Throughout the course of this frustrating season, the Houston Rockets have been allowing fans to pick their choices for the starting team of the decade beginning with the 1970s and continuing with the '80s, '90s and 2000s. They had all but one of their starting five for the 2000s on hand for their win over the woeful Golden State Warriors Thursday night, which, not surprisingly, was the starting squad for the second championship squad: Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Horry, Mario Elie, Clyde Drexler and Kenny Smith. Smith couldn't make the trip because he is working NCAA tourney games, appropriate considering a strong argument could be made that Sam Cassell was more deserving, but that's a different debate.
Despite struggles at various times over the life of the team's tenure in Houston, it didn't seem particularly difficult to choose the starters for a team of the `70s, `80s and `90s. They were building towards a couple of deep playoff runs in the `70s with players like Moses Malone and Mike Newlin. An aging Elvin Hayes was an easy pick considering his ties to the University of Houston. Then there are two of the most beloved figures in Houston sports history in Calvin Murphy and Rudy T.
In the `80s, the team reached the finals twice, losing to Boston both times, but the Twin Towers of Dream (then going by "Akeem") and Ralph Sampson, along with well-liked and talented forwards Robert Reid and Rodney McCray to go with drug-addict-turned-good-guy John Lucas, would have made easy oddsmakers in Vegas.
That brings us to the 2000s...
I've been fortunate (read: old) enough to witness all of the players on the winning all-decade teams, at least briefly. Admittedly, I don't recall much of Hayes, but the others were players I rooted for. But, since the late `90s -- and John Stockton's shot to best them in the 1997 Western Conference Finals -- the bloom is definitely off the rose. Since then, they have only made it out of the first-round playoffs once, losing to the Lakers in a tough seven-game series in 2009 they probably would have won had their lone uninjured star, Yao Ming, not suffered yet another in a series of injuries that ultimately derailed his career.
Still, when compared to the roller coaster of the `80s and the championships of the `90s -- even the promise of the `70s -- this is a team that has been adrift for more than a decade and coming up with a set of five players to represent mediocrity is both difficult and depressing, but the franchise started this whole thing, so let's do it.
The first four seem to me to be pretty easy. Yao and Tracy McGrady are the obvious first two selections. They represent the only team of the decade to make it out of the first round and they went to the playoffs four other times. Yao suffered from foot problems that have plagued players his size for a long time, and McGrady never could get beyond perpetual back problems and a generally distant and mopey personality. But they were the tandem the team built around for five or six years. The next two should also be fairly easy. Steve Francis, for a time, was Stevie Franchise. He only made it through half the decade with the team before being dealt to Orlando as part of the McGrady trade, but his highlight-reel dunks and early years paired with Yao were fun to watch. The other is Cuttino Mobley. Cat is well loved in Houston and had productive years with the team before being dealt with his pal, Francis. After the trade, neither ever fully reclaimed what they had in Houston.
The problem is choosing number five on that list. In all likelihood, it comes down to two players for two different reasons. The first and probably most obvious is Shane Battier who played five seasons with the Rockets before being shipped back to the team that drafted him, the Memphis Grizzlies. Battier was (and is) a good guy with a solid work ethic and is still the smartest guy on the floor most nights. He's personable and was a fan favorite. The Red Rowdy chant "Who's yo' daddy, Battier" is evidence enough of that.
But the wild card is Ron Artest. Artest is an enigmatic guy to say the least. From charging into the stands in Detroit in one of the worst examples of in-game violence in league history to his rap career to his eccentric nature -- he once tried to get on the Rockets' team bus in his underwear -- he was and is a character in every sense of the word, but fans did truly love him and he was immediately a part of the "big three" that included Yao and McGrady when he joined the team.
There are a handful of outliers like Bobby Sura, Jon Barry and Mike James, who each had their moments as well, but the fact that they are even mentioned at all is recognition of the fact that the first decade of this millennium was a tough one for what was once the most popular franchise in the city.
Daryl Morey and company better get to work fixing it soon or the all-decade team of the 2010s is going to be even tougher to choose than the last decade.