The NBA featured its top 75 players of all time over this past All-Star Weekend, and the group contained most of the original top 50 list with additional players added from the modern game. The list featured plenty of former Houston Rockets players, including James Harden, Elvin Hayes, Russell Westbrook, Moses Malone, Clyde Drexler, and Chris Paul. But of course, the most famous — and best — player of the group of former Rockets is franchise legend and TDS namesake Hakeem Olajuwon.
ESPN then followed up All-Star Weekend with its ranking of the top 75, and sadly, they ranked The Dream at number 13, which is about five or six slots too low for my tastes. Personally, I might have Olajuwon as high as four or five, but I realize that could potentially be considered homer bias, but even the non-homer in me can see why The Dream deserves to be ranked higher than those immediately in front of him: Kevin Durant at 12, Shaquille O’Neal at 11, Kobe Bryant at 10, Oscar Robertson at 9, and Tim Duncan at 8.
First, let me ask you which of these players were not only game-changing on offense, but also on defense? As much as Olajuwon could carry a team offensively, he was even better defensively, and in my opinion is the single greatest defensive force the game has ever known since it started its expansion.
He not only is the all-time league leader in blocked shots, he was also seventh in steals when he retired (he has since slipped to ninth) and was one of the few players who could legitimately guard one through five in an era where that type of positional fluctuation was almost unheard of. Do you know how many times I’ve watched Hakeem jump a guard at the perimeter, make the steal and go coast to coast? This is a seven-foot center we’re talking about here:
Kevin Durant is a fantastic offensive player and a decent defender. Can he carry a team defensively? Through a whole season? Or multiple seasons? Absolutely not.
If Durant is better than Olajuwon offensively, Dream is in a different stratosphere defensively. Two times defensive player of the year, nine NBA All-Defense teams, three seasons as a blocks champion, two times a rebounding champion, four-time leader in defensive win shares, two-time leader in defensive plus-minus. Durant has zeros in all of those categories. Hakeem has no scoring titles to Durant’s four, but the gap between KD’s offense (27 ppg all time) and Hakeem’s (21 ppg all-time) is a crack on the sidewalk compared to the epic chasm separating their defensive play.
Oscar Robertson was also a mediocre defender, and though his triple double feats were the stuff of legend, I just can’t get behind a guy who was only dominant on one end of the court as being better than a guy who was dominant on both.
The same argument holds true for Shaquille O’Neal. Though Shaq’s size made him a good rebounder and rim protector, he never won a blocks title or a rebound title, and get him out of the paint, and his Frankenstein feet made him a total liability as a defender. You see Shaq guarding one through five?
In addition, he was massively dominant as a post scorer, but had no range beyond the paint, couldn’t hit a free throw to save his life, and — let’s be honest — put up the vast majority of his numbers against ho-hum competition at the center position. How many Hall-of-Fame matchups in their prime at the center position did Shaq have when he was putting up his numbers? Very few. In fact, there was virtually no one to give him a run for his money until Yao Ming came into his own in the mid-2000s. Shaq did most of his damage against second-tier big man competition. And we’re not even going to get into Shaq often showing up out of shape. His laziness and inability to fully maximize his talents is a huge mark for me.
That still leaves Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, who were both great defenders and should be higher than the rest of the guys we’re currently discussing between 13 and 7 (which is where Larry Bird starts and there’s a virtual consensus after that, even if I don’t fully agree in my personal tastes).
The second point that’s often overlooked here is which one of these players led their team to the promised land without any other elite help whatsoever like Olajuwon did in 1994? In Houston’s title run in 1994, there were not only no other Hall of Famers, there were no other All-Stars. The closest Hakeem had to elite help was one-time All-Star Otis Thorpe. Sam Cassell would eventually make one, but that wasn’t even on the radar in 1994.
Dream was so comprehensively dominant in 1994 on both ends of the court that he led a cadre of role players past a cornucopia of Hall of Fame talent in the playoffs. And spare me the Michael Jordan retired BS. Anyone who watched basketball in the early to mid-90s knows that the Chicago Bulls got wiped by the Rockets pretty much anytime the teams played. Chicago simply had no answer in the middle until Dennis Rodman arrived to help in 1996. It’s why they lost to the Orlando Magic in 1995. They couldn’t handle Shaq.
Oscar Robertson’s one title came with a top three all-time teammate in Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Shaq’s titles all came with a Hall of Fame running mate, first in Kobe Bryant and later in Dwayne Wade. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again... Shaq simply had too many weaknesses in his game to do it on his own. Phenomenal scorer, just not a complete player. Name me Hakeem’s weakness? I’ll wait...
Kevin Durant’s two titles came on one of the single greatest overall collections of talent the game has ever seen in Golden State. Frontrunning at its finest.
Bryant ran with Shaq for his first rings, another fellow top 15 player in history, and he does get some extra credit in my book for his later two titles, where his best teammate was Pau Gasol. But even Gasol was a six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA selection. Would Bryant be able to get it done with Otis Thorpe manning the middle? I doubt it.
And Tim Duncan, as great as his career was, played for one the single greatest coaching minds the game has ever known and also played alongside fellow all-time great David Robinson in 1999 and then with six-time All-Star Tony Parker and two-time All-NBA selection Manu Ginobli. Does Duncan get it done with Kenny Smith and Vernon Maxwell as his guards? I love both those guys in H-town, but I don’t think he does.
Hakeem’s second title did come after the team added Drexler, and the post-season run that team had was one for the ages, but Olajuwon doesn’t get enough credit for what he accomplished in 1994.
And he was so good on both ends of the floor in his career, that you could get rid of his offensive game entirely, and he’d still be an all-time great based on just his defensive play alone. Get rid of his defense, and The Dream still shakes his way to the top 75 list based solely on his post play. Combine the two together and you can miss me with that 13 stuff. Seven or eight is more realistic, and the homer in me is tempted to bump him even a few slots higher to five or six, but here’s a better re-ranking of that group:
13 - Shaquille O’Neal
12 - Kevin Durant
11 - Oscar Robertson
10 - Tim Duncan
9 - Kobe Bryant
8 - Hakeem Olajuwon