The case of Steve Francis

HOUSTON -- Steve Francis is on trial. While the consequences may not be as dire as those facing the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, it could mean a change in residence and status. As for his freedom, well, Francis has been watching that slip away for some time now.

For those who haven't paid attention to the Rockets since Francis made the cover of ESPN The Magazine, surrounded by the three-siren group called Destiny's Child, the Rockets have undergone a dramatic metamorphosis since the arrival of center Yao Ming and, a year later, coach Jeff Van Gundy. What was previously Francis' personal playground has gradually become a closely supervised piece of property in hopes of realizing its full value.
The question before the jury is whether or not said property can become a piece of prime real estate with Francis still on the premises. A question, Van Gundy says, "That will be answered by the playoffs."

There are, of course, those who believe the verdict is already in and Francis has been found guilty of not having the requisite skills or temperament to function in Van Gundy's inside-out, defensive-oriented system. Some point to his suspension for missing a team flight on Super Bowl weekend and the public sparring between he and Van Gundy over the team's tightly run offense as proof that the two can't get along and won't have to much longer. Others simply take the easiest but least rational route and point to Francis' regular-season statistics, which were down across the board.

"Too many times when the Rockets falter, people say it's Stevie's fault," Van Gundy says. "Steve has tried very hard. Not hard, very hard. And he's been very successful. Not successful, very successful."

Van Gundy appreciates that Francis became a star his first four seasons by playing a free-wheeling style but committed to playing a starkly different way this season, believing it would make the team better. It's a way that does not play to Francis' strengths, so, in the process, it has made him look worse. That's a huge sacrifice for any established star, but it has been made considerably more difficult for Van Gundy and Francis by those who read box scores and stat sheets to gauge a player's performance and then squawk that so-and-so is not "producing" or is having "a down year." What has been overlooked is that Francis, for the first time in his five-year career, led a team to a winning record and a playoff berth. And make no mistake -- he did lead them there, by virtue of playing a team-high 40-plus minutes a night and sacrificing some of his offense to exert more energy on defense.

"I hear it every day, all the time, about how Jeff is killing my game," Francis says. "Even players around the league ask, 'Yo, what's up?' But we've only gotten better. If it trashes my reputation as a scorer, so be it. I'm happy that I'm at this point, that I'm on a team still playing for something. 'Playoffs.' It's nice just to say it."

Before the playoffs started, Van Gundy said that Francis and Yao had demonstrated the requisite mutual respect to operate as the core of a championship contender, but both still have to prove they have the necessary toughness and discipline under postseason fire. Yao will get a longer chance to prove that because he's younger, skilled 7-foot-6 centers are rare and he demonstrated his potential in the final weeks of the regular season.

"He was making every big play and we played at a very high level," Van Gundy said. "He has poise and mental strength and I will take my chances with that kind of personality. If there are any negatives, they are far outweighed by the positives. Can he become one of the all-time greats? That will be answered by him and him alone."

The clock is ticking much louder for Francis. "Steve's not a young player anymore," Van Gundy said. "NBA careers fly by. It has to happen some time. At some point, you are what you are. But everybody told me how wild Latrell Sprewell was before I got him. I know he didn't like the coaching and the long walk-throughs but, at the moment of truth, he did his job, which is how we got to the Finals. And that's what it will come down to for Steve and every other player. In the playoffs, when it really matters, can you knock down two free throws or concentrate enough on a game plan to stick with it? That's what will decide everything."

So far, the latest evidence hasn't been in Francis' favor. While he made all the right moves to set up Jim Jackson for a potential game-winning shot in a 72-71 Game 1 loss, Francis also had seven turnovers and missed three of eight free throws. One turnover came on a no-look, over-the-shoulder pass to open the fourth quarter with the Rockets holding a 51-49 lead, the kind of play no championship-caliber player makes. He also inexplicably fouled Shaquille O'Neal in the backcourt with 90 seconds left, allowing the Lakers to trim a two-point lead to one without the clock moving.

The numbers were even more deceiving in Game 2, as Francis finished with a triple-double (18 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds) but reverted to his old style of a dozen behind-the-back, between-the-leg dribbles to set up his move, throwing the offense out of kilter in the second half and leading to a 98-84 loss.

Should the Rockets decide Francis isn't in their long-term plans, the question then comes down to how fast they feel compelled to move. Is it get-him-out-at-all-costs, even if it means getting back less talent, as the Celtics did with Antoine Walker? Or is it more like Rasheed Wallace in Portland, where the Trail Blazers waited until they had a deal they liked for the players it brought and the potential cap relief it promised?

No one denies the questions are out there. Van Gundy merely insists they haven't been answered yet. Just know the jury is deliberating, with fresh evidence arriving daily.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. Also, click here to send Ric a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.