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Forgotten Weapon Waiting In Reserve For Rockets?

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There is a lot to be excited about for basketball fans in Houston these days.  Or plenty to be nervous about, depending on your feelings about Ron Artest. 

Yao Ming is expected to return to action fully healthy.  Renowned high-octane offensive coach Rick Adelman will be back on the sidelines for his second season in Houston after helping the Rockets to boast the league's second-rated defense in his first campaign with the team.  Shane Battier comes off one of the best seasons of his career and a break-out showing as a lock-down perimeter defender.  Tracy McGrady is hungrier than ever for a trip out of the first round.  And Artest, nut that he is, has come to town and presumably brought his fairly sizable basketball acumen with him.

So it's easy to forget amongst all those factors that the Rockets could have yet another dangerous piece waiting in the wings.

He is injury-prone.  He seems to have aged quickly as a basketball player.  But Steve Francis says he is committed to getting back on the floor, and if the 31-year-old can do that, he could be a big bonus for the Rockets.

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Having played just 54 games over the last two seasons, Francis is no guarantee to return at full strength or to stay healthy if he does.  But in a recent interview with Jason Friedman of the Rockets' web site, Francis predicted that he will be able to get back on the court in three to four weeks and that he expects to eventually get back to 100 percent health in time to be a part of the Rockets for much of this season.

For a team with very little invested in him, that has to be an encouraging sign.  Francis has just this season and $2.63 million left on his deal, a miniscule sum compared to the $15-plus million he made in his last season with the Knicks two years ago.  The Rockets are also stable in the backcourt.  Incumbent Rafer Alston remains the starter, and the team is very excited about youngster Aaron Brooks off the bench.  Having veteran reserve two-guards who can also handle the ball in Brent Barry and Luther Head doesn't hurt either.

So there isn't a need for the one they once called Franchise.  This team can get stops, and, at full health, the Rockets have plenty of capability to score the basketball.  That's particularly true with the addition of their third 20-point-per-game scorer in Artest.

But this team was still just 17th in offensive efficiency last year, and given its stars' tendency to occasionally succumb to injuries, it couldn't hurt to have some extra offensive punch available off the bench.  Though Francis has been rather inefficient throughout his career, it bears remembering that this is a guy who has averaged better than 18 points and 6 assists per game for his career, and that's despite his being quite under-productive over his last three seasons.  

As a 31-year-old reserve, Francis won't be expected to replicate that sort of production.  But if healthy, he is the sort of guy who could come off the bench and fill up the stat sheet for the Rockets in bunches.  He is still a top-of-the-line foul shooter, and if he can use his first step to get in the lane effectively, he'll be a threat both to get himself to the tin and the line and to use his once-dynamic playmaking skills to distribute the ball to a talented group of teammates in Houston.  This is a guy who can serve either as a facilitator or a source of instant offense.  After falling on tough times over his last few seasons, it's hard to imagine he'll be anything but thankful to have a shot with a contending team in the city where he began his playing days.

Or Steve Francis could just as well fail to stay healthy again and not help this team.  But the Rockets are going to be plenty good regardless, and if they can get a fully functioning Stevie Franchise back, they'll only be that much better.  That team is going to make matters quite interesting with the Spurs and Hornets atop the Midwest Division in the season to come.

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