As Steve Francis sits on the sidelines during tonight's game against the Mavericks, stretching out his legs for imaginary minutes he wants to play, one has to wonder...what happened?
When Francis was unceremoniously traded with Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato for Tracy McGrady, Juwan Howard and Tyronn Lue in June 2004, the Rockets were obviously wanting to move in another direction. Francis had run afoul of the organization by missing plane rides, tardiness and general locker room cancery (yes, I know that's a made up phrase). Francis was unhappy as he had established roots in Houston and was not interested in moving into a rebuilding project after leading the Rockets to the playoffs for the first time in five years. But, he begrudgingly moved on to Orlando, which was likely some karmic payback for forcing his way into Houston in the first place.
After a season and a half of putting up some solid stat lines, but getting few wins, he was shipped off to the Knickerbocker circus to pair up with another overrated point guard, Stephon Marbury. Averaging career lows in points, rebounds, assists and steals over 68 total games, Francis looked done. But why? He's only two years older than McGrady, who despite his chronic back problems is one of the best players in the league. Francis just turned 30, so it isn't like he's over the hill by any stretch despite a few injuries.
My theory is that once he left the confines of Houston, where he always felt free to run wild, he started to change mentally. Instead of feeling like the identity of the franchise and the player that fans would stick with through thick and thin, he was now the best player on a team with no expectations. He was just a stop-gap solution for Orlando. Then, when they finally found someone to dump his contract to (New York, who else?), they shipped him out for expiring contracts and youngsters, thus solidifying Orlando's rebuild. As it ended up, Francis moved to an even worse situation. Not only was he no longer the alpha dog on his team, he was 3rd, or maybe 4th string in importance. Enter Larry Brown the next season, the stodgiest of old timers, into the equation and Francis could no longer be Francis. He played second banana to Marbury, and Brown wasn't having him do any of the crazy stuff he always used to do when he was with Houston or Orlando.
Now, he has come full circle. He's back with a Houston team that has moved on without him. No longer is Yao throwing him alley-oops and vice versa. He has yet to play one minute so far in the Rocket's promising start of the regular season. Yao has a new best friend, and one who is a far superior player. The irony of it all is that Houston's new coach Rick Adelman employs a system that would probably allow Francis to bloom if only he could be trusted with the ball in his hand.
So, the pathetic story of Steve Francis continues. A selfish player sits on the bench and mopes, and Houston keeps on running. The shame in all of it for Francis is that he came back partially expecting to jump right back in where he left off. The only thing is, he doesn't seem particularly wanted. And that is what makes him most miserable of all.
-Scooter Hendon, Hoops Nerd