What might have been – Part 1

We talk a lot about the Yao-McGrady Rockets and what might have been.  It’s been beaten to death.  But what we forget is how much potential the first version of the ‘Yao Rockets’ had.  I am here to remind you of that and push you closer to jumping off that ledge.

Let’s start with Francis.  This was–at the time–a guy who at the least, was considered to be on the level currently occupied by Russell Westbrook and thought by some to be a legit superstar and the second best point guard in basketball.  Francis was Isiah Thomas in the making; he would only get better with age and already was pretty good. When healthy, he was carrying–by himself–teams that ran the likes of Walt Williams and Matt Bullard at the forward spots to respectable records.

Move onto the other guards: Mobley made up the other half of what was thought by some to be the best backcourt in basketball.  Supremely competitive, a heady defender, and young.  Consider this: the ’02 Rockets were adding a true center prospect to a core that included the best guard duo in the league.  That sick feeling in your stomach is returning. Moochie Norris is easy to crack on after having gained a good 75 lbs., but looking back, the then 24-year-old wasn’t thought of too differently than how we now think of Goran Dragic – a damn good change-of-pace backup point guard who was only getting better.

Up front you had Boki, the man who eventually only became known for his playoff duel with Karl Malone. Nachbar was supposed to be some sort of cross between Peja and Hedo Turkoglu once he filled out.  A midseason trade of Kenny Thomas brought the 25-year-old James Posey, a perfect complementary swingman who would grow with the core and do the dirty defensive work that the stars/couldn’t wouldn’t do.

At the ’4′, Mo Taylor got hurt but the real prize was Eddie Griffin.  This was the wild card.  The lottery ticket.  Looking back, this was where it was exciting.  Francis and Mobley were the sure thing.  Yao, to some extent, as well.  But Griffin–with the flashes he had shown the year before–made things interesting. In our minds, with just the aforementioned players, the Rockets were at least guaranteed playoff success. Eddie Griffin panning out puts you in the conversation for dynasties.  At 19, he spaced the floor and was enjoying games with block totals reaching 4 and 5 in amount.  Was this Kevin Garnett in the making? Even if the offense never came, at the least, the springy forward would help Yao on the defensive end by protecting his weakside.  Rockets management thought highly enough of him that they turned down offers of Rashard Lewis (sign&trade) and Shareef Abdur Rahim (the then-All Star).

Kelvin Cato was a dog–we still want our money back–but as a backup, you could do worse.  This concludes the Kelvin Cato portion of our program.

Then we came to Yao, the man who was to make it all fit together.  When he was drafted, it was thought he would space the floor with his soft touch, creating room for the guards to operate.  Then one night, on TNT, he exploded in Dallas for 20 first half points and things….well, got interesting.  You had Francis and Mobley, sure.  And Griffin was in the backpocket.  But Yao suddenly turned out to be a lot better than expected and a lot sooner.  He was a legit low post force. He commanded double teams and had passing brilliance.  He was a franchise center.

That team the Rockets had in ’02 was what people now envy when they see the Clippers stocked to the brim with blue-chip prospects.  They were more than that.  They had three guys in Francis, Yao, and Griffin who they thought could be franchise players in each of their respective rights.  They had young role players in Mobley, Posey, Norris, and Nachbar. They had a core.  They just needed time to grow.

As we all know, it didn’t quite work out that way.

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