The 2021 Houston Rockets just had arguably the worst season in franchise history, going 17-55 over 72 games and posting the first sub-.500 record since 2006, when they went 34-48.
In turn, that 34-48 season was itself an aberration for a franchise that, in its 54-year history since entering the league first as the San Diego Rockets in 1967 and then moving to Houston for the 1971-72 campaign (this coming season is the 50th anniversary, so enjoy it, Rockets fans), has been a perennial playoff fixture.
Indeed, since 1974, the team has not suffered more than four consecutive years out of the playoffs, and has rarely failed to make the playoffs even twice in a row. The last time the team failed to win 20 games in a season, in 1983 (when they went 14-68, their worst record ever), they were in the NBA Finals three years later, thanks to drafting Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon in those two consecutive years they missed the postseason.
It is that second man who would be instrumental in the franchise’s rise a decade later to its greatest height, the two titles in 1994 and ’95 during the Jordan interregnum when His Airness was off playing baseball. And the first of those two championships stands as the greatest season in Rockets franchise history. So let’s have a look at what made them so great, shall we?
The On-Court Record
The ’94 Rockets posted the second-best record in the West at 58-24, beating the San Antonio Spurs by three games for the Midwest Division crown and standing only behind the 63-19 Seattle SuperSonics for the top spot.
That proved to be particularly good for Houston when Seattle infamously lost in the first round, the first 1 seed to lose to an 8 seed under the NBA’s 16-team playoff format, when the Denver Nuggets triumphantly conquered the Emerald City on May 7.
This, in turn, allowed the 5 seed Utah Jazz something of a free ride through the second round after they had knocked off the Spurs in the opening series, which meant Houston had home court advantage in the conference finals.
And this, the next domino to fall, set up one of the weirdest NBA Finals in history against the New York Knicks.
Besides one of the worst individual chokes in Finals history—John Starks going 0-of-11 from 3-point land and 2-of-18 overall in Game 7—this was also a series that featured Game 5, on June 17, getting overshadowed by the most iconic low-speed police chase on a highway not just in California history, but quite possibly in American history, as O.J. Simpson and his Ford Bronco seized the headlines. Not since Game 3 of the 1989 World Series in baseball had been postponed due to earthquake had outside events so thoroughly mooted the importance of a sports championship. And quite possibly nothing will top it again short of a supervolcano blowing its top on Super Bowl Sunday.
Incidentally, it’s funny how epic chokes did those Rockets a favor in those days—one need only remember Nick Anderson getting the yips at the free throw line a year later to see just how much the basketball gods turned into tricksters.
The upshot of all this is that Houston won the Finals in 7 games, grabbed the first title in franchise history, got Robert Horry his first of seven rings (I’ve talked about Horry in another column of mine), and quite possibly stood as the last bastion of sanity for at least a year as the world went mad in 1994 and ’95—the OJ Trial, the red wave in American politics in the ’94 midterm elections, the World Series getting wiped out by a labor dispute…you can’t tell me there wasn’t something weird in the air for the better part of a year and a half that wouldn’t be topped until 2016.
The Featured Players
Hakeem Olajuwon was the leader of this crew, and his 27.3 points per game powered what was a mediocre-at-best offense, one which ranked 15th out of 27 teams that year. Adding 11.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 3.7 blocked shots gave Olajuwon 14.3 Win Shares (.210 per 48 minutes), a 3.5 offensive and 3.3 defensive Box Plus-Minus, and a mind-exploding 7.3 VORP.
Put another way, fully one-quarter of Houston’s wins could be attributed to just one man on a 12-man roster. In terms of both counting and advanced stats, Olajuwon was simply off the charts, posting one of the best seasons (he’d been even better in 1993, posting 7.8 VORP and .234 WS/48 on 26.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, and 4.0 blocks per game) of his Hall of Fame career.
But that’s not to discount the team around him.
For one thing, Houston posted the second-best Defensive Rating in the league—only the Knicks, who posted the best defense relative to league average in NBA history that year, were better. And for that, you need five guys stopping the other team from scoring.
That’s where guys like Horry—whose 2.2 DBPM was second-best on the team and powered his 2.5 VORP, one of his best seasons and second-best on the team as well—come in.
Vernon Maxwell was another guy like that, a guy whose defense made up for the fact that he posted one of the least efficient offensive seasons one can imagine. Maxwell was ahead of his time—he had a .413 3PAR in an era where very few guys did that—and unlike guys like Tim Legler and Steve Kerr, who combined volume shooting from long range with frightening accuracy such that both guys would be right at home in the NBA in 2021, Maxwell hit a downright Russell Westbrook-like 29.8 percent of his shots.
“Mad Max” posted minus-0.1 Offensive Win Shares and was a lot of why the Rockets were 15th overall on that side of the ball. But man, was he ever a dogged defender, posting 3.6 defensive Win Shares and 1.2 VORP.
Otis Thorpe was the power forward on this outfit, and he managed to hoover up 10.6 rebounds a game as a 6-foot-9 guy who happened to play alongside one of the best rebounders in history.
Then again, when you’ve got the third-best opponents’ eFG% (a horrific .458, which basically turned every Houston opponent that year into a bunch of YMCA chuckers) in the league, there are plenty of rebounds to go around even at a fairly slow (15th out of 27) 95.0 pace.
And finally, there’s Kenny Smith, known to millions today as the calm voice of reason alongside Ernie Johnson on “Inside the NBA” who keeps Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal in check, but who in ’94 was a guy with great hair and a greater nose for the basket when he shot the ball.
Smith hit 48.0 percent of his shots overall, 40.5 percent from long range (for a .542 eFG% that was marvelous for his time and would still be respectable even today), and 87.1 percent from the line. And that was a down year for the Jet! His .581 TS% was a dropoff from his .633 a year earlier, and he’d recover to post a .640 TS% in the second championship run a year later, but it was still good for 13th-best in the league (he’d been second in ’93 and would stand fourth in ’95 and still today is 99th in all of NBA history) on a title team.
Curiously, Smith had just 4.2 assists per game, and his 5.3 dimes per 36 minutes was the lowest of his career. The Rockets were an early progenitor of the ball distribution that would later mark the 2015-19 Warriors; they were eighth in assists despite Maxwell leading the team with just 5.1 per game.
And while the Rockets’ bench wasn’t awful, the second unit of Mario Elie, Sam Cassell, Scott Brooks, Matt Bullard, and Carl Herrera did just about nothing to distinguish themselves on the stat sheet, in part because the starters played a bunch of minutes even by the standards of the time and the bench rarely saw the floor; only Elie (24.0) played more than 17 minutes a game. Olajuwon, meanwhile, played 41.0 minutes.
Rudy Tomjanovich, as a player, made his name two ways. One, as a five-time All-Star with the Rockets in the 1970s; he retired after the 1981 season having fallen just shy of the mountaintop at the hands of Larry Bird and the Celtics, one reason the Rockets crashed and burned and hit rock bottom in ’83.
And the other was when he was on the receiving end of a punch from Kermit Washington that shattered Rudy T’s eye socket and is one of the darkest moments in the NBA’s on-court history.
As a coach, however, Tomjanovich has received greater accolades, being inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2020 on the strength of his coaching prowess.
The tough defense, ball-sharing, and ahead-of-its-time approach to 3-point shooting—Houston, in ’94, led the league in 3PAR at .191, as many coaches still saw the 3-pointer as something to be used in desperation while trying to close a big deficit rather than as a weapon to be used to build a big lead—bore fruit not just for two titles but also for a West finals appearance in 1997 that could have gotten them a date with the Bulls to settle whether the ’94 and ’95 titles were just fortunate timing.
So great was Rudy’s established reputation in Houston that he wasn’t fired until after the 2003 season having missed the playoffs for four straight years with those awful Dark Ages rosters involving Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley, guys who people vaguely remember as having been good but whose on-court failures speak for themselves.
Well, suffice to say no honor devolved onto those early-aughts teams, but are there any other genuine candidates?
Well, there’s the ’81 team, which holds the odd distinction of having been a team with a losing record in the regular season that made the NBA Finals. Houston went 40-42, shocked Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the first round, knocked off the 2-seed Spurs, then took out a Kansas City Kings team that had also gone 40-42—the weirdest conference final in expansion-era NBA history, to be sure—before finally falling to a real contender, the 62-20 Celtics, for the title.
That squad was mainly the last hurrah for guys like Tomjanovich and Calvin Murphy, who’d been fixtures in Houston in the ’70s, and was the penultimate season for Moses Malone in a Rockets uniform. Malone would play one more season in Houston, posting a career-high 31.1 points per game on a 46-36 team in ’82 that lost in the first round to Seattle, before departing for Philadelphia and winning a title while the Rockets hit rock bottom.
The ’86 team also deserves mention; the twin towers of Olajuwon and Sampson marked a statement made to the rest of the league that the kid out of Nigeria was for real; they went 51-31 and spanked Magic and the Lakers in the conference final in 5 games to deny the world a third-straight Lakers-Celtics Finals. Oddly enough, that interruption in the league’s most storied rivalry would leave the door open for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors to become the only teams to face off in the Finals for four straight seasons between 2015 and 2018.
Which, in turn, leads to our last honorable mention. The 2018 Rockets, with James Harden and Chris Paul leading one of Houston’s most talent-rich rosters to a franchise-record 65 regular season wins, should’ve been the champs that year.
Trouble was, they went cold at the worst possible moment, missed 27 straight 3-pointers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, and died by the sword as they’d lived by the sword, forever standing as testament that the most well-planned offense in the world can’t score points if the players miss shots. That’s as true of low post teams running into rim protectors who take away their high-percentage shots as it is of outside-shooting teams who take half their shots beyond the arc, and it bit Houston hard in 2018.
Will the Rockets be back in the playoffs after a short absence, as they have been on a seemingly constant basis since 1974? Or is the franchise doomed to wander in the wilderness without Daryl Morey in the front office? That remains to be seen. But the Rockets will always have Hakeem, and they’ll always have 1994.
NEXT: Indiana Pacers. Knicks fans, probably best to order a new monitor or phone now since you’re going to want to break yours after tomorrow. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!