Established as an NBA expansion franchise in 1967, the Rocket’s relocated from San Diego to Houston in 1971, and have been calling the “Lone Star State” their home ever since.
Houston’s first taste of success appeared in the Mid-80s when the Rockets drafted seven foot center Hakeem Olajuwon out of the University of Houston with the first pick in the 1984 draft. The star studded draft featured Olajuwon being drafted before the likes of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. On the Rockets, Olajuwon was paired with 7’4 Ralph Sampson, creating the tallest front court in all of basketball and deeming the nickname the “Twin Towers”.
The Houston Rockets crashed the scene in the mid-90s, taking advantage of the chink in the Chicago Bull’s armor, as Michael Jordan’s exodus from the NBA to the MLB gave the Rockets a window to capture glory. The Houston Rockets won back-to-back titles fueled by the lethal combination of 2-time Finals MVP Hakeem Olajuwon and 10-time All-Star Clyde Drexler.
In the early to mid-2000s, the Rockets found little success. From 2002-2012, the Rockets only made it past the first round of the playoffs once, under the leadership of center Yao Ming and small forward Tracy McGrady. The offensive strategy of running through the big man in the paint was slowly shifting to the three-point shot in the decade to come.
Shift in Philosophy
Northwestern and MIT Grad, Daryl Morey, took over the General Manager job with the Houston Rockets in 2007. He is famed for taking the “Moneyball” approach in baseball and applying those same data analytic strategies in his approach to the game of basketball. His philosophy shifted to smaller line-ups on the floor, which prioritized the three-point shot over the midrange offensive game. Since 2016, the Rockets have led the league in 3-point attempts per game, averaging 45.8 3-point attempts per game this past season.
Before the 2012-13 season, Morey acquired shooting guard James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Harden, coming off of a sixth man of the year award, would prove to be the focal point for the Rockets three-point strategy for the next decade. From 2013 through 2020, the Houston Rockets have made the playoffs every single season. Over the time span, Harden became a 3x-scoring champion, along with winning the MVP in the 2018 season.
Even though the Rockets have seen glimpses of success in recent years, they have failed to capture the ultimate prize. The reasoning you may ask? The Golden State Warriors. Since the 2014-15 season, the Warriors have eliminated the Rockets four-times from the playoffs, in which two of those losses came in the Western Conference Finals.
This forced Morey to make a splash in free agency this past off-season. The Rockets traded 10x NBA All-Star Chris Paul, as well as sending the 2024 and 2026 first round picks, and 2021 and 2025 second round pick swaps to the Oklahoma City Thunder, in exchange for the 2016-17 MVP Russell Westbrook. This move reunited Harden and Westbrook, who were former teammates with the Thunder, and created one of the most dynamic backcourts in all of basketball.
The Rockets finished the 2019-20 regular season with a record of 44-28, which was good enough for the 4th seed in the Western Conference playoffs. According to FanDuel, the odds for the Houston Rockets to win the 2020 NBA Championship is at +1100.
The small ball three-point approach has proved to be effective in the regular season, but the question still remains if the Rockets can get over the hump to secure their third ever NBA Championship. The key for the Rockets will be whether Eric Gordon, Jeff Green, Robert Covington, and PJ Tucker will be enough of a supporting cast to assist the stellar tandem of Harden and Westbrook.