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Rockets Retro: The Young Nucleus

Barring a major trade, the Houston Rockets will enter the season with an impressive collection of young talent.  Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Royce White, and Terrence Jones are all under 26 years old and all carry some degree of promise as a player in this league.  The situation brings to mind the last time the franchise had a similar makeup: 2002, the year Les Alexander infamously dubbed his squad “one of the great teams ever assembled.”

That team had Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley as borderline All-Stars and Yao Ming as a potential superstar.  Kenny Thomas and Moochie Norris were young, capable role players; a midseason trade of Thomas brought in swingman James Posey, the team’s small forward of the future and the ideal running mate for Francis and Mobley on the wings.  Bostjan Nachbar was thought to hold potential as the designated gunner for the long haul.  Mo Taylor, injured, was a proven scorer who would add further depth upon his return.  Kelvin Cato, while largely a disappointment to that point, was a capable interior defender as seen by his rehabilitation under Jeff Van Gundy the following year.  The late Eddie Griffin was the wild card.  No one knew what he could become but he was the piece that could really take the team to new heights.

As we know now, that team was dismantled.  James Posey was let go for financial concerns.  Francis, Mobley, and Cato were dealt to Orlando for Tracy McGrady.  Mo Taylor and Moochie Norris got fat.  Eddie Griffin’s life took a turn for the worse.  What went wrong?  Some have said they weren’t given enough time.  I disagree.

I’ve argued in the past that the cause of last decade’s Rockets’ demise was Eddie Griffin not fulfilling his potential.  That unrealization (to create a word) had a chain reaction that crippled the franchise for years.  But let’s look at just that ’02 team.

Francis and Mobley were a dynamic combo.  But they weren’t conventional.  Yao showed signs of becoming the best center in the game – but by default, with Shaq set to age.  It was a promising young core, but alone, it would never have been enough to win a championship.  Francis and Yao respectively each had too many warts to hold their end in a dual-star title team.  There was going to have to be one more major piece–like a Detroit or Memphis–for a group effort.  That should have been Eddie Griffin.  He had the range to complement the team’s inside scoring.  He had the “out of space” shotblocking to complement Yao’s immobility.  In those early days, after his rookie year, some of us thought Eddie could be the next Kevin Garnett.  That was preposterous.  But at the least, he should have been able to take the next step.  He should have grown into a 16-9-2; a young Rasheed Wallace.

I’m not sure what we can really learn from this story.  Perhaps that most “young cores” usually fail?  But we might have already known that.  I’m as excited as anyone else about the team’s youth movement.  But I realize these young teams are usually broken up quickly after key parts don’t pan out.  Perhaps Daryl knows this too and is just collecting assets with no intent to let them grow.  Who knows?  What they have in OKC right now is a very unique thing.

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