It’s another theme week here at SB Nation, and we’re focusing on teamwork — specifically, the best sets of Houston Rockets teammates of all time. The Rockets have had a lot of star power over the years and have always been ahead of the curve trying to pair together top talent. So in that spirit, we’re counting down the top five best duos to don the Rockets jersey.
Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley - These two failed to have any major playoff success, but they were an exciting duo that bridged the gap between two eras of postseason contention.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook - Depending on what happens this offseason, these two have a chance to rise up this list, but it was a disappointing end to the first season of their partnership. Nothing wrong with making the Conference Semifinals, but bowing out with a whimper wasn’t what anyone envisioned when this partnership was made.
James Harden and Dwight Howard - This duo did have a high-water mark of 56 wins and the Conference Finals in 2015, but they famously did not get along, and the partnership devolved into a 41-41 disaster of a year with Howard departing the following season.
5. Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady
Yao and McGrady are one of the biggest What Ifs in league history. Supremely talented, but oft-injured, these two wracked up four 50+ win seasons in between rotating major injuries. Though they never made it past the first round together (McGrady was on the sidelines in 2009), Yao was a legit MVP candidate in 2006-2008 before getting hurt, and McGrady was regularly one of the league’s most talented players before knee injuries robbed him of his athleticism. When they were both healthy, they lost to the Dallas Mavericks and the Utah Jazz in seven-game series in 2005 and 2007, but had they had a little better luck with injuries, I’m certain it would have turned out different for them. But as it stands, they made the Rockets playoff-relevant for half a decade.
4. Moses Malone and Calvin Murphy
These are two of not only the best players in franchise history, but are both Hall-of-Famers and two of the best players in league history. Malone arrived in H-town in 1976 to join Murphy, but didn’t fully come into his own until the 1978-1979 season, when he went for 24.8 points, a league-leading 17.6 rebounds, and won the MVP award. Murphy averaged 20 points per night on 50 percent from the field, though the Rockets lost in the first-round of the playoffs. They again made the postseason the following year despite just a 41-41 record, where they would make it to the second round of the playoffs. Malone averaged 25.8 and 14.5, while Murphy again averaged 20 points on 50 percent shooting.
Their success culminated in the 1980-1981 season, when Malone averaged 27.8 points and 14.8 rebounds per game and Murphy averaged 16.7 points, again on 50 percent shooting. Despite finishing the year with just a 40-42 record, they had a postseason run for the ages, making it all the way to the NBA Finals before losing in six games to the Boston Celtics. Malone again won the MVP the following season, averaging 31.1 points and 14.7 points per game, but Murphy’s game started to slip with age, and the Rockets won 46 games and lost in the first round. Malone was traded in the offseason, ending the partnership, but this is one of the more underrated eras in Rockets history. They didn’t win a ton of regular season games, but were perennial playoff contenders and racked up two MVPs for Malone.
3. Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson
Another duo that could be entered into the greatest What Ifs category, Olajuwon and Sampson took the league by storm in the mid-’80s. Trying to rebuild after the loss of Malone, the Rockets twice snagged the top overall pick in back-to-back years, selecting Sampson in 1983 and Hakeem in 1984. After a 48-win season in 1984-1985 that ended in a first-round playoff loss to the Utah Jazz, the Twin Towers went ballistic in 1985-1985, when Olajuwon averaged 23.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 3.4 blocked shots per night, while Sampson went for 18.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game.
They then cruised through the Western Conference playoff bracket, losing just three total games in the First Round through Conference Finals, including a five-game destruction of the Showtime Lakers that ended on one of the most famous shots in team history.
Despite losing to the Boston Celtics — the 1986 version being one of the best teams assembled in NBA history — the Twin Towers were dubbed the future of the NBA, as other teams raced to find multiple bigs capable of matching up with Houston’s dynamic duo. Unfortunately for the Rockets, however, Sampson succumbed to multiple knee injuries before being traded, and the team as a whole collapsed into a haze of drug suspensions. The Rockets eventually rebuilt around Hakeem, but his partnership with Sampson changed the entire trajectory of the league in the ‘80s, which puts them squarely at number three on this list.
2. James Harden and Chris Paul
This was a short-lived partnership, but it resulted in the best and most exciting Rockets season in two decades. Paul was brought aboard in the summer before the start of the 2017-2018 season in a blockbuster package that included multiple pieces of talent still playing effective ball to this day for the L.A. Clippers (Patrick Beverley, Montrez Harrell, Lou Williams), so it was a high price to pay, but it did pay off in results.
The CP3/Beard partnership was criticized due to both players being most effective with the ball in their hands (“There’s only one ball!”), but the duo responded to their naysayers by winning an all-time franchise-best 65 games. In fact, if you add Clint Capela to this group, the Rockets had a ridiculous 50-5 record when all three guys were playing.
But it was the two-pronged attack of Paul and Harden that stirred the Rockets’ drink, hitting you with two guys who could both isolate and create, but who did it in different ways. Key on Harden, and Paul would clinically dissect you. Focus on CP3, and Harden would either get to the bucket or cash a three in your eye. It was unorthodox at times, but truly a thing of beauty, as the Rockets made a run all the way to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the all-time great Golden State Warriors in seven games.
It could have been much more, as the Rockets were at one point up 3 games to 2, and were also dominating in the first half of Game 7. But Paul was out with an injured hamstring, and the combination of the balky leg with some of the league’s worst officiating (hi, Scott Foster) and 27 missed threes (which were only that high because two were incorrectly waived off) sent the Rockets home packing. For the record, the Rockets would’ve slaughtered the Cleveland LeBrons in the Finals, but alas, it was not to be.
The Rockets won 53 games again the following season, but an injured Paul looked past his prime in Houston’s second-round defeat again to Golden State, before eventually being traded the following summer for Russell Westbrook.
Spoiler alert: Paul was not washed after all.
1. Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler
The top spot had to go to Houston’s championship duo. In perhaps the greatest trade in Rockets history, Drexler came to town in the middle of the 1994-1995 season, as the Rockets were struggling to defend their title. In fact, they were playing so poorly, there were some doubts mid-year if they would even make the playoffs. So they traded fan and locker-room favorite Otis Thorpe and draft picks to Portland for The Glide, who was Olajuwon’s former college teammate. The duo took some time to re-acquaint themselves with each other, but once they finally did, it resulted in one of the most impressive postseason runs in NBA history.
Playing out of the sixth seed after winning just 47 games, the Rockets defeated the 60-win Karl Malone - John Stockon Utah Jazz in Round 1, the 59-win Charles Barkley Phoenix Suns in Round 2, the 62-win San Antonio Spurs and league MVP David Robinson in the Western Conference Finals, and swept the 57-win Shaquille O’Neal - Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.
In the regular season, Olajuwon averaged 27.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals, and 3.4 blocks per game, while Drexler averaged 21.4 points, 7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 1.8 steals per game.
In the postseason, Dream averaged 33 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.2 steals, and 2.8 blocks, while Glide averaged 20.5 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.5 steals in a true legendary playoff tour de force with career-defining moments for both guys.
The duo would make it back to the Western Conference Finals in 1997 (with some help from Charles Barkley), winning 57 games where they fell to the Jazz, before Drexler eventually retired following the 1998 season.
They made it to the playoffs in every year of the partnership, brought back a trophy, and came close to snagging another one, on top of being lifelong friends, making them the most prolific duo and best set of teammates in Rockets’ history.
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