The next man up on our list of Rockets “Could Have Beens” is going to resonate deeply with a lot of us.
Steve Francis. “The Franchise.”
Not only will Francis be remembered for what he could have been as a Rocket, but also for what he was.
His career began in an odd way- one that makes you feel like he was almost destined to bust. With the second overall pick in the 1999 NBA draft, the Vancouver Grizzles selected Francis out of Maryland. The only issue was that Francis didn’t want to go to Vancouver.
“I damn near cried when I got taken by the Grizzlies at No. 2,” Francis wrote in his March 2018 story to The Players Tribune. “I was not about to go up to freezing-ass Canada, so far away from my family, when they were about to move the franchise anyway.”
An aging Rockets team saw their opportunity to add a possible cornerstone player, and they took it. The trade for Francis was a massive three-team, 11-player trade— the largest trade in the NBA at the time.
Francis couldn’t have come at a better time for Houston. That year, Scottie Pippen was traded to Portland, Hakeem Olajuwon, 37, played only 44 games, and Charles Barkley, 36, would play only 20 games in the final season of his career.
On the other end, Francis was the furthest thing from a bust. He had a very lucrative rookie season.
Defined by his play-making ability, killer crossovers, and uber athleticism, Francis averaged 18 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals in his first year. This would eventually earn him Co-Rookie of the Year honors with Elton Brand.
Often forgotten, and seldom talked about, that year, Francis was actually the runner up in the legendary 2000 Dunk Contest and not cousin-teammate of Vince Carter’s, Tracy McGrady (like so many make it seem).
To this day, some in Houston still say that Francis was robbed.
Francis had a very successful career during his first stint in Houston.
His stats were something to be in awe with. In his second season, he averaged 19.9 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds.
In ‘01-’02, despite playing only 57 games due to injury in his third season, he averaged an astounding 21-6-6 and earned his first All-Star nod.
In the ‘02-’03 season, help finally arrived for Francis when the Rockets drafted Yao Ming. Francis again averaged 21-6-6 to be selected as a starter in the All-Star game along with his teammate Yao.
At the end of the ‘03 season, Rudy Tomjanovich stepped down as the head coach, and the team brought in Jeff Van Gundy. Francis didn’t flourish under Van Gundy’s style, and his stats dropped significantly, averaging only 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists, but he still grabbed a third All-Star selection. For the first time in his career, Francis went to the playoffs, but was bounced by the Lakers in the first round.
Houston searched for a new direction at the end of the 2004 season, with Francis not gelling with his coach, and they opted to trade Francis, along with Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato, to Orlando for Tracy McGrady and others. Francis was not happy at all with the trade.
“That crushed me,” Francis wrote. “It’s not even worth talking about those Magic years...”
While he did have statistical success his first year in Orlando (21.3 PPG, 7 APG, 5.8 RPG), Francis wasn’t happy with the organization after they traded away his best friend Cuttino Mobley in the middle of the season, and Orlando eventually missed the playoffs.
This inevitably marked the decline of Francis’ career. His stats dropped significantly the next season and half he was in Orlando, until he was traded away to the Knicks on Feb. 22, 2006.
In New York, it was the same story with Francis, but now he dealt with injuries, greatly impacting his performance and playing time. He would rather forget it all.
“That part of the story is like the end of Goodfellas, when everybody’s getting jammed up and ratting on each other and they’re driving around looking up in the sky for police helicopters.”
Traded once more during draft night in 2007, Francis landed in Portland where he was eventually bought out and signed with Houston. He even turned down a larger contract with the Heat to sign with his former team.
He had come home.
Despite the great story and heartfelt return, Francis didn’t do much with Houston. He played only 10 games that season, averaging five points, three assists, and two rebounds before undergoing season-ending surgery.
He did give us this gem, though.
Teenage-me definitely needed to see a crazy Steve Francis-as-a-Rocket highlight in my lifetime.
Francis would never see an NBA court again after the ‘07-’08 season. In an ironic twist of fate, he was traded by the Rockets to the Memphis Grizzlies in ‘08-’09, and eventually waived later that season. He played four games in China in 2010 for the Beijing Ducks before returning home, retiring from professional basketball for good.
Steve Francis didn’t have the best personal life after basketball, including getting choked by Stephen Jackson at a night club, but we’re not going to talk about that.
In his own right, he is a Houston legend. Francis was dynamic, explosive, and all-around fun to watch. He’s often forgotten in the discussion of the Derrick Roses and Russell Westbrooks of the world— the crazy athletic point guard. Yes, he could have been more had he not been traded and had balky knees later in his career not robbed him of his athleticism, but what he was was great too.
Ultimately, despite all the stats, he played in only five total postseason games in his career (not five series, just five games), and that earns him a spot on our “Could Have Beens” list.
Also, he’ll always be remembered as the epitome of this classic Rockets look.
He’s The Franchise.