Hustle and Flow

In the breakdown of the greatest all-time NBA centers, Hakeem “the Dream” Olajuwon usually sits at number five, right behind Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal, and slightly ahead of David Robinson. Despite winning back-to-back championships in the 90’s, Olajuwon’s Rockets have been historically underrated, particularly because their title runs came when Michael Jordan was busy trying to play baseball. Their first championship is often better remembered for the bizarre O.J. Simpson chase that interrupted game coverage than for anything that happened on the hardwood. The Houston brain trust later paired the Dream with Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, which produced a regrettable season, but the Rockets’ back-to-back titles represent an achievement that has eluded our beloved Spurs.

These days, the face of the Rockets rests on the 7’5” frame of China’s Yao Ming. Yao has survived perhaps the most difficult cultural transition for any player in the history of the league, and yet looks poised to have the best season of his young career. The Houston brass have surrounded him with an impressive roster, including the explosive-yet-injury-prone Tracy McGrady, the steady Shane Battier, and the mercurial (but talented) Bonzi Wells. During the preseason, McGrady, who is, in essence, the heart of the team, was optimistic about his new squad.

“This is the best team I’ve been on in my 10 years in the league,” McGrady told “With the athleticism and shooters we have, my creativity on the court, and our inside game with Yao, we have everything. We have a lot of depth and talent.” Strong words from a high flyer who, in the early part of his career, was part of a Toronto team that included cousin Vince Carter, Doug Christie, Antonio Davis, and Charles Oakley.

Before reinjuring his oft-ailing back in a game against the Washington Wizards, McGrady was averaging 19 points, 6 assists, and almost 6 rebounds a game. McGrady was initially declared to be out of the Houston lineup indefinitely, but has since been listed as day-to-day. Bonzi Wells — who signed a two-year, $5-million contract with the Rockets during the offseason — and head coach Jeff Van Gundy have struggled to find common ground, which situation has thrust second-year player Luther Head into the starting lineup.

“I think everybody has to do more,” said Head on “Tracy did a lot. He didn’t just score. You can’t just say you need more scoring. He made plays, played good defense and he found Yao. We all have to chip in and get Yao more touches. Everybody has to try to step up now.”

When most NBA folks picture Van Gundy, the image of the diminutive coach comically straddling Alonzo Mourning’s leg comes almost immediately to mind. Then there was the time Marcus Camby, his own player, slugged him while trying to get to Danny Ferry (then a Spur). Neither of those moments compared to the beat-down delivered by commissioner David Stern a few seasons back for comments made by Van Gundy suggesting that NBA referees were biased against Yao Ming. Van Gundy has never fully recovered from Stern’s thrashing, and his impasse with Wells suggests just as much. “I’m not going to focus a lot of my attention on his situation,” Van Gundy told the Associated Press. “If it works, it works, it’s going to be great. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

The Bonzi ordeal aside, Houston’s biggest problem during the Yao Ming era has always been injuries to key personnel. The duo of Yao and McGrady has shown flashes of brilliance when on the floor together, but, unfortunately for the Rockets, that hasn’t happened for long stretches of time. Success in the NBA hinges on a variety of factors, including timing, chemistry, talent, and luck. Injuries can easily floor any team’s chances of competing for a championship at any time, let alone repeating. Just ask the Spurs.

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