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Before Lin, there was Maloney

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Before Jeremy Lin, there was the Rockets' Matt Maloney. Trust me on this one.

You can’t talk about the NBA these days without mentioning Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks’ sensation of a point guard whose inspiring story consists of being undrafted out of Harvard before being cut twice prior to landing as the mecca of basketball’s savior.

But about 12 years ago, the Rockets had their own Jeremy Lin in Matt Maloney. He, too, played the point guard position. He, too, was undrafted out of an Ivy League school, but Maloney plied his trade at the University of Pennsylvania, earning Ivy League Player of the Year in 1994-1995, before toiling in the underground world of the Continental Basketball Association in 1995-1996.

Maloney, too, was cut before catching on, ironically enough waived by the same Golden State Warriors in 1995 that waived Lin in December 2011.

How quickly we can forget players like Maloney – especially Rockets fans, considering his tremendous rookie year was the last time the team reached the conference finals – but his story is one worth reflecting back upon.

There are pundits out there who say that if Lin never puts on a pair of basketball shoes again, he will go down as one of the more memorable phenomenons to have ever graced a hardwood court. So I tell the story of Maloney knowing that tenure is not really necessary, especially considering Lin is in his second year, and Maloney made his mark immediately as a rookie for a team of greater demands.

In the 1996-1997 off-season, the Rockets had acquired Brent Price to be their starting point guard. Price, like his older brother Mark, was a deadeye shooter, calm ballhandler and wily floor leader. With him alongside Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the newly-acquired Charles Barkley, the Rockets saw themselves as behemoths in the Western Conference, and rightfully so. Price was expected to feast upon a slew of open looks on 3s due to the plethora of double teams Olajuwon, Barkley or Drexler were sure to encounter.

But Price hurt his knee that preseason, and suddenly Houston found itself in a quandary. They scoured the waiver wire and sought any avenue that could fix the situation. After all, a team with two power players and a dominant wing yet no point guard was hardly a team at all.

That’s when the legendary tale happened, when Barkley went up to coach Rudy Tomjanovich and recommended Maloney as the Rockets’ point guard. Barkley loved the 6-foot-3 Maloney’s moxie, and his ability to not turn the ball over and hit open 3s were exactly what they had seen in Price.

From there, the rest was history.

On a salary of $247,500 (the 10th highest on the Rockets that year), Maloney started all 82 games for the Rockets that rookie season. He averaged 9.4 points, 3.7 assists and two rebounds in 29 minutes per game. He also averaged almost as many steals (1.00) as turnovers (1.49). He shot 40.4 percent from 3 as a rookie, 14th best in the NBA, and led the Rockets with 154 3-pointers and 381 attempts, both franchise records for a rookie, and ranked fourth on the team in assists, fifth in steals and sixth in scoring.

He was named to the NBA All-Star’s Rookie game and would end up as an NBA All-Rookie second team selection.

But that’s not what made Maloney’s story remarkable. It was his play in the postseason that cemented his credibility, particularly in the first two rounds as NBA aficionados near and far desperately wished for a Rockets-Bulls Finals clash, with Olajuwon, Barkley and Drexler up against Jordan, Pippen and Rodman.

Against the likes of Stephon Marbury, Gary Payton and John Stockton that postseason, Maloney more than held his own, averaging 11.3 points and hitting a team-high 43 3s (on 39.8 percent shooting) while helping lead Houston to the Western Conference finals. Twice, he scored 26 points, in Game 3 against Marbury’s Timberwolves and Game 4 of Payton’s Sonics, causing headaches for fellow rookie Marbury and the veteran great Payton, who had found himself in the NBA Finals just the previous year.

Many Rockets fans, however, only remember Maloney for how Stockton lit him up in the conference finals. This is true. Unlike Payton or Marbury, Stockton had his way with the rookie, using every veteran trick in the book to easily win that matchup. It was no contest. Maloney just wasn’t ready for Stockton’s physicality and the Jazz’s intent to exploit that matchup to no end.

However, I blame this on the Rockets, who should have known that they had a team that could go deep in the playoffs, yet surely understood a true vet the likes of Stockton would be a bad mismatch against an undrafted rookie. Maloney’s backup was the grandfatherly Sedale Threatt, a midseason acquisition that pretty much did little to aid the point guard situation. Not only that, Tomjanovich made no adjustments in defending Stockton. Stockton averaged 20.5 points in the six-game series, four more than his average for the playoffs that year and six more than his season average. Maloney, on the other hand, averaged 6.5 points against the Jazz.

In spite of the fact that Stockton had his way with the Rockets no matter who was opposing him – ask Kenny Smith – this is what people remember Maloney most for. Not that he brilliantly salvaged a situation that could have exploded in the team’s face. But that a rookie fresh out of the CBA was exposed against a cagey future Hall of Famer. Houston should have worked all Maloney’s rookie season to acquire a competent veteran backup for insurance. They did get a veteran backup, but the competence had long eluded Threatt well before. To this day, I will never know why the Rockets went into the playoffs with more security at point guard, especially given how high the stakes were.

Interestingly enough, though, the Rockets apparently thought they were fine, still, going into the next season. In 1997-1998, Maloney again was the starting point guard and again led the Rockets in 3-pointers made and attempted. In 78 games, he averaged 8.6 points, 2.8 assists and 1.8 rebounds, though his 3-point percentage (36.4) dropped from the year before, mostly due because that was the year the NBA went back to 23-feet, 9-inches for 3s instead of the 22 feet it had been in previous years.

It also signaled the last run of the Rockets’ Big 3. They would fall to Utah – again – but this time in the first round in five games. The Rockets’ dynamic threesome simply wasn’t the same, particularly Drexler, who had a horrific Game 5 with 6 points on 1-for-13. Barkley missed Game 5 with an arm injury, and Olajuwon was never the same. In Game 5, he shot 7 of 19 and scored 15 points.

After that game, the Rockets as we knew them were no more. In the next season, the lockout campaign of 1999, Maloney played only 15 games, dealing with an assortment of injuries. Scottie Pippen was acquired via trade as a sort of replacement for the retired Drexler, but he and Barkley never got along, and Tomjanovich was intent on using the multi-talented Pippen as a 3-point shooter. It was a bad fit from the word ‘go,’ and Maloney and Pippen would not be wearing Houston uniforms the following season.

Maloney went on to play for two teams (Chicago and Atlanta) in three more seasons, but never came close to duplicating his initial strong years with the Rockets. In all, he averaged 7.4 points and 2.9 assists in 295 games, including 206 starts. He shot 37.2 percent from 3-point range, and remains in the Rockets’ record books in that category to this day.

I am a Matt Maloney fan. Always have been. I actually have a replica jersey of his, and I thought he was the ideal fit for the Rockets when he started his career in the Bayou City. His play against the Wolves and Sonics in the 1997 playoffs made me a believer. He came out of nowhere and was more than serviceable while teamed up with a Hall of Fame frontline. When I think of stories like Jeremy Lin’s, I think back to what Maloney accomplished. In fact, I would argue what Maloney accomplished is greater than what Lin is doing, though I will concede that Lin’s story is far from complete.

But Lin doesn’t have to worry about getting the ball to three Hall of Famers. Lin isn’t the floor leader for a team with championship expectations, as those Rockets were. Lin played college ball in an advanced area of scouting, in a golden age of technology. Teams and scouts and coaches simply whiffed on him. Maloney never had that advantage, and had to go to the CBA before getting recognized. He literally had to work from the ground up; then again, like Lin, I hardly feel sorry for someone with an Ivy League education.

Lin’s situation when Mike D’Antoni threw him into the starting lineup was one of absolutely no pressure. Maloney had all eyes on him from opening night at home against Sacramento.

This is not to say Lin’s story isn’t spectacular. I love the kid. I root for him harder than I’ve ever rooted for a non-Rocket. But at a time when remarkable underdog, from-the-depths-of-obscurity stories are being recounted, Rockets fans should look back upon Maloney, if not for that magical 1996-1997 season, when an undrafted point guard out of the Ivy League, by way of the CBA, had no business helping a team to a conference finals.

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