View Full Version : Texas' Big Three

11-25-2002, 08:36 PM
http://espn-i.starwave.com/@v=2002112517@/media/nba/2002/1125/photo/bigthree_ht.jpgIs Texas becoming the center of NBA hoops?

With these three, Texas fans can think big

By Marc Stein

The Mavericks haven't lost once in 13 games. Yao Ming went from bewildered rook to real thing in just 10 games, maybe taking the Rockets with him. Even the Spurs, sputtering by their recent standards, remain on course to win 53 games in what they could legitimately call a transitional year.

Add it all up, just a sixth into the season, and what's the scary summation?

Drop below the Texas Panhandle to find the NBA's future gold.

Making the playoffs might not be a problem for Houston, now that Yao Ming has arrived.
The Rockets' Yao-fueled rise last week simply crystalized what's coming, next season if not this one. Texas hasn't sent all three of its teams to the NBA playoffs since 1990, but the dry patch is going to end sooner rather than later, just when Californians southern and northern threatened to monopolize the league's power.

Houston remains iffy for the 2003 playoffs, with the Great Rookie Wall sure to beckon for Yao eventually and lots left to be done to fully integrate a big man into a franchise carried by little guys lately. Suddenly, though, you struggle to find anyone who thinks it won't happen for Rudy Tomjanovich and the Rockets after Yao rumbled for 19.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in four games last week while scarcely missing a shot.

Little wonder Shaquille O'Neal, known more for disparaging the competition, is already saying Yao "shall be The Man" someday. The Lakers and the Kings know they have company, as do the Spurs and Mavericks.

"As a staff, we love Houston's team," Dallas coach Don Nelson said. "They're going to be a bear for a long time."

Which means the whole state is going to be a forest.

"Yeah, but it doesn't concern me," Nelson said. "I think it's really healthy."

How healthy?

The Rockets have a potent (if smallish) backcourt and the center -- says Nelson's son, Donnie -- you'd have to take "over anyone except Shaq right now, based on potential." Yao isn't going to be another Hakeem Olajuwon, but then Dream never had a guard like Stevie Franchise (or even Cuttino Mobley) at his side. Yao, likewise, obviously isn't going to be another Shawn Bradley; if you're still wondering, Bradley didn't have a 30-point game until his third season. None of that, meanwhile, accounts for Eddie Griffin, a lanky and largely overlooked No. 7 pick who can stretch defenses and block shots and who, incidentally, is barely 20. Houston is aching to end its three-season playoff drought immediately, but the bigger short-term must is getting these guys to play together and trust each other. Rudy T.'s history with low-block players and Stevie F.'s hunger to win suggest all that's going to happen. Along with a new building, that should take care of the recent attendance drought as well.

The Mavericks are the league's new darlings, and not simply because of the 13-0 start ... or the fact they're doing this without two of their top five players (Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz) ... or the fact that the only three other teams in history with longer season-starting streaks reached the NBA Finals. Dallas already has a new building, and it's a loud one as opposed to those sterile new arenas in L.A. and Chicago. Filling it nightly is the league's only triumvirate of All-Stars (and almost All-Stars): Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley. This season, actually, all three might go to the midseason showcase. Now, granted, Dallas' zone defenses could certainly lose their mystique as teams see more of them. Plus Bradley, unlike Yao, hasn't convinced the majority that his November is his new norm. What we do know for sure, though, is that Mark Cuban won't let the Mavs collapse again, as seen for the bulk of the 1990s after the '80s glory days. We can't see Dallas leaving the 50-win set any time soon.

The Spurs might actually be better off than the other two Lone Star Staters, considering that 50-plus wins is their version of retooling on the fly. San Antonio also has a new arena, with a separate practice facility said to rival Cuban's. Both fold into a future so bright that Jason Kidd is thinking of voluntarily returning to the Shaq Conference as a free agent to join up with pal Tim Duncan over the summer. If they can't lure Kidd away from Jersey, the Spurs still have the ability to pursue the Clippers' Michael Olowokandi or Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal or anyone else attractive ... in addition to re-signing Duncan for the max. Who else can make that claim? In the interim, David Robinson seems to be reveling in the knowledge that this is his last season, as he reminded us again with 18 points and 17 rebounds in Sunday's loss to Seattle. If Robinson can stay healthy, and the all-world backcourt of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili finds some consistency, the Spurs could be a force in the '03 playoffs before they even get to next summer.

In the end, it's tough to judge which of the three teams has the greater good fortune. Only last week's winner was fairly clear.

"I thought it'd take him a year at least to feel comfortable," Don Nelson said, still wowed by Yao. "It's not going to take him that long."