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The 1997 Houston Rockets: The Forgotten Failed Super Team

The NBA looks a whole lot different than it did 20 years ago. Not only has the game itself transformed dramatically, but the business side of the association has seen quite the shift in it’s power dynamics. No longer do organizations have the kind of power over personnel that they once did. Contracts are shorter, agents are more involved, and players are forming relationships with members of other teams like never before.

This has resulted in the “era of the superteam”. Superstars aren’t waiting for their teams to build around them; they are recruiting other stars to join them through free agency. Teams are also more aggressive in trying to acquire star players for draft picks and assets, rather than building slowly through the draft. 

This trend has resulted in some of the most talented teams in the history of the league, but has also created some of the worst trades and signings of all time. The Golden State Warriors were able to recruit Kevin Durant in 2016 to join their star studded team. This led to two more championships for the organization.

The Brooklyn Nets tried to manufacture their success in 2013 by trading for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for three first round picks. This move haunted the team for a decade, as Pierce and Garnett couldn’t help them get any farther than the second round of the playoffs, as the picks they gave away turned into Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Collin Sexton.

There is much debate as to who was the first real superteam. Some say it was ‘08 Celtics, while others claim it was the 2010 Heat. However, what many forget is that more than two decades before either of those teams were created, three future Hall of Famers, and former rivals, teamed up in Houston to attempt to take down a dynasty. A super team before superteams.

Coming into the 1995-96 season, the Houston Rockets were the best team in the NBA. Taking advantage of Michael Jordan’s year and a half retirement from the Chicago Bulls, they had won back to back championships in 1994 behind an MVP season from Hakeem Olajuwon, and in 1995, after signing superstar wing Clyde Drexler from the Portland Trail Blazers.

That Hall of Fame duo, along with several more than serviceable role players such as Sam Cassell, Mario Elie, and Robert Horry, had Clutch City looking poised for another title run. 

Unfortunately, the team found out the hard way how difficult it is to complete a three peat in the NBA. Clyde Drexler missed 31 games in the regular season, and the Rockets were only able to grab the fifth seed out west. They matched up with the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs where their championship pedigree shined through.

They dispatched them quickly three games to one (the conference quarterfinals were best of five at the time). But in the conference semis, they ran into a Seattle Supersonics team that would end their title hopes much quicker than anyone would have thought.

This 61 win Sonics team led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp dominated the two time defending champs by sweeping them 4-0. Seattle went on to lose in the NBA Finals to Chicago, as the Bulls reclaimed their place atop the league with the first full season back for Jordan.

The Rockets knew they needed more to even get out of the west, let alone challenge the Bulls; a team widely regarded now as the greatest of all time. Over in Phoenix, Charles Barkley was coming off another All-NBA season for the Suns, where he averaged 23.2 points and 11.6 rebounds. However, things had reportedly begun to sour between him and the organization.

After nearly beating the Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals, they hadn’t made it past the second round since. Barkley decided that it was time for him to move on, and demanded a trade to a contender. He had a short list of preferred destinations, and Houston was on it. The Rockets jumped on the opportunity, sending Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Chucky Brown, and Mark Bryant to the Suns; sacrificing depth for the acquisition of their star.

This kind of transaction seems normal in the modern NBA, but it was far from commonplace back in 1996. For a player under contract to demand a trade, give a list of preferred destinations, and to have his requests granted by the team was almost unheard of. It was especially unusual given that Houston and Phoenix were two teams that had heated playoff battles in the 80’s and 90’s making the Rockets a surprising choice for the prideful Barkley.

But it was no secret who facilitated this trade, with Barkley saying shortly after, “I called the shots…when push comes to shove, I think you have to stand up to the system.” The role that Olajuwon and Drexler played in getting the star to Houston is unknown, but given that Drexler played alongside Barkley on the 1992 Olympic team, and Barkley’s desire to join him on the Blazers before ending up with the Suns, it is more than likely that there was some prior communication between them before the trade was finalized.

The new look Rockets got out of the gates quickly, and although Barkley missed 29 games, they ended up with the third seed, and won nine more games than the previous year.

The numbers put up by the team’s big three were as prolific as they expected. Olajuwon averaged 23.2 points and 9.2 rebounds, Drexler added 18.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists, while Barkley showed that he was still All-Star caliber by averaging 19.2 points and 13.2 rebounds. 

They carried their strong momentum into the playoffs; easily sweeping a Timberwolves team led by Stephon Marbury and young Kevin Garnett in three games. This brought them to a second round rematch with the Supersonics. The series was hard fought and very tight, and inevitably went to a seventh game. This time Houston would not to be denied, as Olajuwon, Drexler, and Barkley proved the value of star power by accounting for 66 of the team’s 96 points. 

But awaiting them in the conference finals was a much bigger road block. The Utah Jazz were the clear cut best team in the West that year during the regular season, and few teams had a duo that could stack up to John Stockton and Karl Malone. Malone had long been Barkley’s rival, as the two had battled for the title of best power forward in the league.

The Jazz took the first two games, and looked well in control. A surprising 31-point performance from veteran forward Eddie Johnson in game three and an electrifying game four from Olajuwon though tied the series at two games a piece.

But in the end, Stockton and Malone were too much, and Barkley had a relatively lackluster series by his standards; averaging 16.2 points per game on 43% shooting. The Jazz won the next two games, closing Houston out in six games.

Following that season, the championship window for the Rockets was, for all intents and purposes, closed. They kept their big three intact for one more year, but couldn’t muster more than a first round exit in ‘98.

Clyde Drexler retired following that season, and was replaced by an aging Scottie Pippen. The team was once again bounced out in the first round. That would be Barkley and Olajuwon’s last playoff run with Houston, as both were out of the league by 2002. 

This Rockets team never accomplished what they set out to do, but they should be remembered for what they brought to the league. The Charles Barkley trade was a precursor for what would follow in the coming decades.

Star players demanding trades seem to be a dime a dozen nowadays, and star players seem more likely to team up than have a rivalry. This was in no way true in 1997. When we think about the origin of the NBA superteam, we mustn’t skip to 2007 before giving consideration to what the Rockets did 10 years prior.

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