HOUSTON — Here along the bayou, where the mosquitoes are sometimes as big as birds, spring is turning to summer. Right on schedule, the Houston Rockets are taking a big fall.
Seasons change and so do dynasties, or at least reasonable facsimiles of them, which is what the Rockets appeared to be at just about this time a year ago.
But there is trouble here. There is losing. There may be only one more game between them and the end of the season. Elimination could be delivered tonight at The Summit by the Seattle SuperSonics, who hold a 3-1 lead over the Rockets in their National Basketball Assn. Western Conference semifinal series.
Right now, there is a shadow creeping over one half of the Twin Towers, who isn't sure he wants to be back next season. Then there is the backcourt, which has been a weakness since Lewis Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins were kicked out of the league for using cocaine.
Not surprisingly, there is also second-guessing. What more could a coach do?
"I don't know," Rocket Coach Bill Fitch said. "We've kept all sharp objects out of the locker room."
The same team that took the Lakers out of the playoffs last year in a ridiculously easy five-game mash job, the very same group that took Boston to six games in a difficult championship series for the Celtics, that same Rocket team is about to be sent packing about a month sooner than last season.
Actually, it's not the same team at all. Five of the Rockets who were in the championship series against Boston are no longer on the team. That doesn't count point guard John Lucas, who had been waived in March as a two-time loser to cocaine.
Lucas, Lloyd and Wiggins left the backcourt in shambles. General Manager Ray Patterson turned to veteran Alan Leavell, a Rocket free agent who was playing in a local church league and signed him. Leavell and 33-year-old Robert Reid, who had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in December, are the Rockets' starting guards.
"With Lloyd and Wiggins playing against Seattle, this series would be over," Patterson said. "You can't take three guys off your team in 10 months, get nothing in return, and have a ballclub. We're as strong as anybody up front. Obviously, it's the backcourt that's our problem."
Reid is averaging 41.5 minutes and Leavell is averaging 40.5 minutes in basically a two-man guard rotation against the SuperSonics' five-player shuttle of Dale Ellis, Nate McMillan, Danny Young, Eddie Johnson and Kevin Williams.
Ellis is running Reid ragged. He has had games of 30, 34 and 32 points so far in the series, and Reid doesn't think it's going to last very much longer either unless he plays better defense.
"I ain't been doing nothing," Reid said. "I've been treating him too nice. I've been playing doodly squat. We don't have our backs against the wall, we got our butts sticking out the window of a fast-moving car."
Patterson said that in view of everything that's happened to the Rockets, beginning with the departure of Lucas, he thinks the team has gone about as far as anyone had a right to expect this season.
But without a No. 1 draft choice, which went to the Clippers for Cedric Maxwell, the Rockets' chances to get better seem limited to trades or free agent signings.
"We won't stand pat," Patterson said. "We need guards. Period."
And as soon as the season ends, Patterson and Fitch also have four free agents of their own to decide about--Ralph Sampson, Rodney McCray, Reid and Leavell. Sampson is the top priority, according to the Rockets, who recently made him a 10-year offer for a reported $20 million.
Patterson told reporters that negotiations with Sampson and his agent, Gene Perry, were progressing smoothly. Sampson, however, said that he is not close to signing and raised the possibility that he may not be back in Houston after this season.
"Ray made himself look silly when he said that I was nearly signed," Sampson said. "I told him after the season I'd make a decision and that decision now is that I will be a free agent.
"I like Houston a lot, but I could pack my bags and be somewhere else tomorrow. I know what my worth is. I've played in All-Star games and talked to people. I'm not stupid.
"With no collective bargaining agreement, I'm like a rookie again. There are going to be new (bargaining) rules, maybe with no right of first refusal. So who knows?"
Who indeed? Patterson would not answer any questions about Sampson, but said he wanted to make a statement about him.
"We will never trade Ralph Sampson--period, period, period, period, period," Patterson said.
Jim Petersen, a 6-foot 10-inch forward in his third season, may have to go instead so that the Rockets can get a guard, but Sampson thinks the Rockets blew it by not making a move for one when they had chances. Sampson also thought Lucas should have been brought back.
"They didn't want him and business-wise, I don't think it was a good move because of his capabilities," Sampson said. "So you see him up in Milwaukee, playing right now."