#2 - Clyde the Glide returns to H-town - 2/15/1995
Houston Rockets acquire - SG Clyde Drexler, F Tracy Murray
Portland Trail Blazers acquire - PF Otis Thorpe, rights to Marcelo Nicola, 1995 1st-round pick
This trade was essentially neck-and-neck with #3 Moses Malone on our list, as we mentioned in yesterday’s write up. Individually, Malone had the better numbers, and he did win two MVP awards, something Drexler never achieved.
But the simple facts of the situation are that there is no way the Rockets have two titles under their belt without Clyde Drexler. In fact, they likely don’t make it out of the first round in 1995 without him.
Initially, it didn’t appear that way, however. The Rockets struggled mightily at first in incorporating their new star swingman.
The team was 30-17 before making the Drexler trade, and while that would certainly make it seem like they were in contention, there was just a certain je ne sais quoi missing from the team’s chemistry that had helped them to their first title win in 1994.
So team management did something that was immensely unpopular initially, and that was trade fan and locker room favorite Otis Thorpe, who played such a key role in the first championship run (and appeared earlier at #7 on this countdown), to Portland for former University of Houston star Drexler, who was once running mates with Hakeem Olajuwon in the famed Phi Slamma Jamma dunking fraternity at UH.
Internally, players questioned the sanity of the deal, and though fans were a little more accepting due to Drexler’s ties to the city, many still questioned if dumping such a key part of the first title team was the right thing to do.
As the season drew to a close, it seemed that the skeptics were right. The Rockets stumbled to close out the year 17-18 after acquiring Drexler and finished 47-35 and with the sixth seed in the Western Conference hierarchy.
Drexler had good numbers — 21.4 points, 7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.8 steals and 50.6 percent shooting from the field — but an injury to Hakeem Olajuwon and the failure of Houston’s ancillary players to adapt to Drexler’s game held them back. In short, they had chemistry issues.
But starting with some Drexler late-game heroics as the season wound down, the Rockets began to slowly get acclimated to each other.
That led them into their first-round series with the 60-win Utah Jazz. After the Rockets shocked the league by playing the heavily favored Jazz to a 2-2 draw after four games, the teams returned to Utah for the then-decisive Game 5, which saw the Rockets go down big.
Drexler, however, spearheaded a monster fourth-quarter rally with both timely defensive play and clutch shooting when the Rockets otherwise appeared lifeless, and Houston scored the major upset with a 95-91 victory. Drexler had 31 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal, and a block to go along with five three-pointers to spark the dramatic come-from-behind win.
Clyde would continue to answer the call throughout the playoffs, becoming the secondary major scoring threat next to Olajuwon that the Rockets had lacked. And as Houston’s big two rekindled old fraternity dunking flames, the Rockets’ role players found their place, sparking newfound chemistry that made the team virtually unbeatable in a full series, even if they were outgunned on paper.
After sneaking past Utah, the Rockets had another juggernaut to face, going up against a 59-win Phoenix Suns squad, which they defeated in seven games, before then downing the 62-win San Antonio Spurs in six games in the Western Conference Finals.
They finished off their improbable run by sweeping the 57-win Orlando Magic in the Finals, and though Hakeem Olajuwon would win the Finals MVP award, Drexler had himself quite the postseason line as well. He finished with 19.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 48.1 percent from the field.
Both Drexler and Olajuwon would struggle through injuries the following season, missing a total of 40 games between them, and the team finished with a 48-34 record. Though the Rockets would look ready for the postseason when the time arrived, they would falter in the second round at the hands of their 1990s nemesis, the Seattle Supersonics.
The following year saw a lot of change, as Charles Barkley was brought in in exchange for some long-time fan favorites, but Drexler’s game stayed stable, as he averaged 18 points, 6 boards, 5.7 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. He did become more perimeter-oriented in his attack, with just a 44.2 percent field goal percentage.
Nonetheless, Houston’s big three tore through the regular season, securing 57 wins, which at the time, was good enough for the second-best mark in franchise history. The Rockets would then finally overcome the Sonics in seven games in the Conference Semifinals before eventually faltering against the Jazz in six after a famous buzzer-beater at the hands of John Stockton.
Drexler would play just one more season for the Rockets, leading the team in scoring in the 1997-1998 season with 18.4 points per game. But a slew of injuries to both Barkley and Olajuwon, who missed a combined 55 games, held the team to just a 41-41 regular season record and a first-round defeat at the hands of the Jazz.
Drexler would retire in the offseason, finishing his Rockets career with a sparkling line. In his four seasons with the franchise, he averaged 19 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 1.9 steals. He shot 44.5 percent from the field and 34 percent from beyond the arc.
He also carried those averages over into the postseason, finishing his Rockets playoff career with 18.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 1.7 steals, while shooting 44.7 percent from the field.
Most importantly, however, was the spark he gave to the 1995 title team. Olajuwon may have been the team’s MVP, but this franchise needed every bit that Drexler gave them to come back with that second trophy.
It was also the narrative surrounding his return that puts him squarely in the center of Houston Rockets lore. The H-town college boy graduates, finds success elsewhere, but can’t quite get over the hump until returning back to Houston to re-join his old college running mate. It was a fairy tale story lived out in real life. And it’s enough to edge him past Malone for the number two spot on our countdown.
Who would you prefer at the #2 spot on our countdown?
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