The 1992-93 NBA season would go down as one of the most competitive seasons in league history. Seven of the 16 playoff teams ended the regular season with 50 or more wins, as Charles Barkley took home MVP honors after leading the Phoenix Suns to a league-best 62-20 record. Among the teams who had the best chance to disrupt a potential three-peat by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were the Houston Rockets.
Following a disappointing previous season where Houston failed to qualify for the playoffs with a 42-40 record, the Rockets were on a mission to right the ship. They finished the ‘93 season tied for second in the West with a 55-27 record under first-year head coach, Rudy Tomjanovich — who took over the Rockets’ coaching duties in Feb. 1992 after the firing of Don Chaney.
With Tomjanovich at the helm, Houston’s offense hovered around the middle of the pack averaging 104.0 points per game (18th out of 27), but his defensive game plan helped the Rockets improved to the third-best defense in the league — registering a defensive net rating of 105.2 per game.
Although the perimeter defense from Vernon Maxwell, Kenny Smith and Robert Horry established Houston as a defensive nightmare, it was the presence of then-future Hall of Famer, Hakeem Olajuwon, who reached new highs under the stewardship of Tomjanovich.
In ‘93, Olajuwon set career-highs (at the time) in nearly every statistical category, recording 26.1 points while shooting 52.9% from the field. He registered his second straight season of averaging over four blocks (4.2 blks), which resulted in his first of two Defensive Player of the Year honors in a season he finished fourth in the league averaging 13.0 boards per games.
As arguably the best defensive team in the league, and the fourth-best three-point shooting ball club (36.1%), the Rockets entered the post-season with a favorable first-round match against the Los Angeles Clippers with homecourt advantage in a best-of-five series.
What was supposed to be an easy three-game sweep went the distance, as the Rockets struggled to put away the seventh seed Clippers in an 84-80 Game 5 win. The problems of the Clippers series took a toll on the team during the Western Conference Semifinals against the Seattle SuperSonics.
Coming into the series, the Rockets missed their opportunity to claim homecourt advantage due to an overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs to close the regular season. Although Houston finished as the higher seed, the Sonics held the tie-breaker after ending the season with a 55-27 record. And in a series between two evenly matched teams, homecourt advantage may have been the deciding factor for the winning team.
After the Sonics opened the series with a 2-0 lead, the Rockets won three of the next four, setting up a decisive Game 7 back in Seattle. Houston held a 10-point lead at the half, but a second-half surge by the Sonics sent the game into overtime inside the Seattle Center Coliseum. A pair of split free-throws by Olajuwon set up a dagger in the closing seconds by Sam Perkins — as Seattle took a 103-100 victory over the Rockets.
In a parallel universe, had Houston held on to beat the Sonics, the Rockets had a solid chance to advance to the NBA Finals, given their ability to match that of the Suns. The Rockets tied their regular-season series at two games apiece, but Houston’s losses against Phoenix came during a mid-season seven-game losing streak.
Had the Rockets moved past the Suns during the Western Conference Finals, Houston’s first title would have had to come at the expense of Jordan and the two-time defending champion, the Chicago Bulls, who always struggled against Houston.
Though Jordan dominated every opponent he faced in the Finals, the Rockets would have been his toughest challenge. Houston won five of the six regular-season meetings during the Bulls’ first three-peat from 1991-1993, as Chicago had no answer inside against The Dream, averaging 20 points and 13 rebounds during the three-year span.
In addition to Olajuwon’s dominance, the Rockets’ perimeter defense made Jordan’s running mate a non-factor, as Houston held Scottie Pippen to 15.8 points while shooting a subpar 30.2% from the field.
Instead of keeping Jordan and the Bulls from winning their third straight title, the 1992-93 Houston Rockets would go down as a season of missed opportunity.