- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Houston Rockets.
HOUSTON -- The Rockets had just beaten the Kings for their first exhibition win in four tries under Jeff Van Gundy when John Amaechi approached Houston's new coach. Amaechi wanted to know if he could catch a ride with a friend back to the team hotel rather than take the team bus.
"Sure," Van Gundy said.
A minute later, free agent Peter Cornell came up and asked if he could ride back to the hotel with his family. "Of course," Van Gundy said.
This is how it has been since the Rockets signed Van Gundy in June to get the most talented team in the league -- according to owner Les Alexander last season -- to a slightly higher perch than a fourth consecutive trip to the lottery. Van Gundy has an entire catalogue of rules, but they all follow one premise: there's a certain way Van Gundy wants everything done.
For the first time, Rockets players had to pass a conditioning test at the start of training camp. All-Star point guard Steve Francis bulked up to 212 pounds over the summer, only to find out that Van Gundy wanted him to report at 209.
The playbook is as thick as the New York yellow pages and is as dedicated to defensive alignments as it is offensive sets. In upgrading the collective professional demeanor, he has banned vintage jerseys as suitable wear on the bench or while traveling.
In his effort to toughen Yao Ming, he's even kidded his 7-foot-5 center about sitting with his legs crossed. And in attempting to improve team solidarity, he has Yao's translator sit in the coach's office with access to Yao through an earpiece during locker-room meetings.
"There's just more detail," Francis said. "I'm not saying Rudy didn't give us detail, but this is just ... more. He'll go over it for hours and hours."
Ask anyone with the Rockets to compare what it's like now under Van Gundy vs. his predecessor, Rudy Tomjanovich, and the litany is the same. "I'm not saying Rudy didn't ... " or "I love Rudy, but ... " or "I certainly don't blame Rudy, but ... " are the prequels to every statement. The reasons are three-fold: one, Tomjanovich is, and will always be, as beloved as anyone in franchise history; two, he's still with the team as an advisor; and, three, Houston still might've made the playoffs last year had he not been struck down by bladder cancer. Let it suffice that Van Gundy demands a far higher degree of discipline and dedication than the current Rockets have ever experienced.
"Everybody showed up on time and in shape, for the first time ever," backup point guard Moochie Norris said. "Or at least, since I've been here."
Norris, who is in his fifth year with the Rockets, is a case in point. His weight rose to nearly 220 pounds last season, but having heard through the grapevine how tough Van Gundy's practices can be, he bought a treadmill and as of the Kings' game weighed 184.
"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be," Norris said. "Guys talked about it being murder."
As much improvement as the Rockets might have made, it's a long way from what Van Gundy seeks.
"I think we're probably further behind any team I've seen," he said. "We're really behind as far as intensity and mental mistakes. If this were football, what we're doing is the equivalent of 30 pre-snap penalties every game. Do we have enough talent? We have enough talent. But every team in the league has enough talent. Attitude, chemistry, spirit -- now in those things there's a wide difference. The question is, do we have enough team? And that's what we're going to find out."
The process of discovery is one reason the Rockets lost their first four exhibitions by an average of 18 points before their haphazard 82-78 win over the Kings in Sacramento. Adjusting to unprecedented team rules off the floor and a highly demanding system of execution on it, the Rockets have looked uniformly tentative at times. That's OK when asking about getting back to the hotel, but when the task is stopping the opponent from scoring it results in wide-open 3s and uncontested backdoor layups.
"The biggest challenge is the intensity level in practice," said Kelvin Cato, who has been singled out by Van Gundy as one of the few Rockets who have shown the desired degree of concentration and effort. "It's more intense than games. I'm not in Jeff Van Gundy shape. But you can't help get in shape or you're going to get left behind."
The free-agent additions by general manager Carroll Dawson since Van Gundy arrived -- Jim Jackson, Adrian Griffin and Eric Piatkowski -- reflect the new blueprint: surround Francis and Yao with tough-nosed, intelligent role players. All three have their various strengths and weaknesses, but they're all consummate pros in the way they practice and prepare.
Which brings us to third-year forward Eddie Griffin, who missed the team's flight to Sacramento and made no attempt to contact team officials or catch a commercial flight, as Van Gundy's rules of conduct insist a player should. If Van Gundy's new approach is to be incorporated, the Rockets have no choice but to punish Griffin as harshly as possible or simply trade him. Then again, Van Gundy is aware how easy it is to lapse into old ways. As he outlined the team's game plan on the locker room board before the Kings game, he wrote "NY Offense" at the top and didn't notice the mistake until Francis whispered in his ear.
"Oh, Jesus Christ!" Van Gundy said, hurriedly erasing the "NY" and replacing it with "Hou."
He continued writing out the game plan before turning to Francis, who was making himself a sandwich at another Van Gundy nuance, the healthy pre-game locker room spread.
"Old habits," Van Gundy said, "are hard to break."
But break them he will. Griffin might be the first, but certainly not the last, to find that out.
Jeff Van Gundy has clearly indicated which way the Rockets will take to the playoffs: his way.