The Houston Rockets, 29-22 going into Wednesday's game against the Lakers, average 87 points a game (27th in the NBA) and shoot .434 from the field (18th). Yet, they are in a virtual tie with Denver (30-23) for the final two playoff spots in the fiercely competitive Western Conference.
The Rockets are where they are because of their excellent, Jeff Van Gundy-style of team defense. They allow a league-leading .395 field-goal percentage and a second-best 84.2 points a game to opponents, hold a 3-plus rebound edge each game, and block over five shots per contest.
But scoring is a problem for Houston, despite the presence of All-Star players Steve Francis (16.8 points a game) and Yao Ming (16.3 ppg) and a corps of 3-point sharpshooters in Cuttino Mobley, Jim Jackson, Eric Piatkowski, Scott Padgett and Bostjan Nachbar. Combined, all of them give Houston only the sixth-best team shooting percentage (.362) from beyond the arc. Moreover, the Rockets have scored 100 or more points just four times this season.
One of the factors that impedes the Rockets' ability to score is their number of turnovers -- 16.5 per game, the second-highest average in the league. The Rockets have won only three of six games decided by three points or less and often are forced into poor percentage shots or turnovers in critical, game-deciding situations.
The Rockets must find a way to score more efficiently without detracting from the quality of their defense. Francis is the major player in that process. He is highly talented, but is more of a two guard than a point guard. He shoots under 40 percent from the field and less than 30 percent from 3-point distance. Francis averages 5.9 assists but commits 3.9 turnovers -- an unacceptable ratio for a point guard on a playoff contender. He teams with Mobley in the backcourt, who is also a low-percentage shooter (.416) with a 3.2-to-2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Van Gundy has worked hard to make Francis more accountable for his playmaking role with the team, but Francis has been reluctant to change his game style. "He (Van Gundy) is going to coach the way he wants to coach, and I'm going to play the way I want to play. There's always going to be conflict," Francis told the Houston Chronicle.
Said Van Gundy: "I would agree with that -- not that he'll play the way he wants to play ... but I agree with everything else."
In other words, the coach expects the conflict to continue because he's not going to sit back and watch Francis decide how the team's game will be played.
What Van Gundy wants is for Francis to play more for the team and less as an individual. He wants better shot selection and better decision-making from his point guard. In Houston's 85-82 loss to San Antonio on Monday, Francis played all 48 minutes, scored 18 points (on 6-for-18 shooting, including 1-for-7 on 3-pointers), had 11 rebounds, recorded six assists and committed four turnovers. Not a bad performance, but not good enough.
I talked with Van Gundy before and after games which they won against the Lakers on Christmas day, and later at home against Minnesota. Before both games, the coach expressed displeasure with the way his team was playing and was disappointed with the lack of impact his presence had made. "I thought I could make more of a difference," he said. "I've had a hard time getting them to understand how hard they've got to play all the time, and how important it is to play together at a high level."
The Rockets certainly did both things in those two games, but they weren't able to sustain those good performances. Said Van Gundy after the Lakers game: "That was good. ... Now let's see how we play tomorrow night at Denver." They ended up losing to the Nuggets. They also lost to Memphis after the outstanding game against the Wolves.
Another factor that effects the Rockets' offense is Yao. The 7-foot-6 center is an excellent shooter (.525 from the field, .774 from the free-throw line) and is a better-than-average passer, but he gets fewer touches in the post than his skills warrant. Yao expends a lot of energy getting good post position and then is virtually ignored by his perimeter teammates while they maneuver to get their own shots. Yao averages only 10 shots a game -- not nearly enough for a player of his scoring potential. If the Houston offense started through the unselfish Yao -- like the Lakers' triangle offense does with Shaquille O'Neal -- all of the Rockets would benefit and the team would win more games.
The addition of veteran point guard Mark Jackson may help Francis to understand the role of a playmaker. Jackson, soon to be 39 years old, has the third highest assist total (10,256) in NBA history, and even though he's well past his prime and a weak defender, he might be a good role model for Francis on how to generate a team game from the point-guard position.
On paper, a lineup of Francis and Mobley at the guards, Yao at center and Jackson and either Kelvin Cato or Mo Taylor at forwards should score enough points to win -- assuming that they defended adequately. As it turns out in Houston, the defense is better than adequate. It's time for the offense to get itself together.
The Rockets simply must play a more effective offensive game -- one that focuses on the inside threat of Yao, rather than a perimeter-first game by the guards. Van Gundy must find a way to make that happen, and getting Francis to buy into that philosophy is essential.
Sometimes when a coach and his star player reach an impasse, they stop communicating. That's a big mistake. No matter how wide the gulf between them, the coach must find a common meeting ground and hammer out a plan that both can live with. It may require minor concessions to be made on both sides. Winning is a coach's life blood, and star players want that result, too. Some stars just want to get there on his own terms. In Houston, Francis' style hasn't produced a winner yet.
Van Gundy must keep working to bring about a solution to this problem ... perhaps giving Francis a bit more leash without violating the coach's basic principles. But if Francis, after Van Gundy's repeated efforts to bring about a meeting of their minds, still won't make concessions in his game that will benefit the team, there's only one thing to do -- trade him. Francis is a very marketable player and, if necessary, the Rockets could obtain a quality player more willing to play within the team structure that Van Gundy espouses.
I would hope that it won't come to that. I like both guys too much, and I think they could come to like each other if they really worked at it.
Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.