Posted by Neil Paine on December 2, 2008
Fifteen years ago tonight, the Rockets beat the Knicks at MSG for their 15th consecutive win to start the season, tying the all-time NBA record set by the Washington Capitols in 1948-49. I know what you're thinking: not another post about streaks! Don't worry, though, that bit of trivia is just an excuse to introduce a series where I look at what made some of the greatest championship teams in NBA history tick. Today, we start with that record-tying Rockets team, who would carry the momentum from their season-opening streak with them all year long and eventually win an NBA title.
Offseason Moves: At the time, the summer of 1993 was marked by front office turmoil. In August, owner Les Alexander fired GM Steve Patterson after a 55-win '92-93 campaign, citing simply that "the organization wasn't running smoothly." His replacement was Tod Leiweke -- who would eventually resign in January '94, after just 4+ months on the job. On the basketball front, though, the Rockets quietly added the final pieces to their championship foundation, selecting Sam Cassell out of Florida State with the 24th pick in the draft and trading a 2nd-round pick to Portland for G Mario Elie.
Strengths and Weaknesses: The Rockets opened the season with a bang, starting '93-94 with that aforementioned 15-game winning streak, and would finish the year at 58-24, the 2nd-best record in the Western Conference. Unlike the 3-time defending champion Chicago Bulls, whose formula for success was predicated on their dynamite offense, the Rockets were doing it with a suffocating D -- they ranked 2nd in defensive efficiency, and in terms of the four factors they were 3rd in eFG% allowed, 5th in defensive rebounding %, and 3rd in opponent FT rate. Led by the frontcourt of Defensive Player of the Year Hakeem Olajuwon (94.9 DRtg), Robert Horry (99.8), and Otis Thorpe (100.9), the Rockets didn't have to gamble for a lot of turnovers (23rd in opposing TO%) because they were able to ferociously protect the immediate basket area and force their opponents into taking low-percentage shots.
Offensively, they were a middle-of-the-road team (105.9 ORtg in a league where average was 106.3) that ranked in the bottom half of the NBA in turnover rate (16th), offensive rebounding % (27th), and FT/FGA (20th), but they excelled at making their shots count from the field (4th in eFG%). The offense ran through Olajuwon, who scored 27 points per game and made 53% of his shots from the floor. The other major creators, guards Vernon "Mad Max" Maxwell and Sam Cassell, weren't overly efficient (97.6 and 100.5 ORtgs, respectively), but they each took on more than 21% of Houston's offensive workload, and in doing so they made things easier for Houston's role players (Thorpe, Horry, Elie, Kenny Smith, Carl Herrera, Scott Brooks, and, yes, Matt Bullard), who collectively had an offensive rating of 109.1. Having a dominant go-to big man in Hakeem helped a lot, but it was still a great example of how high-volume, low-efficiency players can be valuable by making their teammates better -- which, in combination with their great defense, made Houston a formidable team going into the playoffs.
The Playoffs: After dispatching the Blazers in 4 games, the Rockets ran into serious trouble against Phoenix in the 2nd round, blowing leads of at least 18 points in both Game 1 and Game 2 en route to an 0-2 series deficit. But back in Phoenix for Game 3, Maxwell went off for 31 second-half points, proving that even inefficient creators can come in handy at the right time. Houston would eventually finish off the Suns in 7 games, and they took care of the Utah Jazz in a 5-game Western Conference Final as Olajuwon really asserted himself (31 pts in Game 1, 41 in Game 2). In the Finals, the Rockets would have to tangle with the physical New York Knicks, who owned the #1 defense in the league.
Hounded by New York's strong D, Olajuwon nonetheless scored his customary 27 ppg, and he dominated Knicks C Patrick Ewing on defense, holding the All-Star pivot to 19 ppg on 36.3% shooting. He also made one of the biggest blocks in Finals history, swatting away a possible title-winning 3-pointer by John Starks in the waning seconds of Game 6. Meanwhile, Sam Cassell -- another inefficient creator who nonetheless wasn't afraid to shoot in late-game situations -- knocked down a number of big shots during the series. In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Game 7, the Rockets' D held NY to a FG% under 40 (Starks was infamously 2-18 from the floor), Olajuwon was his usual dominant self (25 pts, 10 reb, 7 ast), and Maxwell was hot again, scoring 21 on 6-11 shooting. When the dust settled on their 90-84 victory, the Rockets were World Champions.
Lessons Learned: Contrary to conventional wisdom (which says you typically need to have at least two stars to win a title), the '94 Rockets proved you could build a champion around a single superstar. They were primarily a defense-oriented team, but at the same time they knew that their #1 offensive option could score when he needed to, and they surrounded him with role players who did their jobs well. Even the inefficient scorers like Maxwell and Cassell had distinct value to Houston, for they could create shots off the dribble and were capable of exploding (especially Maxwell) for big games on any given night. Yes, Houston benefited greatly by Michael Jordan's abrupt retirement before the season (effectively opening the championship window for the rest of the league), but they still created a great template for future contenders -- assuming you can find that elusive superstar (which, granted, is anything but a given).