Wednesday, October 13, 1999
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 37

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Rockets break camp, begin preseason tonight against Sonics

By Jason Caesar Consolacion
Houston Rockets Basketball

After going through two weeks of training camp, the Houston Rockets will begin preseason play tonight when they face the rival Seattle Supersonics at Key Arena in Seattle.

The two weeks of training camp have been quite a blessing for the Rockets, especially since last season's training camp that preceded the shortened 50-game season lasted all of two days.

Photo courtesy of the Houston Astros

Charles Barkley, who averaged 16.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists last season, said he believes that this year's Rockets team has a lot of depth and is full of many surprises.

Training Camp '99 was definitely necessary for the Rockets, who are welcoming 10 new players to the team this year.

Joining Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Cuttino Mobley, Matt Maloney, Matt Bullard and Bryce Drew are newcomers Kelvin Cato, Carlos Rogers, Don MacLean, Kenny Thomas, Tony Massenburg, Stacey Augmon, Walt Williams, Shandon Anderson and rookies Thomas Hamilton and Steve Francis.

Hakeem Olajuwan

Needless to say, head coach Rudy Tomjanovich wanted to have his team spend extra time together, so he opted to hold training camp in Austin this year as opposed to Houston's Westside Tennis Club.

The move paid off. Not only did the players get acquainted with each other on the court, but they also got to know each other off the court.

"I wanted more than anything to get these players together off the court," Tomjanovich said. "The more time they spend together doing non-basketball stuff, the better. These players are so talented that the on-the-court stuff will come naturally."

Last season, a season that came to a disastrous end two weeks ago, the lack of training camp led the Rockets to a 31-19 record, a handful of bickering from the newly-acquired Scottie Pippen, a first-round exit at the hands of the young and immature Los Angeles Lakers, rumors of a trade that would have sent Olajuwon to Toronto, Pippen's "demand" to be traded to the Lakers, and finally, the war of words between Pippen and Barkley leading to the Oct. 2 trade that sent Pippen to Portland.

In an attempt to put all of that aside, Tomjanovich said he felt holding training camp away from home was exactly what the doctor ordered.

"It's been great out here," Barkley said. "I'm having so much fun. Dream (Olajuwon) and I have had a lot of fun with these new guys. Steve and Shandon have turned out to be great additions."

Ironically, that wouldn't have been the case if Francis and Anderson were additions to early Rockets teams. The two were acquired this season for two reasons: to make the team better and to ignite the running game.

Tomjanovich has made a point throughout training camp of pushing his players to run the ball and speed up the pace, a trait that has not been evident on a regular basis for the Rockets during the past decade.

"They're emphasizing running," Maloney said. "It's early, but it definitely puts everyone's spirits high. If we came out and worked on defense the first days, everyone would be worn out. But there's a positive atmosphere, and there're good thoughts about this year."

"Everyone gets a chance to showcase skills in the open court," Anderson said. "That's going to keep everyone happy. At the same time, when we need a basket, we'll know we can go inside and work our way from there."

Francis, a slasher and quick scorer, and Anderson, another slasher and an effective post-up guard, will play major roles in the Rockets' new offensive scheme. The ball will still go down to Olajuwon and Barkley, but as opposed to dumping it down to the post 80 percent of the time, the Big Two will probably get less touches in the running game.

"That's fine with us," Barkley said. "Dream and I aren't 32 anymore. We're obviously past our prime. We want Shandon and Steve and Cuttino to get the touches. And they've been looking great in camp so far."

"With Steve and Matt (Maloney) running the point, and Shandon and myself on the wings, it's gonna be a lot of fun on the fast break," said Mobley, who is making the transition from point guard to shooting guard this season. "It's getting easier for me."

The Rockets' problems in the past have been centered around the fact that their stagnant offense has been too predictable. Teams have found ways to stop, or at least control, the post-up game of Olajuwon and Barkley. And the inside-outside game would only live and die with the three-pointer. The Rockets shot 37 percent from beyond the arc last year.

"Shandon Anderson and Steve Francis bring a lot more options to the table," Olajuwon said. "Shandon can score from all over the floor and Walt Williams can really shoot the ball (well). We have a lot of weapons. The way it looks right now, this is the best team I've ever played on."

That's saying a lot, considering Olajuwon was part of the Rockets' two championship teams.

This squad does look good on paper, but so did the teams from the last three years. The Rockets have always put great talent on the floor. Every year since 1997, they have had three future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup. Yet the furthest they've gone in the playoffs is a Game 6 loss in the Western Conference Finals against the Utah Jazz in 1997.

That team's starting lineup featured Olajuwon, Barkley, Maloney, Clyde Drexler and Mario Elie -- not a bad lineup, but it still wasn't enough for a championship.

This year's team still centers around the post-up games of Olajuwon and Barkley, but with the NBA's new rule changes taking effect this season, a lot more movement in the offense will be necessary. This year's squad has the tools to do that.

The new rules are as follows:

A defender may not make contact with his hand and/or forearms on an offensive player except below the free throw line extended.

A five-second rule mandates that a player must either shoot, pass or pick up his dribble within five seconds if he begins dribbling the ball with his back toward the basket below the free throw line extended. (This has been dubbed "The Charles Barkley/Mark Jackson Rule" because of Barkley's and Jackson's tendency to take their time in the post.)

The 24-second shot clock will be reset to 14 seconds if the violations listed below occur with less than 14 seconds remaining on the 24-second shot clock:

1.) A personal foul that does not result in free throw attempts.

2.) Kicking the ball or blocking the ball with any part of the leg.

3.) Punching the ball with a fist.

4.) An illegal defense violation that does not result in free throw attempts.

No illegal defense guidelines will apply to a player who is defending an offensive player who is positioned on the strong side of the court.

Tomjanovich has addressed the rule changes in camp.

"The new changes will definitely effect us," Tomjanovich said. "That's why we got guys like Steve Francis and Shandon Anderson and Walt Williams. These guys will help out Charles and Hakeem in the offense."

"I'm loving this team," Cato, who came to Rockets in the Pippen trade, said. "I'm loving the philosophy of this team. We'll go out there, run people into the dirt and win ballgames. I'm loving it. We've got a lot of scorers."

"We found out how deep this team is (during camp)," Barkley said. "I'm very impressed with the depth. It's going to be a fun season. We've got good guys, but I think everybody is surprised at the level of talent we have. "Everybody is impressed with Steve Francis and Shandon Anderson, but I think Carlos Rogers has been impressive. It's just been a pleasant surprise," he said.

The new-image Rockets will finally get to show other teams their new offense starting tonight in Seattle. The Sonics also have some new bodies on the squad, including Brent Barry, Greg Foster, Horace Grant, Vernon Maxwell and Chuck Person. The preseason is about getting acquainted with the new teams, and tonight will be no exception.

The game can be seen on television at 10 p.m. on Channel 39 and heard on the radio on AM 950 KPRC.

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