only team with a winning record and the cap room to sign Webber to the maximum seven-year, approximately $123 million contract without having to hammer out a sign-and-trade with Sacramento. Further sweetening the Rockets' appeal is the absence of a state income tax in Texas and Webber's close relationship with Francis.
Houston has maintained a cohesive locker room despite the speculation surrounding Webber. If the team lands Webber, Taylor will certainly leave as a free agent "If I were a G.M., I'd go after Chris Webber too," says the 6'9" Taylor, a friend of Webber's. Taylor is a gifted ball handler who causes matchup problems by running the floor and scoring both inside and outside, but at 5.6 rebounds per game through Sunday he was being outboarded by his team's point guard.