Making Do Nicely
When the league's preeminent center, Akeem Olajuwon of the Rockets, suffered a fractured orbit around his right eye on Jan. 3, Houston appeared to be headed for lotteryland. In seasons past, Olajuwon never lavished much flattery on his teammates, and after a 97-94 road loss to the last-place Kings on Jan. 21, even Rocket coach Don Chaney was denigrating them. "We're not any better than Sacramento without Akeem," Chaney said. "Sooner or later these guys are going to have to face that reality."
Instead, the ragtag Rockets have given reality a facial. At week's end Houston was 14-10 since Olajuwon's injury, and 31-23 on the season. That was good enough to keep the Rockets in seventh place in the Western Conference and solidly in the playoff picture.
The key elements of Houston's success have been Larry Smith, a 6'8", 33-year-old forward-center; Otis Thorpe, a steady power forward; Vernon Maxwell, a shooting guard bought from San Antonio last February for a reported $25,000; and Kenny Smith, a playmaker who has been traded twice in the past 12 months. "It's as if we're a team of misfits, patched together," says Chaney. "But who knows how chemistry develops?"
Larry Smith, a former Warrior who was signed as a free agent before last season, has been the biggest surprise. Through Sunday he was averaging 14.6 rebounds (and 5.0 points) and had pulled down 20 or more boards in eight games since Olajuwon's injury. He was also playing 35 minutes a game. A relentless worker skilled at making up for his relative lack of height by using his gluteus to the maximus, Smith has Rocket fans wearing hard hats to honor his blue-collar style. And Smith's attitude—his nickname is Mr. Mean—has rubbed off on Thorpe, who was averaging 21.5 points (on 57.5% shooting) and 11.5 rebounds in the post-Olajuwon era.
The backcourt, a perennial sore spot for Houston, suddenly looks promising, with Maxwell and Kenny Smith. Smith's arrival in November from Atlanta enabled the Rockets to move Sleepy Floyd to the bench and give themselves a formidable three-guard rotation. Smith can create (7.1 assists so far this season) and score (17 points per game).
Olajuwon could return as early as Feb. 28. Recently he has said all the right things about team unity and has even offered to come off the bench. "I'm looking at Akeem as fuel injection to a car," Chaney says. "We're cruising now, but we have a guy coming back who can propel us even farther."
A Lotto Uncertainty
Predicting who will be the 11 lottery picks for the June draft is tricky, but here goes. Start with five consensus choices in the senior class: Georgetown center Dikembe Mutombo, UNLV forwards Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson, Missouri forward Doug Smith and Michigan State guard Steve Smith. Add New Mexico center Luc Longley. Then figure that two of the top three nonseniors—Georgia Tech playmaker Kenny Anderson, LSU center Shaquille O'Neal and Syracuse swingman Billy Owens—will go pro. That makes eight.
The remaining three picks may well be a combination of senior sleepers ( Iowa State's 6'9" senior center, Victor Alexander, perhaps) and other players who choose to come out early, such as Ohio State sophomore guard Jimmy Jackson, Georgetown junior forward- center Alonzo Mourning and Missouri junior guard Anthony Peeler. While most NBA executives aren't overly impressed with the lottery crop, Scott Layden, the Jazz's director of player personnel, is upbeat. "I've counted 12 to 15 guys we'd like to pick in the first round," he says. "As you get closer to June, we'll add five or six underclassmen. We're also going to come up with guys who, at this time of year, we didn't think of as first-rounders. It always seems to get better the closer you get to the deadline."