On February 15th, 1995, a struggling and disappointing Rockets squad with high expectations and legitimate championship aspirations swung the most famous trade in franchise history. They brought in All-Star shooting guard Clyde Drexler from Portland to play alongside former Phi Slamma Jamma teammate Hakeem Olajuwon.
This was a squad with one of the all-time greatest players and leaders in his prime in Olajuwon. But we all know the Rockets don't win the second title in 1995 without Drexler's smooth and cool, yet serious perspective and veteran poise.
To get, you almost always have to give. And that Rockets squad certainly paid to get Drexler, giving up rugged Olajuwon right-hand man, long-time Rocket, one time all star, and fan favorite Otis Thorpe. It was a controversial move at the time, but it obviously paid off for the Rockets with the sweetness of a championship ring.
What that talented team in a funk required was a fresh player along with new on-the-floor leadership. Right after the trade, Coach Rudy Tomjanovich told the press:
"Obviously we felt something needed to be done. Sometimes it seemed like we've been running against the wind."
Fast forward 20 years, and we see another Rockets squad flush with talent struggling to hold up the albatross of immense championship expectations. This team is fighting just to keep it's head above water. They, too, are looking for answers.
The offseason optimism permeating the organization and fan base this year vaporized as quickly as the season started. A team commonly picked to compete again for a title was being slowly sucked in to a black hole of uninspired effort, non-existent chemistry and total lack of leadership. These 2015 Rockets were (and still are) standing squarely on the precipice of one the most disappointing season's in franchise history.
Ownership responded by firing coach Kevin McHale and tapping former assistant J.B. Bickerstaff to replace him in the hopes of kick-starting the unresponsive heart of the team. Though the team played more inspired ball in Bickerstaff's first game, a 108-103 overtime victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, the jury is very much still out whether he can wake them up from the early-season hypnotic lull.
The Rockets still have a locker room problem.
A league source told CBS Sports' Ken Berger in regards to the Rockets' current plight:
"The most dangerous time for a team is when it has success for the first time, and they don't have a bunch of mature guys around."
Other allusions to and hints of locker room discontent have been sprinkled throughout the media world in the wake of McHale's firing and they're getting harder and harder to ignore.
Most noticeable is a USA Today report gaining traction in other outlets that James Harden's aloof attitude and play has his teammates frustrated.
There's been other signs building as well. Trevor Ariza says the team hasn't been playing hard enough (you don't say, Trevor):
Trevor Ariza: "We have to play harder and we have to give extra effort. As a team, we’re not playing hard enough. We're slacking."
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) November 16, 2015
Kevin McHale dropped hints to the Houston Chronicle about team dysfunction right before his firing:
"You're either making excuses or you're making plays. If you're making excuses, you're not thinking about what you're doing.
"...At a certain point, you we have to go out and do it. You can pick apart everybody's problems. Until they can talk to each other and say, 'Hey, that was my bad,' then you're not getting there. Hopefully, we can get to that point . On functional teams, usually by the time you get over to the sideline, everything (the opponent) is doing, you figured out. Dysfunctional teams get over and they start blaming each other. We can't get into the blame game. We have to get into the fix game."
General manager Daryl Morey acknowledged the need for more changes than just a head coach:
Houston GM Morey: "We know this team can win and we are going to make changes until we win."
— Jason Quick (@jwquick) November 18, 2015
Who's leading these Rockets right now if it's not James Harden?
Dwight Howard? Impossible, given how much he sits.
Patrick Beverley? Out indefinitely.
Trevor Ariza? Just not his personality.
Jason Terry? He's a fine veteran presence, but he's also a 38-year-old role player.
Corey Brewer? Terrence Jones? Ty Lawson? All have been tentative and inconsistent at times, downright awful and disengaged at other times.
If Bickerstaff can't bring some semblance of effort and desire back to the locker room in short order, a roster move is almost assured. And Morey will likely have carte blanche from owner Les Alexander to make whatever changes he deems necessary to have this team back on an upward trajectory.
The Rockets are in a tenuous cap situation, so rule out a minor move here or a little move there. Morey will have to move weight for weight and make the salaries match, so the most likely move to happen is a major one similar to the move in 1995 that tweaked the team leadership and chemistry.
There may not be an incoming future Hall-of-Famer like in 1995, but if Morey thinks a major shakeup is needed, you can likely expect just that: something major.
And he'll have a quick trigger finger much like he did with McHale. As has been stated many times, the Rockets cannot continue to fall behind the Western Conference pack and still have a chance to rebound. Any moves will need to be made with enough time for the team to still compete for the postseason.
There is one other perhaps unthinkable trade option left as well. Despite Les Alexander's famous, "I have enough money, but I don't have enough championships," he's not going to pay the luxury tax on a losing squad. If the team can't get it together, a "major move" to compete becomes "wholesale changes" to reload. Then anything is suddenly on the table, including moving Howard's $23 million contract before he opts out of a team with a losing record.
For now, though, let's channel the benevolent spirits of the 1995 squad, and hope any moves the current team may make has the same magical effect on team chemistry and leadership as the one from 20 years ago.