It became unfashionable last season to refer to the Houston Rockets as "Team Hakeem" after the Rockets posted a 15-10 record while All-Star center Hakeem Olajuwon was sidelined with an eye injury.
With backup center Larry Smith filling in admirably, the Rockets finished 52-30 and earned Don Chaney Coach of the Year honors.
But the Rockets, who entertain the Washington Bullets tonight, discovered this season that Olajuwon really is indispensable.
With Olajuwon healthy, the Rockets jumped out to a 7-2 start and suddenly were viewed as a legitimate title contender in the Western Conference. But Olajuwon experienced an irregular heartbeat Nov. 20 and was hospitalized.
He was released from the hospital five days later and placed on medication. Further tests were taken earlier this month, but doctors finally gave Olajuwon a clean bill of health.
In the 11 games without his average contribution of 23 points and 14 rebounds, the Rockets were 4-7, just another struggling team. Their problems were magnified when Smith strained ligaments in his left knee Nov. 23; he isn't expected back until January.
But with Olajuwon once more dominating the middle with his scoring, rebounding and intimidating presence, the Rockets appear ready to roll again. He has also gained respect for the offensive abilities of his teammates and no longer forces up low-percentage shots.
Said Chaney: "Hakeem is a completely different player from a year ago. It's hard for a guy who plays instinctively like he does to change, but he has. He's passing the ball around, looking for the open man and doing all the little things he has to do for us to win."
Olajuwon has been encouraged by the maturing of the Rockets' quick backcourt duo of Vernon Maxwell and Kenny Smith and the continued development of strong forward Otis Thorpe.
"We're all sharing responsibility now. It is not one man, but 12 who have confidence in their games," he told the Houston Chronicle.
"Basketball is a game of free-lancing. You can't always be structured. What I see is our team doing more of what comes naturally, good players using their abilities, not just following a diagram. That's what the best teams do."
But the Rockets still lean heavily on their 7-foot, 260-pound leader, who is one of the most dominant big men in the NBA.
"Hakeem is always going to be the focal point of our defense," said Maxwell. "He makes guys on the other team change their shots. When Hakeem goes on defense, he makes us go on offense. He's still the guy who makes this team go."
When the Rockets are at full strength, they cause rival coaches to shudder because of their exceptional athleticism.
"The Rockets are on the brink of becoming a great team," said New York Knicks coach Pat Riley. "Almost 70 percent of their offense comes off pick-and-rolls, and with Maxwell, [Kenny] Smith and Sleepy Floyd, they're really good at it.
"Like all teams ready to break through to another level, it comes with understanding how to win, and the Rockets did that last year. Physically, they're are not many teams better."
NOTES: Washington plays 4 games in 5 nights, traveling to San Antonio tomorrow, and concluding the trip with games in Dallas, Friday, and in Denver, Saturday night. The Bullets have won twice as many on the road (4) as at home. They do not play again at the Capital Centre until Dec. 27, when the Rockets pay a visit.
Opponent: Houston Rockets
Site: The Summit, Houston, 8:30
TV: Channel 20
Radio: WTOP (1500 AM)
Outlook: This is the start of a 4-game road trip for the Bullets, who have lost 7 straight. F. Harvey Grant, who missed the past 2 games with a sprained lower back, made the trip, but is listed as questionable. Rookie G LaBradford Smith (sprained ankle) must sit out 1 more game on the injured list, but could rejoin the team in San Antonio tomorrow, which would necessitate a player being cut. The Rockets are 11-9 after starting the season 7-2. C Hakeem Olajuwon leads team in scoring (23.2) and rebounding (14.0). G Vernon Maxwell is averaging 19.4 points. F Larry Smith is out indefinitely with a knee injury. The Bullets and Rockets split 2 games last season.