With it being 25 years since the Houston Rockets last won an NBA title, it’s good time to take a look back at H-town’s two title teams and decide which one was better.
- Kenny Smith
- Vernon Maxwell
- Robert Horry
- Otis Thorpe
- Hakeem Olajuwon
This Rockets squad was the culmination of years of hard work and frustration, a dam waiting to burst. Olajuwon had been working to get back to the NBA Finals since 1986, and Houston had been waiting for a champion since… well, forever.
The Rockets had officially turned the corner the year before, after years of mediocrity, only to lose to their arch-rival Seattle Supersonics in an overtime Game 7 in the Western Conference Semifinals. But all that loss did was crank up the pressure of that ready-to-burst dam even further.
The Rockets started the ‘93-’94 season 15-0, and then pushed it all the way to 22-1. Things began to level out, as the team hit an extended .500 stretch that put them at 32-11, and then the fates conspired to keep Houston on the right track.
New owner Les Alexander felt that the Rockets needed a legit three (he thought Horry was really a four masquerading as a three), and someone who could create a little extra offense off the dribble, so he swung a deal with the Detroit Pistons for Sean Elliott, sending both Horry and Bullard in return. Elliott failed his Houston physical due to a kidney condition, the trade was cancelled, and Horry returned to H-town a changed man.
Now more offensive-minded and confident, Horry turned out to be the piece the Rockets needed all along. Smith, Maxwell, and Thorpe all had great seasons, and Olajuwon tore through the league, winning the MVP award and Defensive Player of the Year, finishing with averages of 27.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 3.7 blocks, and 1.6 steals.
The Rockets went 26-13 after the failed Horry trade and snagged the second overall seed in the Western Conference. And after the top-seeded Sonics were upset in the first round by Dikembe Mutombo’s Denver Nuggets, the door swung wide open for the Rockets.
They then went on one of the more underrated runs in NBA Playoff history, showing off a wide variety of styles, at times showing off both their rugged, second-ranked team defense and an offense ran through Olajuwon that could light it up when needed, especially from beyond the arc.
In the first round, they took down the playoff-hardened Portland Trail Blazers, who despite featuring Clyde Drexler, simply had no answer on the inside for Hakeem, who finished the series averaging 34 points, 11 boards, 4.8 assists, 3.8 blocks, and 2.3 steals per game.
In the semifinals, they showed off their testicular fortitude and created a long-standing nickname in the process, responding from back-to-back blown 20-point leads to the Phoenix Suns to defeat the high-flying Charles Barkley-led squad in seven games, and they changed beat writer Fran Blinebury’s famous “Choke City” moniker into the now famous “Clutch City” name for turning around what seemed like certain defeat.
They then went on to out-work the John Stockton-Karl Malone Utah Jazz in five games in the Western Conference Finals, before cranking up the defensive pressure to out-muscle Patrick Ewing and the rough-and-tumble New York Knicks to bring home the title.
Olajuwon brought home Finals MVP, making him the only player in NBA history to win MVP, Finals MVP, and DPOTY in the same season. He finished the playoffs averaging 28.9 points, 11 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 4 blocks, and 1.7 steals.
As for the squad, they faced four very different opponents, with very different styles, all filled with all-time great players, and the Rockets took each team’s best punch before imposing their will.
This team doesn’t always get the historical credit it deserves because Olajuwon was their only real star and because Michael Jordan was off playing baseball (which ignores that the Rockets completely owned the Bulls in the early ‘90s) but it’s a testament both to Hakeem’s greatness (how many one-star teams win titles these days?) and the power of team chemistry, which these guys spent real time building both on and off the court.
It surprises me that this team isn’t more well-liked by those outside of Houston for what they accomplished.
- Kenny Smith
- Mario Elie
- Clyde Drexler
- Robert Horry
- Hakeem Olajuwon
- Sam Cassell
- Vernon Maxwell
- Carl Herrera
- Chucky Brown
- Pete Chilcutt
This final playoff starting lineup looked very different throughout a tumultuous year for the Rockets, who were trying to defend their title. It was uneven from the very beginning due to what Smith called “Fat Cat-itis”, and it led to multiple lineup changes, most notably the trade of Otis Thorpe to Portland in exchange for Drexler, as Houston’s season was spiraling down the tubes.
Vernon Maxwell also started 54 games before being asked to leave the team in the postseason after the famously hot-headed Mad Max blew up over his lack of playing time behind Drexler. Herrera was lost for the season after blowing out his knee, and Olajuwon missed 10 regular season games due to nagging injury.
With everything that this team went through, it’s one of the most — if not THE most improbable title team of all time.
They finished the year just 47-35, which was the 6th seed out West, limped into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak, and virtually no one gave them a shot at winning the title. Even Hakeem lost his MVP trophy to David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs (more on that later), and it seemed like the Rockets would be early-round fodder for the 60-win Jazz to open the playoffs.
But after going down 2-1 to Utah (it was still best-of-five days in the first round) the Rockets rallied behind Drexler and Olajuwon, who both scored 40-plus in Game 4 and 30-plus in Game 5, to upset the heavily favored Jazz. It was the added push from superstar Drexler, something the Rockets didn’t have the previous season, that was the difference in the series.
The Rockets then had another knock-down, drag-out series with the 59-win Phoenix Suns, re-affirming the “Clutch City” nickname by rallying from a 3-1 deficit to close out the Suns in Game 7 behind Mario Elie’s famed “Kiss of Death” shot.
What followed was the moment myself, and many others, knew the Rockets were destined for another title. After Robinson received his MVP trophy before the star of the Western Conference Finals, Olajuwon took it personally and went on an absolute rampage, playing the best ball of his career and showing the world he was still the MVP.
In what was perhaps the most serious evisceration of one all-time great to another in NBA history, Dream averaged 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5 assists, 4.2 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game in leading the Rockets to a 4-2 series win over the 62-win Spurs.
Dream kept it rolling the following series against Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic, another juggernaut squad that had won 57 regular season games. It was thought that their youth and athleticism might be too much for the Rockets to handle, but after Nick Anderson missed four consecutive game-winning free throws in Game 1, allowing Houston to steal the contest after being down 20 in the first half, Orlando’s heart was gone, and the Rockets rolled to a 4-0 series sweep.
Dream won his second consecutive Finals MVP, averaging 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals in the Finals, once again outplaying a veritable who’s who of 1990s superstars throughout the playoffs, and the Rockets defeated four teams that had won 57 or more games (including two 60-win squads) on their way to a second consecutive title.
So who wins this thing? We’re not asking which team was your favorite, but if these two title teams met head-to-head, who would come out victorious?
Olajuwon was at the absolute pinnacle of his offensive powers in ‘95, but he was a little bit better of a defender in ‘94, making the two versions of Dream wash each other out.
The biggest advantage for the ‘95 team was that they had Drexler. He was at the tail end of his prime by then, but he was still a superstar, and someone the Rockets could rely on in a pickle, especially if teams were focusing too much on Hakeem.
The biggest edge for the ‘94 team was depth. By the time the ‘95 squad team hit the playoffs, Max was AWOL, Herrera was on the shelf, OT was in Portland, Scott Brooks was in Dallas, and Bullard was playing in Greece.
The ‘94 team also brought Elie off the bench (he was a playoff starter in ‘95) and was just an overall deeper and more well-rounded squad. The ‘94 team was better on defense, while the ‘95 team was better offensively. There’s no doubt this thing is going seven games.
So while from top to bottom, the ‘94 team was technically the better squad on paper, I have a hard time betting against the ‘95 team while they were on that unprecedented roll. The squad from ‘94 would be the favorites and may even go up 3-1, but the boys from ‘95 beat everyone who was anyone in the ‘90s (remember, Jordan was back by then but couldn’t get his team past the same Magic that the Rockets swept), and they’d squeak one out against their former selves.
‘95 Rockets in seven.
Who ya got?
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