When the topic of the greatest “What If” dynasties in sports comes up, the one franchise that intrigues me the most is the mid-1980s Houston Rockets.
The NBA of the ’80s was a very top-heavy league. A total of only five teams played in the NBA Finals between 1980 and 1989 – three in the East and two in the West. One of those Western Conference teams, of course, was the Los Angeles Lakers, who played in eight of the ten Finals during the decade.
The team that played in the other two?
The Houston Rockets.
They would appear in the Finals twice in the ’90s as well, finally winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 1994 and 1995. However, if things had played out differently and different men had made different decisions, it is not a stretch to imagine Houston’s trophy case being even more crowded
The Rockets finished the 1980 – ’81 season with a record of 40 – 42, one game above Golden State for the sixth and (then-) final playoff spot. Despite posting a below .500 record for the season, Moses Malone and Calvin Murphy took them to the brink of a championship before falling to Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in six games in the NBA Finals.
Following the next season, Malone became a restricted free agent and signed an offer sheet with the Philadelphia 76ers (one of the three east Finals-appearing teams of the ’80s). Houston matched it and traded Malone for Caldwell Jones and the Sixers’ first round pick in 1983.
In the years before the NBA Draft Lottery, the top two picks would be decided by a coin flip. Representatives from the worst team in each conference would travel to the league office in New York and have their draft fates – and possibly their franchise fates – determined by the flip of a coin.
After a 14 – 68 record in 1983, the Rockets won the coin toss against the Indiana Pacers and selected three-time NCAA Player of the Year Ralph Sampson. Before injuries derailed his career, Sampson was a fine player, appearing in the All-Star Game his first four seasons in the Association, and winning the Rookie of the Year Award in 1984 after averaging 21 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks, and two assists per game while also shooting 52% from the field.
Sampson got better as the year went on. His team, alas, did not.
Despite all the talk of The Process and everything surrounding it, Sam Hinkie did not invent tanking. One year after snagging Sampson with the number one pick, Houston miraculously forgot how to play basketball in the second half of the season and again wound up with top selection in one of the most talent-rich drafts in history, giving birth to the NBA Draft Lottery:
[Former 76ers General Manager Pat] Williams points out that it was the behavior of the Rockets in the final 20 games that season that inspired the league, under the leadership of new commissioner David Stern, to put in a draft lottery and prevent teams from tanking down the stretch.
“The draft is over, and the owners meeting is in June of 1984 and they are not happy,” Williams said. “The talk of the meeting is this Houston nosedive, and even though the coverage then is far from what it is today, what Houston did was enough of an eyesore for the NBA that they jumped to action — they did not put together a task force, they did not have a long, drawn-out period of careful consideration.
“In that owners meeting, they said, ‘That’s it, no more coin flips. We are going to institute a draft lottery.’ They could not afford another Houston dump. That was it, it was instituted immediately.”
Of course, it was too late. The Rockets again snagged the top pick and with it drafted the incredible Akeem Olajuwon.
The Twin Towers were born.
A ton of ink has been spilled about the 1984 Draft, but the machinations and ramifications go far deeper than simply wondering what would have happened if the Portland Trailblazers had selected Michael Jordan with the second pick instead of Sam Bowie.
In fact, it actually begins the year before.
The 1983 pick that went from Philly to Houston as part of the Moses Malone deal wound up being the third choice. So the Rockets would have another highly touted rookie to pair with Sampson and set them up for a nice post-Malone/Murphy future.
They were set on a perimeter player to complement their newly acquired big man and, of the players available in the draft that year, one was a member of Phi Slama Jama at nearby University of Houston, a high-flying swingman by the name of Clyde Drexler. It seemed a perfect match.
Yet, the decision makers in the Houston front office, including head coach Bill Fitch, were smitten with another wing, Rodney McCray from Louisville, and took him at number three while Drexler slid all the way to fourteen when Portland snatched him up. Looking back, this was not a smart choice. McCray managed to play in the league for a decade and made All-Defensive First Team in 1988, but he paled in comparison to Drexler, who would be named an All-Star ten times and was also a member of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. But it’s not just hindsight – it wasn’t a totally defensible decision at the time and Houston fans naturally wanted the Rockets to draft the local college star.
Bill Fitch would stubbornly defend the choice…sort of:
“McCray did exactly what we wanted him to do and was very good. The only time I’m sorry for it is that every time we would play Drexler after, say, five years in the league, he’d just stick it in my ear. If there was a record to be set, he would do it.”
McCray never set any NBA records and both Houston and Portland continued to lose during the 1983 – ’84 season. It would take a decade before Drexler and Olajuwon were reunited in Houston, but it could have happened much sooner.
In his autobiography, Living the Dream, Olajuwon claimed that Portland offered both Drexler and the number two pick in ’84 for Sampson. Since they were selecting Olajuwon, Houston would have used that choice to select Michael Jordan. In his 2007 book, Tip-Off: How the 1984 Draft Changed Basketball Forever, Filip Bondy puts it even more simply, claiming that Houston had an option of “a trade of Sampson for Jordan, straight up” with the Chicago Bulls.
If Houston was willing to part with Sampson and had decided to deal with Portland rather than Chicago – and why wouldn’t they since they were offering more? – they could have had a core of Olajuwon, Jordan, and Drexler, even after drafting McCray. (The McCray-Jordan connections abound: McCray was named to the NBA All-Defensive team in 1988, but it was the same year Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year. McCray’s career ended in 1993, winning a championship in his final season, but it was as a reserve member of the Chicago Bulls, who were led by Michael Jordan, who reportedly “ruined McCray,” and screamed “You’re a loser! You’ve always been a loser!” at him in scrimmages.)
Despite Sampson’s strong rookie year, the decision to not trade him for Jordan became silly in retrospect. Sampson’s body began to betray him after only a few years and he was traded from Houston to Golden State after five seasons, the Twin Towers experiment not nearly as successful as the Rockets had hoped, resulting in a single Finals appearance in 1986.
Meanwhile, during his career Michael Jordan transcended the game, elevated the NBA to never-before-seen heights, and became a worldwide icon, all while winning six championships and leaving the game as the G.O.A.T.
What if Fitch and company had made the deal with Portland? On paper that triumvirate is a monster, with Jordan and Drexler spreading the floor while Olajuwon roams the paint. Olympics and All-Star Games aside, Jordan never played with a great center (one could argue he never played with even a good one) and he would certainly have benefited from the defense having to key on Olajuwon.
Also, since they were all nearly the same age – Drexler was a year older than the other two – they all peaked around the same time. Drexler’s best season came in 1992 when he led the Trailblazers to their second NBA Finals appearance in three years, was named to the All-NBA First Team for the only time in his career, and finished second in MVP voting. The winner that year? Jordan, who was in the midst of his absolute apex when he would win three scoring titles, two MVPs, three Finals MVPs, and three championships – including one over Portland and Drexler – as well as a gold medal in a three year span. For his part, Olajuwon’s time came the year after Jordan retired for the first time, winning the MVP in 1994 and was even better the following season (just ask David Robinson) while also winning two straight rings – the second with Drexler.
Yet, NBA history is littered with superteams that weren’t able to get it done, including the 2004 Lakers and Houston’s own 1997 Rockets.
Would The Dream, The Glyde, and His Airness have been able to coexist? While none were branded as selfish, all three certainly had egos – particularly at the start of their careers – and may have bristled at sharing the ball. It took time for all of them to mature and they each did so as the alpha player of their franchise. Olajuwon was full of anger on the court and liked to party off it before his conversion to Islam calmed and centered him while Jordan needed repeated playoff defeats along with the relaxed guidance of Phil Jackson to realize he couldn’t win a title by himself.
We know that Olajuwon and Drexler could play well together – they were a miracle away from winning it all in both college and the pros – and to this day, MJ and Hakeem continue to share mutual respect and admiration for one another: Jordan said he’d take Olajuwon over any player ever (excluding himself) while Hakeem said comparing Jordan to LeBron James was unfair because Jordan was a “far superior player in a very tough league.”
The biggest issue would have been between Jordan and Drexler. While Clyde could play the three if need be, he was most comfortable at shooting guard, the same position as Jordan (in fact, that was a major reason why Portland chose Sam Bowie, and not Jordan, with the second pick). And the Jordan-Drexler rivalry ran deep. When informed before the start of the 1992 NBA Finals that Drexler was a better three-point shooter, Jordan replied, that Drexler was better “than I choose to be,” before hitting six threes in the first half of Game 1, setting a tone for the rest of the series.
It probably would not have worked. It’s hard to envision a world in which all three budding superstars would have coalesced and integrated seamlessly. Moreover, even if they could have put their pride and egos in check, the newly created salary cap would probably have made it difficult for Houston to pay all three throughout their careers.
Reality aside, it’s fun to daydream about Hakeem Olajuwon blocking shots, snatching rebounds, and chucking outlet passes to Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler as they race down the court and fly to the rim.
If the Houston Rockets had been open to trading Ralph Sampson in the spring of 1984, maybe, just maybe, they could have built a superteam that could have dominated the league for a decade or more.
Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more.