How the 1986 team matches up
Do you believe in physical defense and the ability to switch across almost all positions? Then rollback the clock and buy some stock in the 1986 Rockets.
This matchup probably requires a theoretical discussion of how you believe the game should be played. If you believe an on court fight should result in ejections, but not suspensions, then the 1986 Rockets are your team. If you believe the 2020 version of the NBA is the best, then the 1986 Rockets, given a few months to prepare, could have Ralph Sampson shooting threes while Olajuwon rolls to the basket.
Now let’s talk about competition. If it were not for the 1986 Celtics, we’d be talking about this Rockets team the way the 1994 team is remembered. The Rockets deconstructed the defending champion Lakers (the ones with Magic, Kareem, Worthy, and Cooper) in five games and then took the Celtics to six in the NBA Finals. Oh yeah, that Celtics team... won 67 games, had five hall of famers (the 1994 Knicks had one) and was called the best ever Celtics team by Danny Ainge.
The top question about dealing with the 1994 Rockets can anyone guard Hakeem Olajuwon? Oh wait... The 1986 Rockets also have Hakeem Olajuwon. Well, that sounds like a one-on-one which can be relatively reconciled if you’ve had a drink or two.
From there you’re left with how the rest of the crews matchup. 1986 All-Star Ralph Sampson vs. notorious hardass Otis Thorpe. Size and versatility go to Sampson. If you feel like these teams are playing in 1986 or 2020 the edge goes to Sampson. Playing in the brutish 1994, probably Thorpe.
From there the Rockets start a phalanx of forwards with Rodney McCray starting at point guard alongside Robert Reid and Lewis Lloyd. Each member of this trio are more single dimensional compared to their 1994 counterparts, but they’re a defensive juggernaut who hassles anyone from three point line to baseline. Off the bench, you’ve got John Lucas for instant offense. This six-man core is going to make any opponent hurt. Win, lose, or draw, you’re going to end up bruised. - MC
How the 1994 team matches up
Prime Hakeem (though admittedly a little older) against young Akeem, who probably jumps a little higher and runs a little faster but isn’t quite as high in basketball IQ and experience as the older Jedi master? Sounds like Cap vs. Cap from Endgame, and likely ends the same way, with the old guy using his caginess and smarts to best the physicality of the younger version of himself.
But even with the MVP version Dream owning the edge over the punch-throwing version, whoo boy, this is an intriguing matchup.
Robert Reid and Vernon Maxwell going head-to-head? It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see both get ejected.
And how do Kenny Smith and Sam Cassell deal with the physicality and size of McCray starting at point, only to then be hit with the scoring prowess of Lucas coming off the bench? If you recall, this duo struggled mightily when Derek Harper and Greg Anthony got physical with them in the 1994 Finals until Cassell finally stepped up and hit some big-time shots. He’s going to need to do that again here.
And OT can trouble Sampson. If there’s one thing about Ralph, he didn’t always like to mix it up underneath like a traditional 1980s big man. Although Thorpe suffers from a size deficit in this one, he has the power and strength on his side. He’ll likely control the boards with Sampson circling the perimeter, maybe reluctant to mix it up.
1994 does have a bit of a stronger bench, with Cassell, Mario Elie, Matt Bullard, Carl Herrera, and Scott Brooks all capable of contributing, while outside of Lucas, 1986 counters with Alan Leavell, Mitchell Wiggins, Jim Peterson, and a still-young Craig Ehlo. That longer and better bench might make the difference for 1994. - DY
1986 - Three-point shooting. It was a different time for the NBA in 1986. The Rockets shot just 310 three-pointers as a team on the entire season. For comparison, James Harden alone shot 1028 last year. The 1994 team shot just 1285, but the difference is that they had capable shooters, when needed. The best career three-point shooter on 1986, however, was Ehlo, and he played in just 36 games and averaged 5.5 minutes per contest on that squad. As Max mentions, give Sampson some time to prepare, and he’s likely launching (and making) bombs, but there’s hardly a plethora of long-range shooters on this team. But as we know, any team can make them in a bubble, and if 1986 can knock down a few from deep and get hot, their rough-and-tumble defense, which is capable of switching on practically anyone down the 1994 roster, is going to spring the upset.
1994 - Robert Horry and Matt Bullard. Horry was another one who struggled with the physicality of the New York Knicks and in the 1994 Finals, leaving the series with multiple bruises and a fractured tailbone, but at 6’10”, he brings the size to match with 1986’s triple forward (McRay, Reid, Lloyd) lineup. Matt Bullard is another 6’10” forward that has the size to hang and bother these guys, but the difference is both forwards from the 1994 team can really stretch the floor. That spacing is gonna allow ‘94 Dream to work his magic in space, while these two sharpshooting giants wait the kick out off the double to starting cashing. Can 1986 keep up, especially if 1994’s number-two ranked defense puts the clamps down on anyone not named Olajuwon or Sampson?
Who wins this matchup?
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