One of their superstars is showing his age, another will be coaching college basketball next season and another might not even be in uniform when the playoffs begin Thursday.
After winning NBA titles in 1994 and '95 and advancing to the Western Conference Finals last season, the Houston Rockets have fallen from the ranks of the league's elite teams and can't seem to get up.The Rockets just finished an injury-plagued 41-41 regular season that leaves them limping into a first-round playoff series against the team with NBA's best record, the Utah Jazz. With Hakeem Olajuwon having missed nearly half the season, Charles Barkley recovering from a hernia and the top eight players combining to miss 82 games because of injury, a run similar to the 1995 run in which they beat the teams with the four best records to win the NBA title seems improbable.
And if the Rockets don't have one more run in them, they probably have come to the end of the run.
"I think about '95 all the time as a motivational point," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who has only Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Mario Elie and Charles Jones remaining from the team that upset Utah, Phoenix, San Antonio and Orlando in 1995.
"That's about all we have to push us at this point. We're backed into a corner in a situation where this could be it. Sometimes, that's the best situation to be in."
Not likely, however.
For starters, Rockets power forward Charles Barkley is doubtful for Game 1 of the best-of-five series against Utah because of a hernia he aggravated April 10 against Sacramento. Barkley also aggravated the condition in November and when Mavericks center Shawn Bradley plowed over him during a game March 1.
Barkley didn't practice Monday and said he wouldn't have been able to play Monday if Game 1 had been scheduled then.
"I don't think I'm going to be able to go (in Game 1), and I don't know how much I'm going to be able to help the team going into the playoffs," Barkley said. "I'm going to try to play, but it feels like somebody has a string that goes from the top of my stomach to my knee. And then when it gets worse, it turns into a sharp pain."
And Barkley didn't have a real positive perspective on the situation to begin with. In January, he said he was giving up drinking because he thought it was affecting his play. When Olajuwon came back from missing the first 35 games, Barkley volunteered to be the sixth man so Kevin Willis and his 16.1 points per game could stay in the starting lineup.
But he's not so sure those changes have helped.
"I quit drinking to help the team, but it didn't help," he explained. "I gave up my starting spot to help the team, and that didn't help. I tried to just fit in, and that didn't help.
"Nothing is helping this team. I might as well start drinking, starting and shooting off at the mouth like my old self."
If Barkley doesn't play, Willis or Olajuwon will be matched against Jazz forward Karl Malone, who is coming off a better season than the one he had last year when he was the NBA's most valuable player. Jones, 41, also has been put on the Rockets' playoff roster to lend support up front if Barkley is unable to play.
"I wish we were in better condition, but I know how this game goes," Tomjanovich said. "You go out and do the right things and good things happen.
"The main deal that I talked to our guys today about is believing that we can win. Every one of our guys actually believe that we can beat these guys if we do the right things. It's not going to be easy, because they're a versatile team and they do a lot of different things."
To win, Houston must find a way to contain Jazz point guard John Stockton, who always has his way with his Rockets counterparts Matt Maloney and Brent Price. Also, Stockton and Malone run the league's most coveted pick-and-roll play.
"One of the areas that really has been a thorn in our side is playing the pick-and-roll and doing a good job, and then giving up offensive rebounds," Tomjanovich said. "But we do have talent, and we have beaten good teams. But we have had some disappointing games, too."
As for Olajuwon, he has showed signs of the wear and tear of carrying the Rockets for 14 seasons. He is averaging 16.4 points per game, his lowest ever and down almost seven points from last year's average.
Meanwhile, Drexler has announced that he will retire after this season to coach the University of Houston men's basketball team. And he's the one leading the team in scoring at 18.4 points per game.
Still, the Rockets hope Drexler, Barkley and Olajuwon can muster enough energy to make one last run at the NBA title. However, before the Rockets can even envision winning the championship this year, they must first get past a Utah team that swept them, 4-0, this season.