#3 - Rockets snag one of the best players in NBA history in Moses Malone for two draft picks
Rockets acquire - Moses Malone
Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) - acquire 1977 & 1978 first-round draft picks
This one was a tough trade to place. It was almost number two on our list, and it’s only Houston’s ultimate lack of premium team success during the Malone era that kept it from rising higher. The difference between our top three trades was indeed the slimmest of margins.
Nonetheless, the trade for one of the NBA’s pre-eminent big men in history not only was one of the Rockets’ best trades, it was one of the greatest deals of all-time for the entire NBA. Especially when you consider that the Braves/Clippers ended up dealing away both picks for George Johnson, who played in just 39 games for the franchise, and Nate Archibald, who tore an achilles and never once took the floor as a Brave.
As for Malone, he was an absolute beast for the Rockets and was regularly considered one of the best two centers of his era, alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
After somewhat of a slow start (for him) to his Rockets career - he averaged just 13.5 points per game his first year with the team and missed 23 games due to injury in 1977-1978 — Moses absolutely exploded.
In fact, he wound up winning two MVP awards for the Rockets, snagging his first following the 1979 season, when he averaged 24.8 points and a ridiculous (and league-leading) 17.9 rebounds per game. He played in all 82 games and averaged 41.3 minutes per game, also tops in the Association.
The Rockets, who were playing in the Eastern Conference at the time, finished second in their division with a 47-35 record in Malone’s first MVP year, but they fell in the first round of the playoffs in a quick two-game series to the Atlanta Hawks. Malone, however, put up 24.5 points, 20.5 rebounds, and 4 blocks per game in the two contests.
Malone would have another huge year in 1979-1980, putting up 25.8 points and and 14.5 boards per game. The team would finish at just 41-41, but made it to the conference semis, where they would fall to the Boston Celtics in a four-game sweep.
Malone was again dominant in the postseason, averaging 25.9 points, a playoff-leading 13.9 boards, and 2.3 blocks per game.
In the 1980-1981 season, Malone helped the Rockets pull off one of the greatest surprise playoff runs in NBA history.
Despite Malone being virtually unstoppable to the tune of 27.9 points per game and a league-leading 14.8 rebounds per game, the Rockets struggled with injuries outside of their big three of Malone, Robert Reid, and Calvin Murphy and finished with just a 40-42 record.
Once in the playoffs, however, everything came together, lead by Malone, and the Rockets went on one of the more memorable streaks ever in the postseason. Playing in the West and led by Malone’s beastly performance under the hoop, they beat the favored Lakers, Spurs, and Kings in the playoffs before eventually falling in a tough six games to the Celtics.
Malone’s playoff line was 26.8 points, 14.5 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks. He played an almost unheard of 45.5 minutes per contest.
His real tour de force, however, happened the following year, when he won his second NBA MVP award with one of the greatest single seasons ever by a big man. Malone averaged 31.1 points, again lead the league in rebounds with 14.7, blocked 1.9 shots and shot over 52 percent from the field.
The Rockets wound up faltering to Jack Sikma and the Seattle Supersonics 2-1 in the first round, but not before Moses put up 24 and 17 in defeat.
Due to the limited playoff success, the Rockets decided it was time to rebuild, and rather than pay Malone a massive contract in the offseason, they decided it best to deal him to the Philadelphia 76ers for center Caldwell Jones and a 1983 first-round draft choice.
The Rockets used the pick (third overall) on Rodney McCray after using the first overall pick on Ralph Sampson. They would also have the top overall pick the following year, famously snagging Hakeem Olajuwon, so the Malone trade was part of a solid rebuilding plan, even though the McCray, Sampson, Olajuwon squad would infamously flame out after reaching the NBA Finals in 1986.
Malone would go on to win a ring with the 76ers and even play effective ball all the way up to 1992, when he averaged 15 and 9 with the Milwaukee Bucks. He would eventually retire following the 1995 season.
Malone finished his six years with the Rockets averaging 24 points, 15 rebounds, and 1.6 blocked shots, while shooting 51.4 percent from the field to go along with his two MVP awards.
His postseason numbers with the franchise were virtually identical, as he racked up 24.2 points, 15.5 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks on 49 percent shooting.
But perhaps the greatest gift he gave the Rockets was going head-to-head with a young college-aged Olajuwon at the Fonde Rec Center in downtown Houston. The two played against each other all summer, with the tough-as-nails Malone sharpening Dream into the iron-willed player he later became. Olajuwon had this to say:
“I would never have accomplished what I did if I did not play against Moses at Fonde. I knew the rules. I knew the basics of the game and what you were supposed to do. But he is the one that taught me how to do it.
“With Moses there were no rests, no breaks. He was working every time down the court — scoring, rebounding or just making you feel his body. He would laugh when he slammed into you. If you tried to take a breath, he went by you or over you. There was no stop.
“I usually couldn’t go through Moses, because he was just so strong. So I had to learn to use speed and agility to go around him. That’s how I built my game.”
For all Moses did for the Rockets, he’s at now at number three on our all-time trades list, with only the lack of a ring and the failure to lead a truly dominant regular season squad (49 regular season wins in a Rockets uniform was his peak) holding him back from an even higher ranking.