The people have spoken. The best trade in Rockets' history is the 1995 acquisition of Clyde Drexler.
In the summer of 1994, the Rockets won their first championship in franchise history, beating the New York Knicks in 7 games. I'd like to say that this championship team was one of the greatest ever assembled, but that simply wasn't true. They won the title for a many reasons, with Robert Horry's timely shooting not the least of them, but the main reason was that Hakeem Olajuwon was unspeakably good at basketball.
Like crazy good.
Otis Thorpe was a fan favorite, 23 year old Robert Horry was coming into his own, and Mad Max and Kenny the Jet were both big time contributors, but those guys were not the typical supporting cast to a championship squad. In fact, Thorpe was the only other player on the roster with an above average PER during the regular season. On top of this, the team was only the second team since they began tracking turnovers in 1977 to have a championship team with only one player with a PER above 17, a feat only matched by the 1978-79 Supersonics.
In this era of Big Three's and Big Four's, Hakeem won a title essentially on his own, at least in terms of star power. All those stories you hear about Duncan carrying a young Spurs roster in the early 2000's have nothing on what Hakeem did in 1994. Still, as the Rockets went into the 1994-95 season as defending champions, it was clear that they needed to make a change if they wanted to repeat.
On February 14, 1995, the Rockets stood at 30-17, comfortably in the playoff picture but well off the pace they had set the year before. With the Trailblazers out of contention, they granted Drexler's trade request, sending Drexler and Tracy Murray to the Rockets in exchange for Otis Thorpe, Marcelo Nicola, and a future first round pick.
Here's the story from the Houston Chronicle:
Nearly 12 years after leaving, one of the greatest basketball players ever to come off the Houston playgrounds is coming home.
"An eight-time All-Star, a member of the Dream Team -- which is maybe the greatest team of all time -- a definite future Hall of Famer and a hometown son is coming home," Rockets owner Leslie Alexander said. "We had to give up one of our great players to get him. But it's hard to turn down a trade when you can get a guy of Clyde Drexler's ability."
"I couldn't be happier," Drexler said. "This is the one place that I'd rather be than anywhere else (in the league). I was raised here, and I've got all my family here. I talked to my mom when I got here, and she was so ecstatic, she started to cry. It's a tremendous feeling. Playing with Hakeem again is going to be great. He's the best player in the league, and I'm just going to try to fit in."
Said Olajuwon, who teamed with Drexler on two Final Four teams: "I still can't believe it. In my wildest dreams, I never thought it would happen. It's too good to be true."
"You look at trades and the salary cap, and it's hard to make things happen," Tomjanovich said. "It's almost a miracle situation that we can get something done like this.
Many were sad to see Thorpe go, but to get a bona fide All-Star at the cost of a 32 year old role player was an absolute haul. With Drexler having requested a trade to a contender, the Rockets took full advantage of the Trailblazers' lack of leverage and extracted an excellent deal for Drexler.
They limped into the playoffs with the sixth seed, but Drexler and Hakeem's play would lead them past Utah, Phoenix (aided by a Kiss of Death), and San Antonio, with all those series but the Conference Finals going the distance. Drexler was excellent in the close out games, averaging 22 points and nearly 10 rebounds. In the Finals, the Rockets drubbed the Magic, sweeping them in four games.
In those playoffs, Hakeem went absolutely berserk, averaging 33 and 10 while taking Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson to school. Hakeem's sheer dominance had a lot to do with this, but having Drexler on the perimeter consistently scoring 20 every night certainly helped.
There are probably trades where the Rockets got more for less, in terms of player value (the Tracy McGrady and Moses Malone trades come to mind), but in this results oriented world, there is little doubt that this was the most impactful trade in Rockets history. Outside of this trade, there is not one deal that you can so directly trace to a title. And for that reason, it takes its place in history as the best trade in Rockets history.