Fifteen All-Star selections. Ten Hall of Famers. Six future Hall of Famers. And three MVPs. The Houston Rockets have a storied past with some of the greatest players in league history.
Whether it was accomplished through the draft, free agency, or with a blockbuster trade, Houston’s history of legendary players may only be rivaled by the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and the Philadelphia 76ers.
As an alternate to Peter Parker’s principles, with great players, comes great expectations. Unlike the Celtics, Lakers, and 76ers, the Rockets only have two championship banners (1994 and 1995) to display despite their rich lore.
With the eighth-best winning percentage in league history (52.9%), the Rockets were always one of several teams who have a realistic chance to win a title, but injuries, team chemistry issues, and a series of unfortunate luck have hindered Houston’s chances from achieving their ultimate goal.
In another season where the Rockets had a chance to win their third title, Houston may have experienced their most unfortunate circumstance to date, with the league suspended due to the global pandemic of COVID-19.
In what will surely go down as another unfortunate year, every Tuesday for the next six weeks, the series “Rockets Seasons of Missed Opportunities,” will feature the best teams in Rockets’ history who missed their opportunity to capture a championship title.
A list ranked in order based on expectations and disappointment, here’s an honorable look at a few teams who could have won the chip, but did not quite make the list cut for several reasons.
The 2006-2007 Houston Rockets:
Finished: 4th in the West 52-30
Lost Western Conference First Round vs. Jazz (3-4)
Looking beyond the joy and excitement they brought to the city during the mid-2000s, the Rockets’ experiment with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming is best described by one word — disappointment.
In five of the six seasons they spent together, McGrady and Yao had expectations to bring Houston their third title in franchise history, but injuries and unfortunate mishaps prohibited the duo from delivering on their promise. Although every year can be considered a missed opportunity, the 2007 season was one of several that could have ended with a title.
Houston finished the regular season with the fourth-best record in the West (52-30) and entered the post-season with a favorable first-round match against the Utah Jazz with homecourt advantage.
After the Rockets opened the series with a 2-0 lead, the Jazz eliminated them in seven after Houston dropped four of their next five games. What made the 2007 season a missed opportunity for the Rockets is what transpired throughout the rest of the playoffs.
The No. 8 seed Golden State Warriors knocked off the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks and paved the way for the Jazz to advanced the Western Conference Finals — where they succumbed 1-4 to the San Antonio Spurs.
In an event where Houston held on to beat the Jazz and eliminated the Warriors, the Rockets had a puncher’s chance to advance to the NBA Finals, given their ability to match that of the Spurs.
Had the Rockets moved past San Antonio during the Western Conference Finals, the season could have ended with a championship title coming at the expense of a 22-year-old LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The 1999 Houston Rockets:
Finished: 5th in the West 31-19
Lost Western Conference First Round vs. Lakers (1-3)
On paper, the 1999 Rockets could have gone down as one of the greatest teams in NBA history.
After Clyde Drexler retired at the end of the previous season, Houston orchestrated a deal with the Chicago Bulls to bring in six-time champion and seven-time All-Star, Scottie Pippen. The additional of Pippen gave the Rockets three members of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players (Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley), but chemistry problems held Houston back from reaching their full potential — especially due to the endless dispute between Barkley and Pippen.
It also did not help that the three Hall of Famers were past their primes, as Pippen averaged 14.5 points per game, his lowest since his rookie year, shooting a career-low 43.2% from the field.
Despite so much going against the Rockets’ favor, Houston still managed to establish themselves as championship contenders. After a nine-game winning streak in March where it appeared Houston found their stride, the Rockets finished the lockout-shortened season with a 31-19 record but lost 1-3 to the Lakers during the first round of the playoffs.
Had the 1999 Rockets pushed their differences aside for the greater good of the team, the Larry O’Brien trophy could have made its way further down I-10 East (coming from San Antonio) due to the talent and experience of a veteran squad.
The 2014-2015 Houston Rockets:
Finished: 2nd in the West 56-26
Lost Western Conference Finals vs. Warriors (1-4)
In a span of three seasons, they went from beloved to hated. The duo between James Harden and Dwight Howard will go down as one of the biggest “what-ifs” in franchise history. While the 2016 season was by far their most disappointing year together, the 2015 Rockets missed their best opportunity to win a title behind Superman and The Beard.
During a season where the Thunder failed to make the playoffs and a game-winner from Chris Paul sent the Spurs home in the first-round, Houston’s path to their third title never looked more than possible.
After their most successful season in nearly 18 years (56-26), the Rockets breezed passed the Dallas Mavericks during the opening round of the post-season and eliminated the Clippers after trailing 3-1 early in the series.
For the first time since 1997, Houston advanced to the Western Conference Finals but fell victim to the 67-15 Golden State Warriors in five games.
With the exception of a 35-point loss in Game 3, the Western Conference Finals between the Rockets and the Warriors were closer than the resulting 4-1 series record — as Houston lost by an average eight-point margin.
By losing to the Warriors, the 2015 Rockets missed out on an opportunity to defeat a wounded Cavaliers team in the NBA Finals, but more importantly, could have avoided a psychological war among themselves — a mental aspect that eliminated the Rockets in two of the following three seasons at the hands of the Warriors.