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Anatomy of a Champion: The 1993-94 Rockets

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.

1993-94 Houston Rockets
Coach: Rudy Tomjanovich
SRS:4.194 (6th)

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).

8 Responses to “Anatomy of a Champion: The 1993-94 Rockets”

  1. Rashad Says:

    Neil, overall I like your columns, but this paragraph didn't make any sense.

    "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."

    You're saying that it was a good thing that 21% of the team's shots were taken by people with a poor offensive rating? Perhaps this would explain why they were just a middle of the road offensive team. Because some of their players were efficient offensively, and some weren't! It's clear that you CAN win with some inefficient offensive players. But it seems silly to say that they somehow contributed to the offense by taking bad shots. Had they been high-volume, high efficiency players, the Rockets probably would have won several more games.

    Everything else looks good though. Thanks for your analysis.

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    Yes, but not everyone can be a high-volume, high-efficiency player. In fact, very few players can be that kind of player; it's what made guys like Olajuwon, Jordan, etc. such great talents -- they could create a lot of shots without losing a lot of efficiency.

    However, the next best thing to having a roster stocked with high-volume, high-efficiency players (or at least players capable of that) is to do what the Rockets did in '94: have a few players who can handle a high volume of possessions (even if their efficiency isn't the greatest), and a few players who are very efficient in limited offensive roles. You see, because the former group can create shots late in the shot clock, it affords the latter group the chance to pick their spots and be as efficient as they were.

    Maxwell/Cassell had an ORtg of 98.5 while the role players had an ORtg of 109.1; if the "creators" toned it down and shot less, their ORtg would undoubtedly be better, but that of the "role players" would have decreased at a greater rate than the creators' would have improved, and it would have hurt the team dynamic. That's what we mean when we speak of "skill curves" (if you've ever read Basketball on Paper, there's a chapter on this) -- the trade-off between usage rate and ORtg is real, and it creates a dynamic optimization problem in terms of maximizing team offensive efficiency. Maybe Houston didn't optimize things perfectly, but I have a feeling they struck the best balance they could between the responsibilities of the "creators" vs. that of the "role players".

    Plus, you have to consider the value of when Mad Max & Cassell were willing to take shots. That was another point I was trying to make -- their ability to create with the clock running down came in handy on multiple occasions for this team, especially in the playoffs, when they each knocked down some pretty clutch shots. No one else on the team (save for Hakeem, but his shooting range was limited) could have created the big shot on demand late in the game like those 2 did. On the surface, this post is about the '94 Rockets, but I was trying to make a bigger point about the true value of high-volume, low-efficiency players -- a value we as statheads don't always see at first glance.

  3. Kevin Pelton Says:

    Interesting stuff as always, Neil. I'd never known that Leiweke had a connection with the Rockets. That's funny because, in his role working for Paul Allen with the Seahawks, Leiweke replaced Patterson on an interim basis in Portland as well. The difference is he's exclusively a business guy while Patterson had his hands in the basketball side as well. Patterson's departure cleared the way for Carroll Dawson to take a larger role, I think.

    When we talk about the Rockets' good fortune in '93-'94, it's also worth mentioning the top-seeded Sonics getting knocked off in the first round. Not only did that guarantee Houston home-court advantage the rest of the way, the conventional wisdom back then was that there was a rock-paper-scissors relationship of the top three contenders in the West. The Sonics beat Houston in both '93 and '96, bookending their championships, while Houston beat Phoenix back-to-back years and Phoenix beat the Sonics in '93 the only time they met in the playoffs before the Charles Barkley trade changed the whole dynamic. The problem for the Sonics was that they couldn't beat inferior teams in the first round.

    Lastly, while taking a dominant post player and surrounding him with shooters and defenders may have been a good template for the Rockets, it sure made for some boring basketball in the mid-/late-'90s. Combine the Knicks' handchecking and that Finals series set the NBA back considerably.

  4. Dan Says:

    Those bulls teams WERE GREAT defensive teams?

  5. Rashad Says:

    Hi Neil. Thanks for the response. I guess my point is that "high volume" doesn't seem like an attribute. You make it sound as if only certain NBA players can handle taking a bunch of shots in a game. I mean, I could be a high volume shooter in the nba. Of course, every shot would be blocked, but pretend they weren't. I mean, I could go out there and shoot 10% for an NBA team on a high number of shots. Would that add value to the team?

    I think overall the piece was fine, but if you just said:

    "The main weakness of the team, and what contributed to its mediocre offensive efficiency was the low offensive efficiency numbers of Vernon “Mad Max” Maxwell and Sam Cassell, who took 21% of the team's shots."

    Then I think the story would be much more complete and accurate, rather than pretending that it's an advantage to have mediocre shooters taking a bunch of your shots. I mean, clearly not every team can find a lot of efficient scorers, but the roughly 50% of teams that year that had a better offense than the rockets somehow managed to find marginally more efficient ones.

  6. Mike G Says:

    Rashad, shooting .100 in the NBA does not help any team. Shooting a few % below average, if you can create those shots any time, may very well help your team. An almost-average shot is a lot better than no shot.

    Think of an auto that gets only 16 mpg. If it carries 8 passengers, that's pretty good, compared to a car that carries but 4 and gets 28 mpg. It depends on the situation.

    Having lots of serviceable players, with various skill sets, may have a value apart from their measured efficiencies/usages. More offenses to throw at the opponent, more weaponry, might offset a coaching advantage.

  7. Ignarus Says:

    This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately - there is a distinct advantage to having guys who can get a 45% shot in ANY circumstance, compared to other more efficient but less creative guys who can get a 50% shot when they're open but only 25-33% when they're not.

    It lets you dish it out to the other guys if they're open, but at worst, you've got the guy who can get a 45% shot off when all the other options are exhausted. It also lets the other guys take it easy on offense and use their energy rebounding and playing D.

    For the record, I'm generally in favor of guys who can get really good shots off, get to the line, and hit threes, but you can still find advantage in having guys who can shoot 45% at all times. It's a good last resort, you know?

  8. Jason J Says:

    Neil - I realize this post is old as dirt, but I thought I'd comment anyway since you linked to it.

    1 - Great explanation of how high volume / low efficiency scorers make life easier for high efficiency / low usage players who don't often create shooting attempts for themselves.

    2 - While Ewing did the have worst playoff series of his career, he wasn't actually matched up against Hakeem for most of it. Thorpe covered Ewing (and Oakley primarily covered Hakeem as well), and Hakeem was there on the rotation. Having the physical PF banging on him and the ultra quick C trapping him ruined Ewing's game. He just didn't have the speed or explosiveness to get good looks at the hoop anymore.