This week for our TDS Tuesday, we are taking a stroll down memory lane and celebrating ten of the best Rockets teams ever assembled. We are taking these teams and pitting them against each other in trying to find out which team was better. This week’s roundtable garnered a lot of split decisions within our five man panel, and we are sure that Rockets fans will feel the same. This week’s panelists are Jeremy Brener (JB), Xian E (XE), Ethan Rothstein (ER), Colin Ainsworth (CA), and Darren Yuvan (DY).
Feel free to add your commentary and join the conversation in the comments below.
1. '08 Rockets vs. '09 Rockets
JB: I think a lot of people would choose the 2009 squad given their playoff success, but I prefer the Streak team of 2008. Very little separates these teams though, as they were compiled of practically the same people. 2009 had more playoff success but the 2008 team got unlucky with a bad matchup in the first round against the Jazz lead by Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. That 2008 playoff race was one of the most wildest in history with two games separating first from sixth. 48 wins were not enough to get the Warriors into the playoffs that year! If the Rockets win or lose one more game, maybe they get a more favorable matchup and move further along that season. What the 2008 team did was so historic that I have to give them the nod over the 2009 team.
XE: I’d go with the ‘09 team, if healthy. The ‘08 team was more like a small miracle of determined play, though of course health played a role there too. The 2009 team, if healthy, would likely have won the title. This list of questions seems to be a trip down Painful Memory lane.
ER: I love both of these teams so much, but 2009 was truly a special season. The talent on the team was incredible, as was the work ethic. Taking the eventual NBA champions to seven games without Yao or T-Mac was one of the great almost-series-wins in modern NBA history. Ron Artest vs. Kobe Bryant was, incredibly, an electrifying matchup.
Before he got hurt in that series, Yao was playing the best basketball of his career, nearly 20-10-2 in the regular season in 77 games. Artest and Battier, and T-Mac before he got hurt, was a ruthless defensive wing combination, and the team was fourth in the NBA in defense. The 2008 team was magical, winning all those games and capturing the national zeitgeist. But the 2009 team was the best the T-Mac/Yao era offered us. For that, it will always stand out.
CA: I’ll take ’08 here. Conference Finals or no, the ’08 team did what every basketball team strives to do. Part of playing sports is learning that there is no such thing as individual perfection, but there can be such a thing as a collective perfection. Every team that has ever existed has an Absolute Best version, and the ’08 Rockets, though perhaps they had less talent than ’09, were their absolute best.
DY: You gotta love the '08 streak team -- I mean, what a ride that was -- but it's the '09 team. Watching Yao play some of the best big man basketball since the Dream days, and of course, the playoff series against the Lakers. Yao put in a vintage Willis Reed moment and hobbled back on the court to score three buckets in the closing minutes to win the game and let L.A. know it was going to be a series. It was also my first year of basketball writing, and I was covering the Rockets for Empty the Bench, so I was following that team pretty closely. If healthy, it was clearly the most talented group since the mid-90s -- though that team is also a little bittersweet, as it was the last time we'd see Yao do anything of significance.
2008: Jeremy, Colin
2009: Xiane, Ethan, Darren
2. '93 Rockets vs. '17 Rockets
JB: Recency bias may favor the 2017 team, but the two are very similar. Both went 55-27, both lost in the Western Conference Semis, and both had a future Hall of Famer as the obvious leader of the team. Both teams also had an obvious roadblock to the championship, the ’93 Bulls and the ’17 Warriors. I think I’m going to roll with the 2017 team only because the bench was deeper and the upgrade of Trevor Ariza over a rookie Robert Horry. Horry had a good year, but Ariza’s veteran presence and defense is superior to Big Shot Bob.
XE: Well, one has to go with the team that actually went on to win two titles. And I’m still prepared to contend with any Bulls whiners that might appear. Not the Rockets fault Jordan served a crypto suspension for gambling - that’s not a tragedy, that’s someone not following the rules, but being too important to league marketing to be booted out like Pete Rose was in MLB.
It’s also not the Rockets fault Jordan's team, that he later won championships with, got their ass handed to them by the same Orlando team the Rockets swept. Jordan’s performance in those playoffs was similar to what he did for the rest of his career. He and Hakeem missed a comparable number of games that year, too. The Penny/Shaq Magic were just better, as teams with dominant centers and guards who could at least offer resistance to Jordan often were against those Bulls.
Like the 1986 Rockets, that Magic team was another dynasty that never came to pass, which in my opinion, is why Jordan saw so much more success after 1996. Heresy I know, since Jordan is some sort of weird NBA Article of Faith/Saint/Axiom.
I guess the 2017 team is still pending. I want to believe.
ER: Peak Hakeem is still better than James Harden. These teams were both great, but last year's Rockets team is too new to say it's better than the year that Olajuwon finally figured things out and became the night-in, night-out force of nature he was destined to be.
CA: As much as I want to pick 2017 here, as much as I want to believe that the kind of firepower that team had, as much as I want to say to myself, “the only defense for that team was hoping they miss, and the ’93 team couldn’t shoot like that,” as much as I want to — you know what? Screw it. The ’17 team wins. If it’s on the right night and everyone is shooting well, the ’17 team could beat anyone.
DY: The '93 team, because we know they went on to win two titles after that. That could potentially change depending on what happens next to our current Rockets, but the '93 team was pretty special. In fact, they would have had a legitimate shot of coming out of the West had they not met head on with their kryptonite, the Seattle Supersonics. It was also an extremely underrated Hakeem Olajuwon year that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle because of what happened the next two years, but Dream's overall line may have been his best ever. Check it: 26.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 4.2 blocks and 1.8 steals per game. It was the last time he'd average over 12 boards and 4 blocks per game in a season, and he should have been the rightful MVP that season over Barkley. Olajuwon is already a top-10 all-time player. How high does he jump if you add back-to-back MVPs onto his resume as well?
1993: Xiane, Ethan, Darren
2017: Jeremy, Colin
3. '97 Rockets vs. '15 Rockets
JB: Both of these teams lost in the Conference Finals and recency bias may favor the 2015 team, but I am going to take the ’97 team. This team had three future Hall of Famers in Olajuwon, Drexler, and Charles Barkley, who was arguably in his best season as a Rocket. The ’97 team started off 21-2 and was a John Stockton three away from forcing a Game 7 in Utah. The team had more vets and the 2015 team had a lot of holes. The playoff team started Jason Terry at point guard and could have easily been eliminated in the Conference Semifinals.
XE: Roll with when? Then? Now? 2015 in 1997? Both teams made the conference finals, both series were a lot closer than people think. I suppose I’d go with ‘97, just for the sheer star power.
ER: I do remember the 1997 team, but not nearly as well as I remember 2015. It was my first year as TDS editor, and it felt like a touched season in many ways. Injuries kept preventing the Rockets from showing themselves at true strength, but they kept winning anyway. James Harden became The Beard, lifting himself to the mountaintop of NBA players with a still-deserving MVP season. The magical ride to the conference finals — and the frustrating reality of Patrick Beverley forced to watch Jason Terry guard Stephen Curry — was something I'll never forget.
The '97 team came into the season with sky-high expectations. When they got Charles Barkley, just three years removed from an MVP season leading his team to an epic NBA Finals against the Bulls, they were rightfully viewed as the league favorite to challenge Jordan's unstoppable crew. But there was still Michael Jordan there. 2015, before the Warriors had ascended, felt wide open. The Heat broke up, the Spurs seemed mortal, the Clippers collapsed and the Rockets had Harden and Howard playing great basketball together, healthy at the same time.
I didn't get to watch many '97 Rockets games. As a kid in New York, I could only see them a handful of times. I remember being confused at the jerseys, seeing how awesome Dream looked next to Sir Charles, and wondering why they weren't better. I wasn't alone. 2015 wins.
CA: This is the second hardest question for me. On some level, we’re still not far enough removed from the 2015 team to know just how much of their run was a fluke. Let’s be real with ourselves: as good as that team was, it took a miracle Game 6 in LA. Meanwhile, Clyde, Chuck, and Dream drastically underperformed with that kind of talent — even if they did make the conference finals. I think I’m following my own rule here and going ’97 because Dwight Howard would get absolutely embarrassed by Late 90s Hakeem, and Barkley would make sure Harden would shrink.
DY: I wasn't very happy when the '97 Rockets traded practically every major role player on the squad for an aging Charles Barkley -- I thought the team would lack chemistry, and at times, they did. They sprinted through the majority of the year on raw talent, and Sir Charles did have himself a fine year, going for 19 and 13, but it caught up with them in the playoffs against a Utah team that had it's core together for years. For that reason, I'm going with the '15 squad. They produced a season that was better and more exciting than expected, and it was the true birth of James Harden as an absolutely elite NBA player. The '97 team was essentially the end of our beloved mid-90s Rockets. The '15 team was a beginning.
1997: Jeremy, Xiane, Colin
2015: Ethan, Darren
4. '81 Rockets vs. '86 Rockets
JB: The ’81 team arguably had more talent on paper with Moses Malone and Calvin Murphy but the ’86 team had a better record and emerging stars in the Twin Towers. The Rockets also beat a very good Lakers team in ’86 during the Conference Finals. The 1981 team made history by being the first Rockets team to make the Finals, but the 1986 team was superior.
XE: 1986, by the hair Granville Waiters didn’t have, which is to say a lot. The ‘81 team had Rudy T, Calvin Murphy and a young Moses Malone (RIP), and went on a great playoff run. The 1986 team was a potential dynasty like the now moribund one in OKC with Durant, Westbrook and Harden, or the Warriors. Yes, that good. They had the potential to be an all time great with a healthy Ralph Sampson, Baby Hakeem, John Lucas, Lewis Lloyd, Mitchell Wiggins, Rodney McCrae, etc etc. They were big, fast and athletic like no other team in the league, and won 51 games. This being Houston, of course they were obliterated over the course of a single offseason. Read their heartbreaking, long-form story here. Really, this piece by Jonathan Abrams is the definitive history of the Rockets dynasty that never was. Fun fact: Alan Leavell and Robert Reid were on both teams.
ER: Both of these series happened before I was born. Both ended in losses to the Celtics. The '81 team was led by Peak Moses Malone, a destructive force the league hadn't seen before. Seeing these squads matched up would have been fascinating. Moses vs. the Twin Towers. Calvin Murphy and Rudy T. vs. John Lucas and Rodney McCray. Robert Reid vs. Older Robert Reid. In the end, the '81 Rockets had a miraculous run through a thin Western Conference after a losing regular season. The '86 team beat the Lakers in five games and took the Celtics that season — considered the greatest team of all time before the 1996 Bulls came walloping through the league — to six games. Plus Hakeem Olajuwon. '86 wins handily.
CA: I was born in ’94 and I, admittedly, haven’t spent a large amount of time watching either. Moses Malone is an legend, for sure, but I’m going with my gut here and picking the ’86 team. Losing to the Celtics is nothing to be ashamed of. When in doubt, go with Hakeem…
DY: For me, it's the '86 team. I was a little too young for the '81 team, but the '86 squad has a special place in my heart. I grew up in Pittsburgh, and though I loved basketball, the city had no professional team of note after the ABA dissolved the Condors in the '70s. So I had to just pick a team that I appreciated, and it certainly wasn't going to be Cleveland or Philly. Well, my neighbor, who was a tad older than me, was a huge Celtics fan, and I was at his house watching the entirety of the '86 Finals, and fell in love with the Rockets and Hakeem Olajuwon, becoming a fan for life. Plus, that '86 team would have been a revolutionary squad had they managed to stay together. Not to mention they gave one of the best teams ever assembled in the history of the NBA a run for their money, losing in 6 games.
1986: Jeremy, Xiane, Ethan, Colin, Darren
5. '94 Rockets vs. '95 Rockets
JB: They’re both fantastic. They’re both historic. They both went as far as they possibly could go. However, I give this nod to the repeat team of 1995. It is super difficult to repeat in the NBA and this team was able to do that despite a lackluster regular season. Even the acquisition of Clyde the Glide did not help the team in the regular season. But in the playoffs, they responded very well to the pressure. Overcoming the 3-1 deficit to Phoenix was impressive and sweeping an Orlando team that beat Michael Jordan’s Bulls is impressive. It’s a shame that neither of these teams could play MJ’s Bulls though. However, even if they did, I think Mad Max contains Jordan and the Bulls would have a tough time stopping Dream. Both of these teams are excellent, but the ’95 team was the more resilient one.
XE: I think the 1994-95 Rockets were simply a better team with Clyde and a young Cassell, and they beat a much better team in the Finals.
ER: Make me choose between my two children? How dare you. The 1994 team is the one that made me fall in love with Hakeem and birthed my Rockets fandom. In New York, seeing Dream block John Starks left an indelible mark on me. I read his autobiography as soon as I was capable of reading a 300 page book, co-written with Rick Reilly, when that was a good thing. It is why I am here.
From a basketball perspective, from a drama and narrative perspective, the 1995 team probably takes the cake. They swept Shaq and Penny out of the Finals, crushed the Suns' dreams and ended forever the debate of Dream vs. David Robinson. But the 1994 team holds a special place in my heart.
CA: Pretty obviously the hardest question. It’s asking a lot of things here. The biggest question to me, though, is the difference at shooting guard because you’re not just asking “Who is better between Vernon Maxwell and Clyde Drexler?” The question you’re asking is much deeper. It’s about the identity of these teams, and ultimately, which identity you prefer. Chaos and Mad Max? Or Clyde and all business? The thing about Vernon is he has this winning drive, but Clyde had that too, he was just more reserved. Ugh, a tough question. I choose ’94, because I think the ’94 team would be hungrier to beat the ’95 team than the other way around. Check back with me in 20 minutes though, because I will probably have changed my answer.
DY: This may be controversial, but for me, it's the '94 team, which is one of the most underrated championship teams of all time. What a versatile squad. They ran a much more experienced Portland team out of the building in the first-round. Then they outscored a run-and-gun Phoenix Suns squad in the second round, birthing the Clutch City moniker. In the Finals, they outworked the Stockton/Malone Utah Jazz, before outmuscling the rugged New York Knicks in the Finals. They played against four completely different style of teams, and they beat each and every one of them at their own game. The '95 championship run was fun and a bit unexpected for a sixth-seed, and I may have actually enjoyed watching that run a little bit more, but I firmly believe the '94 team was a better squad from top to bottom.
1994: Ethan, Darren
1995: Jeremy, Xiane, Colin