Number Head line Page
1. The history of the team 2-22
2. The head coach 23-26
3. Hakeem Olajuwon 27
4. Charles Barkley 28
5. Scottie Pippen 29
6. Rockets Acquire Pippen 30-31
7. Turbo 32
8. glossary 33-34
Houston Has Been Home Of The Big Man-From Moses To Ralph
The Houston Rockets were introduced to the NBA as the San Diego Rockets in 1967, the same year that the American Basketball Association launched itself as a rival league. Despite boasting the great Elvin Hayes through the early years, the Rockets never caught on in San Diego and moved to Houston after only four seasons. The franchise stumbled through its first five years in Houston before acquiring Moses
Malone early in the 1976-77 campaign. Malone put the club on his hulking shoulders and carried the Rockets to respectability. Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon bore the big-man banner in the 1980s and into the 1990s, posting impressive seasons.
Eventually Olajuwon would lead the Rockets to back-to-back championship banners in 1994 and 1995.
1967-68: A Disappointing Debut
That the Rockets were lost amid professional basketball teams in the late 1960s is not surprising. San Diego entered the NBA in 1967-68 along with the Seattle SuperSonics.
The ABA introduced 11 new teams that year, and the NBA would add two clubs the following season. Furthermore, the Rockets' debut season resulted in a 15-67 record, the most losses ever recorded by an NBA team at the time.
A starting lineup of Don Kojis and Johnny Green at forward, John Block at center, and Jon McGlocklin and John Barnhill at guard played the team's first game on October 14, 1967, before a crowd of 7,476 in the San Diego Sports Arena. Coached by General Manager Jack McMahon, the Rockets lost to the St. Louis Hawks, 99-98. The team limped to a 2-14 start and didn't earn its 10th victory until Christmas Day. As the Rockets staggered to a league-worst record, they could take consolation in the fact that they would own the first overall pick in the 1968 NBA Draft.
1968-71: "The Big E"
After winning a coin toss with the Baltimore Bullets, the Rockets selected Elvin "the Big E" Hayes from the University of Houston. Hayes had just finished a storied college career, highlighted by a 39-point performance against UCLA and Lew Alcindor when the Cougars snapped the Bruins' 43-game winning streak on national television.
Hayes quickly showed that he could play in the professional ranks. As a rookie in 1968-69 he captured the NBA's scoring title by pouring in 28.4 points per game. He transformed the Rockets into a respectable club, leading San Diego to a 37-45 record, fourth in the Western Division and ahead of the Chicago Bulls, the Seattle SuperSonics, and the Phoenix Suns. The Rockets made the playoffs, but the Hawks, in their first year
in Atlanta, eliminated them, four games to two, in a semifinal series. Kojis, who scored 22.5 points per game during the regular season, joined Hayes in the 1969 NBA All-Star Game.
Despite a spectacular rookie season, Hayes played second fiddle to Baltimore's Unseld when it came to league honors. After averaging 18.2 rebounds and leading the Bullets to a first-place finish in the Eastern Division, Unseld was named the NBA Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player for 1968-69.
Hayes, who would eventually become a Hall of Fame selection, was a big man with quick moves and a soft touch, the kind of player that could lead a team to prosperity. He averaged more than 27 points in his first three seasons, but his support was minimal. With new coach Alex Hannum at the helm in 1969-70, the Rockets went 27-55. They finished 40-42 in 1970-71, and by 1971-72 they were in Houston.
1971-72: Basketball Comes To Football-Crazed Houston
An ambitious group in the humid oil town, headed by real estate broker Wayne Duddleston and banker Billy Goldberg, bought the franchise for $5.6 million. Houston was in an intense buying period, acquiring its way to status as a big-league city. There seemed to be a belief, unrealistic as it may have been, that hometown hero Hayes could immediately make basketball a success in the football-crazed city.
"The owners remembered Elvin packing 50,000 into the Astrodome for the UCLA game in 1968," longtime Rockets General Manager Ray Patterson once said. "They were thinking, 'Let's see, 50,000 people at $10 a head, that's a $500,000 gate every night.'"
Real life proved to be different for the Rockets' investors. With an average home attendance of 4,966 in the club's inaugural season in Houston, the organization couldn't begin to meet operating expenses. The Rockets played home games at the Astrodome and AstroHall, at HemisFair Arena in San Antonio, at Hofheinz Pavilion on the
University of Houston campus, and in Waco. Legend has it that one Wednesday night in Waco the local churches drew more people than the Rockets; the only fan in the box seats slept through the game and had to be awakened after it was over.
Still, the team was respectable in 1971-72. Hayes, now in his fourth season, ranked among the league leaders in both scoring (25.2 ppg) and rebounding (14.6 rpg), and the team boasted two sparkling young players in Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich. The Rockets' first year in Houston produced a 34-48 record and a fourth-place finish in the Pacific Division.
1972-74: Rockets Trade Hayes, But Still Endure Losing Ways
Prior to the 1972-73 season Hayes was traded to the Baltimore Bullets for Jack Marin and future considerations. Houston, now in the Central Division of the Eastern Conference, was led by Tomjanovich (19.3 ppg), Marin (18.5), Jimmy Walker (18.0), and Mike Newlin (17.0). In an ongoing battle between two of the game's best free-throw shooters, Murphy's .888 free-throw percentage was second only to the Golden State
Warriors forward Rick Barry's .902 mark. Newlin ranked third at .886. The team finished 33-49 and in third place in the division.
Although Tomjanovich and Murphy became two of the better players in the league in 1973-74, their improvement didn't move the Rockets along in the standings. Houston finished the season at 32-50, another third-place finish in the Central Division.
Murphy was becoming something of a sensation. A quick 5-9 point guard, he averaged 20.4 points, 7.4 assists, and 1.9 steals and boasted a .522 field-goal percentage. He would be elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.
The team had yet to catch the city's fancy, however. "One night we were on the bench...talking about where we wanted to go after the game," Tomjanovich recalled. "It was so quiet that a guy way up in the stands yells out, 'No, no, don't go there. That's not a good place to eat.'" Ray Patterson recalls another night during this period, driving to a season opener against Pete Maravich and Atlanta at Hofheinz Pavilion. Patterson was encouraged because of the heavy traffic. "But then we got there and everybody turned off to go to a nearby stadium for high school football," he said. "The high school game drew about 20,000. We had about 200."
1974-76: A Glimmer Of Progress
The 1974-75 campaign brought a glimmer of progress. With Tomjanovich, Murphy, and Newlin still leading the way, the Rockets jumped to a 10-5 start and were 37-31 by March 8. By season's end they had managed a 41-41 mark to finish in second place in the Central Division behind the Washington Bullets. With Coach John Egan guiding the club for a second full season, the Rockets made their first appearance in the playoffs since arriving in Houston, meeting New York in a newly added best-of-three first-round series.
The Knicks, an aging team with Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Bill Bradley, and Jerry Lucas, couldn't keep up with the youthful Rockets. Houston took the series, two games to one, and advanced to meet the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Boston, a Dave Cowens-led team that had registered 60 wins in the regular season, thrashed Houston, four games to one.
The season had helped basketball in Houston, however. While battling for a playoff spot late in the year, the team achieved its first sellout at Hofheinz Pavilion by packing in 10,518 fans.
The 1975-76 Rockets were unable to improve on the prior season, finishing 40-42 and out of the playoffs. The starters for much of the year were Rudy Tomjanovich, Calvin Murphy, Mike Newlin, Kevin Kunnert, and Ed Ratleff.
1976-77: Rockets Find A Savior In Moses
The franchise came to life during the 1976-77 season with the arrival of Moses Malone.
Of all NBA players' stories, Malone's is among the most interesting. A high school star in Petersburg, Virginia, he made the unprecedented move of bypassing college basketball to sign with the Utah Stars of the ABA in 1974. He averaged 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds in his first year, then played a season with the ABA's Spirits of St. Louis. When the ABA and NBA merged following the 1975-76 campaign, Malone found himself on the roster of the NBA's Buffalo Braves to start the 1976-77 season.
On October 24, 1976, after Malone had played only two games with the Braves, Buffalo sent him to the Rockets in exchange for two first-round draft picks. Houston made the move at the insistence of new coach Tom Nissalke, who had been at the helm in Utah during Malone's rookie year with the Stars. Joining the Rockets at age 21, Malone was thought by many to still be in the learning stages. If so, he was in the accelerated class.
He averaged 13.2 points and 13.1 rebounds in 1976-77 and led the league in offensive rebounds with 437.
A Rockets team led by Tomjanovich, Murphy, Newlin, Malone, Kunnert, and rookie guard John Lucas edged Washington to take the Central Division title with a 49-33 record. Tomjanovich paced the team in scoring (21.6 ppg) and made his fourth consecutive All-Star appearance. The Rockets earned a bye in the playoffs and met the Bullets in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Malone, still a skinny kid at this point, outbattled Wes Unseld and Hayes and helped fire the Rockets to a series victory, four games to two.
Against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Rockets fell in six games. A controversial charging call against Lucas in the final moments of Game 6 helped the Sixers clinch the series.
1977-78: The Night A Boxing Match Broke Out
The defining moment of the Rockets' 1977-78 season came in a December 9 game against the Los Angeles Lakers. In a horrifying sequence of events, Kunnert got into a fight with the Lakers' Kermit Washington. As Tomjanovich ran over to try to break it up, Washington turned and blindly swung his fist. The blow landed squarely on Tomjanovich's face, causing massive jaw, eye, and cheek injuries. Tomjanovich spent the next five months in rehab, and although he returned the following season he would never be the same player again.
With Tomjanovich's jaw shattered, so was Houston's season. The Rockets, who had advanced to the conference finals the previous year, finished in last place with a 28-54 record.
1978-80: Malone Shines, But Houston Stumbles In Playoffs
The next season Malone came into his own. He averaged 24.8 points, grabbed a league-best 17.6 rebounds per game-almost five better than New Orleans Jazz's Rich Kelley (12.8 rpg)-and received the league's MVP Award. Malone, not exceptionally big or quick, used subtle moves, perfect positioning, and bulldog determination to become a superb center. Malone, Murphy, and Tomjanovich (who had returned to average 19.0
points) all played in the 1979 NBA All-Star Game.
Rick Barry also joined the team that year as a free agent, with the Rockets sending John Lucas to Golden State as compensation. The future Hall of Famer, now in the twilight of his career, averaged a modest 13.5 points. He did set a new NBA record, however, by posting a .947 free-throw percentage for the season. He would play one more year for the Rockets before retiring in 1980.
The Rockets went 47-35 in 1978-79, Nissalke's last season as coach, for a second-place finish in the Central Division. They brought high hopes into the playoffs but lost two straight to Atlanta in a best-of-three first-round series.
Del Harris replaced Nissalke at the helm for the 1979-80 campaign. Malone continued to dominate inside, averaging 25.8 points and 14.5 rebounds. Murphy contributed 20.0 points per contest, while Barry ended his career by scoring 12.0 points per game. The Rockets finished the year at 41-41, tying San Antonio for second place in the Central Division.
They upended the Spurs, two games to one, in a first-round playoff series before being swept by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The arrival of a third NBA team in Texas, the Dallas Mavericks, caused a reshuffling in 1980-81 that sent Houston to the Western Conference. The Rockets joined the Midwest Division, which also included San Antonio, Kansas City, Denver, Utah, and Dallas.
1980-81: Rockets Take An Improbable Trip
Second-year players Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson were the talk of the NBA for the 1980-81 season, but it was Moses Malone who carried his team on an improbable trip to the NBA Finals. Malone ranked second in the league in scoring (27.8 ppg) and first in rebounding (14.8 rpg), finishing runner-up to Philadelphia's Julius Erving for the MVP Award. Murphy, 32 years old and the shortest player in the league, had a season to remember. In addition to scoring 16.7 points per game, he sank 78 consecutive free throws during the year to break the previous NBA mark of 60 set by Rick Barry in 1976.
Murphy ended the season with an NBA-record .958 free-throw percentage (206-of-215), erasing the .947 mark Barry had set while with the Rockets in 1979.
The team also received solid contributions from Rudy Tomjanovich (11.6 ppg) and Robert Reid (15.9), a versatile 6-8 player who was the only Rocket to start all 82 games. Other occasional starters included Mike Dunleavy, Allen Leavell, Billy Paultz, Bill Willoughby, Calvin Garrett, Tom Henderson, and Major Jones. Houston finished the 1980-81 regular
season at 40-42, tied with Kansas City for second in the Midwest behind San Antonio.
The Rockets sneaked into the playoffs by one game in the final weekend of the regular season. They then began an admirable playoff run. Drawing the defending NBA-champion Lakers in the first round, the Rockets were given little chance. But they clipped Los Angeles, two games to one, then got past the San Antonio Spurs and George Gervin, four games to three, in the conference semifinals. This set up an unlikely conference finals matchup with Kansas City, which had also finished 40-42.
The Kings, led by Otis Birdsong, Scott Wedman, and Phil Ford, proved to be little competition for Malone and the rest of the Houston squad. The Rockets triumphed in five games to earn their first trip to the NBA Finals. In fact, 1981 marked the first time a team from Houston played for a championship in basketball, football, or baseball.
Boston represented the stronger Eastern Conference, which had three teams with 60-win seasons (Philadelphia and the Milwaukee Bucks filled out the trio). The Celtics, with Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell, and Kevin McHale, were expected to rout the Rockets, although Malone brashly said he could take four guys from his hometown
and win the series. Malone and the experts were both wrong. The Celtics won, but Del Harris's squad put up quite a fight before bowing out in six games.
1981-82: Malone Cops Second MVP Award
The 1981-82 season was another banner campaign for Malone, who averaged 31.1 points (second in the NBA behind George Gervin) and a league-leading 14.7 rebounds en route to his second MVP Award. He was joined on the blocks by Elvin Hayes, who had returned to the Rockets to play his final three seasons. The rest of the team was in transition. Rudy Tomjanovich had retired and moved into a scouting position, Calvin Murphy was on the bench, and Tom Henderson, Allen Leavell, Mike Dunleavy, and others shared the guard spots.
Houston compiled a 46-36 record and tied the Denver Nuggets for second place in the Midwest Division behind San Antonio. But unlike the previous season, the Rockets sputtered in the playoffs, losing a best-of-three first-round series to the Seattle SuperSonics.
Elsewhere, the Los Angeles Lakers blew undefeated through the early rounds of the playoffs and trounced Philadelphia, four games to two, in the NBA Finals. The Sixers were hampered in the series by the lack of a consistent center to battle the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, so they went out and got one for 1982-83.
1982-83: Basketball's $13.2 Million Man
Malone had become a free agent after the 1981-82 season, and the Sixers made him a contract offer of $13.2 million, an astronomical figure at the time. Houston exercised its right of first refusal and matched the offer, then used the leverage to trade Malone to Philadelphia in exchange for Caldwell Jones and a first-round draft choice.
Malone's departure took the heart and soul out of the Rockets, who struggled through the next two seasons. They plummeted to a league-worst 14-68 mark in 1982-83, and no player averaged more than 15 points per game. Meanwhile, Philadelphia and Malone romped to the NBA title, sweeping the Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals. Despite having to relocate, Malone won his second consecutive MVP Award.
1983-85: How Do You Stop Two 7-Footers?
The good thing about bad seasons is that they generally yield high draft choices. That certainly held true for the Rockets, who would pick first in both the 1983 and 1984 drafts.
Houston wielded its picks well, selecting 7-4 Ralph Sampson in 1983 and the next year opting for 7-foot Akeem (now Hakeem) Olajuwon to assemble the tallest frontcourt the league had ever known.
Sampson, a three-time Naismith Award winner at the University of Virginia, possessed enough size and grace to be called the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Along with new coach Bill Fitch, the giant rookie helped the Rockets to a 15-game improvement in 1983-84 for a 29-53 overall record. Playing in all 82 games, Sampson averaged 21.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 2.40 blocks. At season's end he was an easy choice for the
NBA Rookie of the Year Award.
The NBA's biggest big men had been growing taller through the years, from George Mikan (6-10) to Wilt Chamberlain (7-1) to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (7-2). But the league hadn't seen a double shot the size of the one that Houston unleashed in 1984-85.
Olajuwon was less experienced than Sampson. He had led the University of Houston's "Phi Slamma Jamma" squad to three Final Four ppearances, but the native of Nigeria had never played basketball until 1978, two years before enrolling in college. Houston selected Olajuwon after winning a coin toss with the Portland Trail Blazers, which chose
Sam Bowie, leaving Chicago to take a guard named Michael Jordan.
Sampson (22.1 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and Olajuwon (20.6 ppg, 11.9 rpg) found enough room in the paint during their first year together to become the first teammates since Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor in 1970 to each average 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds per game.
Olajuwon finished second to Jordan in the balloting for the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.
The squad and its so-called "Twin Towers" amassed a 48-34 record in 1984-85 for a second-place finish in the Midwest Division. The Rockets returned to the playoffs but were bounced in the first round by the Utah Jazz.
1985-86: "Twin Towers" Lead Rockets Back To Finals
For the 1985-86 season Olajuwon and Sampson were joined by a complement of capable players: Rodney McCray, Lewis Lloyd, Jim Petersen, Mitchell Wiggins, John Lucas, Allen Leavell, and Robert Reid. The team rolled to a 51-31 record and won the Midwest Division.
The Rockets entered the playoffs without their top point guards. Lucas had been suspended by the league after failing a drug test in March, and Leavell was shelved with an injury. With Sampson and Olajuwon on the court, however, guard play at times was irrelevant. The Rockets swept the Sacramento Kings in the first round; got by Denver, four games to two, in the conference semifinals; and upset defending NBA-champion Los Angeles, four games to one, in the conference finals. Sampson hit an awkward turnaround jumper to beat the Lakers in Game 5 and send his team to the NBA Finals against Boston.
The Celtics were Larry Bird's team. His rÃ¢â‚¬Å¡sumÃ¢â‚¬Å¡ for the year included his third consecutive MVP Award and a top 10 finish in five statistical categories, with 25.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 2.02 steals per game; an .896 free-throw percentage; and a .423 three-point field-goal percentage. Bird had also led the Celtics with 6.8 assists per game. Boston had tallied a 67-15 record that season for a remarkable winning percentage of .817.
In the Finals, Boston had too much firepower, too much depth, and too much Bird. The Celtics won the first two games at Boston Garden, and in the next three contests at the Summit, the Rockets managed to win only twice. Boston took the title in Game 6 at the Garden.
1986-88: Changing Of The Guard
The 1985-86 Rockets team would rank among the best in franchise history, although it quickly self-destructed. In an 18-month span following the 1986 NBA Finals, Houston's top three guards-Lucas, Lloyd, and Wiggins-were all lost to substance-abuse problems,
ending the Rockets' hopes for another shot at a title.
The Rockets compiled a 42-40 record in 1986-87, good for third place in the Midwest Division. They went quietly in the playoffs, advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals before losing to Seattle in six games. Olajuwon, meanwhile, was developing into a center of the highest order. While Sampson played only 43 games because of injuries, Olajuwon became the team's leader on both ends of the court. He averaged 23.4
points, 11.4 rebounds, and 3.39 blocks and earned the first of three consecutive berths on the All-NBA First Team.
As the 1987-88 season got underway, discord between Sampson and Coach Bill Fitch led to an early-season trade that sent Sampson to Golden State for guard Eric "Sleepy" Floyd and center Joe Barry Carroll. (The trade marked the first time that two No. 1 draft choices had been swapped for each other.) Fitch said the trade would make the team better than the 1986 NBA Finals squad. In reality, Houston finished 46-36 and fourth in a tough Midwest Division-and Fitch was replaced by Don Chaney after the season. The Dallas Mavericks, who would later come within a game of the Finals, ousted Houston in a best-of-five series, three games to one.
In the fall of 1988 the Rockets began shuffling players to restock the roster. They sent Carroll and Lester Conner to the New Jersey Nets for Tim McCormick and Frank Johnson and packaged Rodney McCray and Jim Petersen to Sacramento for Otis Thorpe. The Thorpe trade would pay quick dividends.
A 6-10 power forward from Providence with hands as big as frying pans, Thorpe provided some help for Olajuwon inside and would consistently rank among the league leaders in both field-goal percentage and dunks. From 1987 to 1993 Thorpe registered 878 dunks, second only to Charles Barkley during that period.
1988-90: Rockets Set A New Trend-Quick Playoff Exits
The 1988-89 Rockets, with a starting lineup of Olajuwon, Thorpe, Floyd, Mike Woodson, and Buck Johnson, compiled a 45-37 record, second best in the Midwest Division. But Seattle scorched them, three games to one, in the first round of the 1989 NBA Playoffs.
Olajuwon made the All-NBA First Team for the third straight season, led the league in rebounding (13.5 rpg), and became the first player since the NBA began keeping such records to collect more than 200 steals and more than 200 blocks in the same season.
The Rockets fielded a squad in 1989-90 that was similar to that of the previous season's.
Mitchell Wiggins returned to contribute 15.5 points per game, third on the team behind Olajuwon (24.3 ppg) and Thorpe (17.1). Fiery guard Vernon Maxwell was obtained from San Antonio, and John Lucas signed with the club for the fourth time.
The Rockets hovered around .500 until a slump in December dropped them to 12-18 on December 30. But the new year brought winning ways, and the Rockets stood at 19-20 after a 116-104 victory over Denver on January 22. They struggled to break even throughout the rest of season and needed a victory in their last game to finish at 41-41 and in fifth place in the Midwest Division. Houston then made a quick exit from the playoffs, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in a best-of-five first-round series.
Olajuwon, Thorpe, Wiggins, and Johnson were the club's top scorers. Larry Smith added 6.1 rebounds per game off the bench. Lewis Lloyd, an explosive guard and an integral part of Houston's run to the Finals in 1986, was on the court for 19 games but wasn't the player he once was. He wouldn't return for the following season.
Although Floyd (7.3 apg) and Lucas (4.9) still had some life, the Rockets wanted youth at the point guard position. Prior to the 1990-91 season they traded Tim McCormick and Lucas to Atlanta for Kenny Smith and Roy Marble. Smith, a native of Queens, New York, had been a high-profile collegian at the University of North Carolina. He finished his career as the Tar Heels' all-time assists leader and took the team to undefeated
records in the Atlantic Coast Conference in both 1984 and 1987. Sacramento had selected him sixth in the 1987 NBA Draft, then traded him to Atlanta midway through the 1989-90 campaign.
1990-92: Houston Struggles Without Hakeem
Kenny Smith was part of a new mix that brought Houston 11 additional wins in 1990-91.
With a lineup of Hakeem Olajuwon, Kenny Smith (17.7 ppg), Otis Thorpe (17.5), Vernon Maxwell (17.0), and Buck Johnson (13.6), the Rockets had a solid starting five.
Olajuwon, however, missed 26 games because of injuries, the most disturbing of which was a fractured eye socket courtesy of a Bill Cartwright elbow on January 3. The injury kept Olajuwon out until February 28 and broke a string of six consecutive All-Star appearances. He finished the year leading the league with a 3.95 blocked shots per game but didn't play enough games to qualify for his third straight rebounding title.
The Rockets were 17-13 before their center's injury, 15-10 without Olajuwon, and then 20-7 with him back in the lineup, to finish at 52-30 and in third place in the Midwest Division behind Utah and San Antonio. Despite the strong finish, the Rockets ran into the Finals-bound Lakers in a first-round playoff series and were swept in three straight. For the team's efforts, Don Chaney won recognition as NBA Coach of the Year.
Houston stayed with the same lineup in 1991-92 and jumped to an 8-2 start. But by February 21 the Rockets were 27-27, and by season's end they were 42-40 and in third place in the Midwest Division. On February 18 Chaney was relieved of his coaching duties. Assistant Coach Rudy Tomjanovich was named interim head coach, and the Rockets shot out to an 11-4 record. But disputes between Olajuwon and the Rockets' management proved to be a distraction in the final months of the season, and Houston staggered to a 5-10 finish, missing the playoffs by losing three straight to end the year.
1992-93: "Rudy T" Sees Season End In OT
The Rockets opened the 1992-93 season with a pair of games in Japan against the Seattle SuperSonics. Although Houston lost both contests, the trip was extremely fruitful; Olajuwon ironed out his differences with team management on the flight to Japan, removing a distraction that had hampered the Rockets throughout the preseason.
Tomjanovich had been elevated from interim head coach to permanent head coach for 1992-93, and he began to mold the Rockets into a strong defensive unit. After returning from Japan, Houston won six straight to climb atop the Midwest Division standings.
Robert Horry, a 6-10 rookie from Alabama, filled a void at the starting small forward spot. In addition, Tomjanovich employed an unlikely bunch of substitutes: power forward Carl Herrera, who was born in Trinidad and played high school basketball in Venezuela; Matt Bullard, a 6-10 forward who was a .374 three-point shooter; and Scott Brooks, a
5-11 point guard from UC-Irvine.
The main reason the team coalesced, however, was because of Olajuwon's play. He had a tremendous season, winning the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award, finishing second to Charles Barkley for MVP honors, and earning selection to the All-NBA First Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team. He led the league in blocked shots (4.17 per game), was fourth in rebounding (13.0 rpg), and ranked 13th in field-goal percentage (.529) and steals (150).
In addition to being an unequaled defensive player, Olajuwon developed into an unstoppable force on offense. Employing an extensive repertoire of moves, he averaged a career-best 26.1 points, fourth best in the NBA. In a time of great centers in the league (David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal, and Alonzo Mourning were among his contemporaries), Olajuwon was in many minds the best post player in the business.
The Rockets were buried in third place at the All-Star break but soared in the second half to win the Midwest Division with a 55-27 record. In late February and early March they put together an NBA season-best 15 straight wins (only 12 teams in history have won as many games in a row), then shot past San Antonio to take the division title.