NBA AM: Olajuwon Feels The Rockets’ Pain
Senior NBA Writer & College Basketball Editor
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If any team could turn back the hands of time, it would definitely be the Houston Rockets. They long for the days when Hakeem Olajuwon was patrolling the paint and leading them to back-to-back championships. Olajuwon left the team in 2001, but the glory days really ended in 1997. Since then they’ve been to the playoffs just seven times, only making it out of the first round once. They’re currently three seasons removed from their last trip to the postseason.
The post-dream era has been difficult for the Rockets and especially their fans, which Olajuwon is now one of, to endure.
“It is tough (to see them struggle),” Olajuwon said to HOOPSWORLD. “I know management especially is trying to get back to the glory days, having a championship caliber team. It’s very difficult when you’re in the middle, where you don’t get a chance to pick the best (in the draft). We have an average team, maybe get in the playoffs or first round. Being in the middle is very difficult. How can you end that cycle where you stand in the middle of the pack all the time? That’s been their challenge.”
The Rockets actually had a center in Yao Ming who at one point looked capable of taking the Rockets to the heights they reached with Olajuwon. Unfortunately, right as Yao was establishing himself as the game’s best big man he suffered a string of injuries that eventually led to his premature retirement in 2011.
“That was tough especially knowing Yao and how bad he really wanted to play,” Olajuwon said. “I could see the disappointment in his will. It was like a joke. I thought maybe ‘ok that’s not true I’m not reading that right’. To really realize that was like ‘wow, that’s it’. I felt for Yao. He responded positively. He took it very well, moved on. It was tough for the Houston Rockets, especially the owner with all the investments in China and Asia and how that put the popularity of Rockets in Asia. Just to see it for so short, then that was it. Just for the NBA as a whole, I think it was a huge loss for the league and especially the Rockets.”
The Rockets had hopes of adding center Dwight Howard, who has taken the mantle as the league’s premier big man, this off-season. For a few weeks it looked like they were the odds on favorite, but in the end the Orlando Magic traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The addition of Howard has a lot of people pegging the Lakers as the team to beat for the 2013 championship, but Olajuwon knows first handed that what looks great on paper doesn’t always translate to greatness on the hardwood.
“You have to put together the players with chemistry,” Olajuwon said. “When you look at the Lakers, everyone knows what Steve Nash brings to the team by distributing the ball. That makes it easier for Dwight as a finisher and also as a go-to guy. Then, there’s Kobe to operate in the mix of that, so there’s a legitimate chance. It’s not automatic that they’ll win a championship, but they have a legitimate chance just like Oklahoma and Miami. Those three teams, any one of those teams can win it all.”
As far as Olajuwon’s Rockets go, they’re once again projected to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Western Conference. Probably not good enough to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to get a top five pick either. There just aren’t enough franchise players to go around right now with so many joining up to play together. That lack of balance is something Olajuwon would like to see addressed.
“Now you see superstars are playing together at the expense of other teams,” Olajuwon said. “Where if you have an average team or a losing team, it’s supposed to feel uncomfortable to go and play there. But they really need them to go to the next level. That’s the dilemma the league has to balance to make sure each team at least have the opportunity to have a superstar and have the opportunity to be a championship contender. That’s the goal of every team but now the quality of players, true franchise players, is less than what it was.”
Make sure to read today’s edition of the NBA PM to hear the rest of HOOPSWORLD’s extensive sit down with Hakeem Olajuwon, where he talks about the difference between franchise players and superstars, the growth of international basketball, and his feelings on current pros coming to him for help.
Non-First Rounders Sticking: Every player who declares for the NBA Draft has hopes of being one of the top 30 selections and with good reason. First-round picks receive guaranteed contracts, giving them security for at least the next two years. They are also subject to a higher pay scale. The top overall pick garners just over $4 million his first year and it steadily declines to just shy of a million for the 30th pick. Make no mistake about it, being a first round pick is where it’s at for draft prospects.
However, falling outside of the top 30, or even top 60 for that matter, is actually not all that bad considering the benefits missed out on. Year in and year out it’s proven that there are more than just 30 good future pros in a draft class; players who were passed on in the first round frequently show that they were actually more than deserving of being chosen there.
As of right now, the 2012 rookie class will consist of 16 second-round picks and five undrafted free agents: Jeff Taylor (#31, Charlotte Bobcats), Bernard James (#33, Dallas Mavericks), Jae Crowder (#34, Dallas Mavericks), Draymond Green (#35, Golden State Warriors), Orlando Johnson (#36, Indiana Pacers), Quincy Acy (#37, Toronto Raptors), Quincy Miller (#38, Denver Nuggets), Khris Middleton (#39, Detroit Pistons), Will Barton (#40, Portland Trail Blazers), Tyshawn Taylor (Brooklyn Nets, #41), Doron Lamb (#42, Milwaukee Bucks), Mike Scott (#43, Atlanta Hawks), Kim English (#44, Detroit Pistons), Darius Miller (#46, New Orleans Hornets), Kyle O’Quinn (#49, Orlando Magic), Kris Joseph (#51, Boston Celtics), Tornike Shengelia (#54, Brooklyn Nets), Maalik Wayans (Undrafted, Philadelphia 76ers), Michael Eric (Undrafted, Cleveland Cavaliers), Chris Smith (Undrafted, New York Knicks), Hollis Thompson (Undrafted, Oklahoma City Thunder), and Kent Bazemore (Golden State Warriors).
Of those 21 players, only Joseph and the undrafted free agents have contracts that aren’t fully guaranteed for the first year (note: the details of Darius Miller, Quincy Miller, and Scott’s contracts are not available yet since they were recently signed, but they are expected to remain on their respective team’s rosters for the entire season).
Although these players lack the security that the first-round picks have, they have a shorter road to a bigger payday. Take the case of Philadelphia 76ers forward Lavoy Allen for example. Allen, who was the 50th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, made $473,000 last season. After coming on strong late in the year and showing that he is far better than your typical 50th overall selection, the Sixers rewarded him this off-season with a new two-year contract worth $6 million that has a qualifying offer for the third year of $3.8 million. That has Allen making more than everyone other than the top four picks from his draft class next season.
Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin is another great example who should give non-first rounders great motivation to work hard and keep at it. He went completely undrafted in 2010. After two years of bouncing around on partially guaranteed contracts that had him liable to be cut at any moment, he exploded when given the opportunity in New York and earned a big contract from the Rockets this summer as a result. Next season he’ll rake in $5 million, while John Wall, the top pick in 2011, will be making $5.9 million. Wall’s career earnings should easily top Lin’s once it’s all said and done, but it’s remarkable that Lin is in the same neighborhood as him over the next season just two years after going undrafted.
Odds are a couple players from the 2012 draft class will experience similar jumps as Allen and Lin did because it’s not about where you start in the league, it’s about what you do once you’re there.
Mexican League Wants Shaq: It has to be a little bitter sweet for the recently retired Shaquille O’Neal to see all of the hoopla and excitement over Dwight Howard, who he has publically feuded with on a couple of different occasions, joining his former team in the Los Angeles Lakers.
Just as that slap of reality is setting in, though, a league called to show O’Neal that his basketball skills are still wanted somewhere.
Sergio Ganem, the president of Fuerza Regia, has reached out to the future Hall of Famer in hopes of getting him to play in a couple of games in October. Ganem has developed a reputation for bringing in high-profile players who are more of a draw because of their names, not their games.
Unless the Mexican League is willing to change their rules to playing just halfcourt and making three seconds in the key legal, don’t expect O’Neal to accept his invitation. He’s a very proud man who has nothing left to prove on the basketball court. He’ll forever be known as one of best centers to ever play the game; many will argue that there was no better. There’s no incentive for him to play in his current condition against the talent level he’d be facing there. It would be an insult to his former self.
O’Neal’s time would be better spent working on his new career in broadcasting. At times last year he stuck out like a sore thumb alongside the award-winning Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, and Kenny Smith on TNT’s Inside the NBA. That’s where his focus should be.
NBA Chats: There are two chats on tap today featuring myself at 11 am est, followed by salary cap guru Larry Coon at 3 pm est. As always you can checkout our entire upcoming chat schedule along with our previous chats list.