How the 2018 team matches up
The 2018 Houston Rockets are one of the greatest teams of all-time to not win a championship, and they were one Chris Paul hamstring, one 0-27 from deep, or one competent officiating crew away from being the only team to knock off a full-strength juggernaut Golden State Warriors squad.
Those Rockets finished 65-17, and that includes a five-game losing streak in December. In fact, the team was 27-11 at one point, which is a good-but-not-great record. They closed on a 38-6 stretch. They featured the MVP, James Harden, at the height of his powers, as well as a switch-heavy defense that included several defenders who either had or deserved to have All-Defense nods, including Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela.
The 2018 and 1997 Rockets exist in totally separate basketball worlds. The ‘90s Rockets, much like the rest of the NBA, relied heavily on an inside-out game. Houston was lucky to have the best post scorer of the era in Hakeem Olajuwon and could play with a 4-out system. And when Olajuwon needed a break from finessing you to death in the post, Charles Barkley could come in and bruise you down low. Capela and Tucker would have been powerless to stop either consistently, so the 2018 Rockets probably would have sent double teams into the post, especially when Rudy Tomjanovich tried to play Barkley and Dream together. Barkley was a horrid deep shooter (he shot 28% in ‘97), so the Rockets would have doubled off him even more than they did off Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala. If Barkley took 5 or more triples a game, the 2018 team would have a huge advantage.
The 2018 Rockets would have a clear advantage when they had the ball though. With Olajuwon patrolling the paint, Houston would have just done what they always did in those situations: go small. The Tuckwagon lineup would have spread the court enough that either the 1997 squad would have to try to put Hakeem on Tucker in the corner (and give up layup lines) or take him out and hope Barkley could handle the job. There would be no answer for CP3 and Harden, as the 1997 Rockets only really had Clyde Drexler and Mario Elie as perimeter defenders, and the idea of Matt Maloney trying the stay with CP3 makes me cackle with glee.
And don’t let those wonky three-point percentages for the 1997 team fool you. The NBA three-point line was only 22 feet that season, as opposed to the 23-feet, 9-inch line that exists in the modern NBA. If Harden and Paul could play with the shorter line, they would have even more reason to take threes and avoid going into the land of giants. -AK
How the 1997 team matches up
The 2018 Rockets are the other most renowned team in franchise history to fall short of winning a title. The most significant hurdle to climb when facing the 2018 team, how do you slow down the pairing of James Harden and Chris Paul? Winning a league-best 65 wins, the two became the greatest backcourt pairing in team history, and if not for a hamstring, could have won a title at the conclusion of the 2018 season.
Similar to the way the 2018 team demoralized their opponents on a nightly basis, an aging Clyde Drexler and a rookie Matt Maloney would leave the 1997 Rockets vulnerable to defending the likes of Harden and Paul. However, once the game slows down, the ‘97 squad has the advantage given their size and ability to clean the board.
Neither Clint Capela nor P.J. Tucker will be able to slow down the tandem of Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley, as the Hall-Of-Fame pairing averaged a combined 42.4 points and 22.7 rebounds per game. If Eric Gordon or Gerald Green tried to double or help Olajuwon and Barkley in the post, the ‘97 team possessed five players who shot over 40.0% from behind the arc in a season: Emanual Davis 44.4%, Mario Elie 42.0%, Randy Livingston 40.9%, Matt Maloney 40.4% and Sedale Threatt 40.0%. - CD
2018 - Eric Gordon: Splash Gordon won the Sixth Man of the Year award for this Rockets team, and if he could stretch the floor, it would really make the 2018 team unstoppable. We’ve seen the smallball Rockets take bigs completely out of games by forcing them away from the basket. If EG can get hot, and that’s likely given the 1997 team’s lack of perimeter defenders, then suddenly the biggest question in this matchup is whether or not Rudy T can play Barkley and Olajuwon together, and it might be enough to take Barkley out of the matchup completely. -AK
1997 - In the midst of helping the team win back-to-back titles, Mario Elie was an elite x-factor during the Rockets’ success of the 1990’s. Not only would he provide the ‘97 team with the capability to stretch the floor, but Elie’s size and ruggedness will be critical in the team’s ability to defend Harden. If Elie can slow down the production coming from The Beard, there is no way the ‘18 Rockets would have enough firepower to match that of Olajuwon, Barkley and Drexler — even with a healthy CP3. - CD
Who wins this matchup?
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