The top spot on our “Could Have Beens” list goes to Ralph Sampson, the 7’4” center the Houston Rockets took with the first overall pick in the 1983 NBA Draft, and he takes the top slot over some very deserving others for two primary reasons:
First, his own play, and secondly, who he was playing with.
Sampson’s incredible size and unnatural agility for a man his height allowed him to burst on the NBA scene as a rookie. He averaged 21 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2.4 blocks per game in his initial season, was named an All-Star, and also won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. Unfortunately, the Rockets weren’t very good, finishing just 29-53, but that was all about to change.
After once again snagging the top pick in the draft, the Rockets took another big man who you might have heard of once or twice, grabbing Hakeem Olajuwon out of the University of Houston with a plan of playing him directly alongside Sampson.
Ralph graciously moved to power forward to accommodate Dream, and the two big men formed the “Twin Towers” duo, which was expected to usher in a new era of big man-centric basketball with multiple monsters on the front line.
Other teams tried to keep up, such as the Boston Celtics, who suddenly started Kevin McHale and Robert Parish together instead of offsetting them, and the New York Knicks quickly followed suit in doing the same with Patrick Ewing and Bill Cartwright.
But there was a reason for this, and that’s because Sampson again put up fantastic numbers, despite moving to a new position, and he averaged 22.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2 blocks per game, while Olajuwon was equally as impressive at center. Hakeem finished with averages of 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 2.7 blocks per game.
Most importantly, the duo led the franchise to rebound with a 48-34 record, and despite losing to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, the best was yet to come for the Twin Towers.
Sampson’s combination of size, strength, speed, and basketball skill had everyone mesmerized, and many thought he even had a higher ceiling than Hakeem, with team GM Ray Patterson saying:
“Not only is Ralph going to be the player of the year, he’s going to be the player of the century.”
The duo was even better the following year, with both players coming into their own at their respective positions. In fact, Sampson’s ball-handling skills might have actually made him a better forward than he was a center. Sampson himself said:
“My skills were a little bit farther from the basket. Hakeem had the body and ability to be in the low post. I could go into the post. He could go into the post and pass out. It became a great fit very quickly.
My mind-set and skill set at that point of time was to be the best basketball player I could be. Not just the best center. I wanted to play guard. I wanted to play forward. They gave me the opportunity to do that.”
The Rockets got through the 1985-1986 season with a 51-31 record, dominating teams in the paint on both sides of the ball, with Olajuwon and Sampson again having fantastic years. And when they got to the post season and the game slowed down and became even more centered around post play, they were even harder to beat.
After sweeping the Sacramento Kings in the first round and taking the Denver Nuggets out in six games, they headed to a Western Conference Finals match with the favored Showtime Los Angeles Lakers, who not only featured Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Michael Cooper, but also one of the game's legends in center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who would be competing in the paint against Houston’s Twin Towers.
After getting pounded in the series opener, the Rockets rebounded to take control of the series behind Sampson and Olajuwon and took a 3-1 lead back to Los Angeles, where they knew the Lakers would play tough.
But when Dream, who scored 30 points in Game 5 and was dang near unstoppable, was ejected after being goaded into a fight with Lakers back-end-of-the-bench player Mitch Kupchak (yes, that Mitch Kupchak), the situation seemed dire for the Rockets.
After falling behind once Magic Johnson took over after Hakeem was ejected, the Rockets were able to tie the game on a Robert Reid three-pointer. When the Lakers then missed the following shot and the Rockets got the ball with one, measly second left on the clock, the game seemed destined for overtime. Then history happened:
The Rockets would then go on the meet one of the greatest teams ever assembled in the Celtics, who sported a star-studded roster featuring Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge, and Bill Walton. Though the Rockets would give them a run for their money, they were without point guard John Lucas, who was out due to substance abuse issues, and they would eventually fall in six.
Despite the defeat, the Rockets were young, they were talented, they had a huge frontline, and they would most certainly be back. Then, the bottom fell out.
The following year, after a slow start, the Rockets would infamously lose Lewis Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins to drug suspensions and Lucas to drug rehab. Then things got even worse when Sampson hurt his knee and played in just 43 games. The Rockets squeaked into the playoffs at 42-40 and were eliminated in the second round even with Sampson returned to the lineup.
Sampson would be back the following year alongside Hakeem, but the knee injury was much worse than anyone in the organization let on publicly, and he was also at odds with head coach Bill Fitch. So the Rockets traded Sampson 18 games into the 1987-1988 season to the Golden State Warriors for Joe Barry Carroll and Sleepy Floyd.
Sampson would go on to have a decent year for the Warriors, averaging 15 and 10, but as his knee problems worsened and then combined with back issues, he never again played a full NBA season nor averaged double-digit points or rebounds after ‘87-’88.
Ultimately, the Rockets and Sampson had a momentary opportunity to change not only the record books, but also the very way the game was played. They failed at both.
Though Houston would eventually win a title behind Olajuwon, Sampson was retired by then. And after the Twin Towers dissolved, you saw fewer and fewer two-center lineups, as teams went back to more traditional center and power forward roles.
But had Sampson remained healthy, there’s no telling how far he could have went alongside Olajuwon. Even when the Rockets lost their guards to drug issues, a healthy Sampson and Olajuwon were a handful for anyone. Had this team been able to reload around it’s two highly-talented big men, there’s no telling how many titles they could have won or what direction the NBA could have gone in philosophically in order to counter their dominance.
And for that, Sampson’s not only the top Rockets “Could Have Been”, he’s one of the biggest “Could Have Beens” in any sport.