The Rockets post Olajuwon: 25 years of broken promises

From Pippen to Harden, via McGrady. Since the 1995 ring, the Rockets have always had great teams, but they haven't made it back to the Finals.


I think that few rings have made basketball fans enjoy as much as the 1995 one. It was there that the Rockets, in a playoffs that seemed more like an epic, ended everything and everyone to be as unexpected as they deserved with one one of the toughest rings in NBA history. And it was also the definitive verification, especially for the most incredulous, that there was a hero outside of Michael Jordan in the 90s, someone capable of playing basketball as few times had been done, making the world fall in love and creating his own story, overshadowed by His Airness but no less important. The Rockets, who had won the 1994 championship with the pivot collecting the MVP of the season and the Best Defender award, seemed to bleed themselves the following year, when they barely scratched 47 victories and stayed in sixth place, behind some Lakers who They were a shadow of what they had been in the 80s and a long way from Spurs, Suns or Jazz, who insistently opposed a trophy that Jordan had left vacant after his first retirement, in 1993, and that had owners, the Rockets, in low hours.

Olajuwon remained, despite everything, one of the references of the North American competition, reaching the playoffs with 27.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 3.4 blocks on average, although far from the individual awards because of your team's record. At 32 years old, the pivot endorsed the Jazz 45 points in the first game of the playoffs, although Stockton and Malone took the game forward in front of their public. The rest of the series was a constant give and take that reached the fifth meeting in Salt Lake City, where the referees changed strangely and the public forgot their Mormon condition and became the most thunderous voice that has ever been through a basketball court. Not even that shook the pulse of Olajuwon, who scored 33 points (35 on average in the series) and eliminated a team that had achieved 60 victories in the regular season.From there, the mythical squad became an expert in adversity and ended everything that lay ahead. Robert Horry, a Clyde Drexler once a star in Portland and now a luxury veteran, the always reliable Sam Cassell, a Kenny Smith who scored seven triples in the first game of the Finals against the Magic or another unexpected hero, Mario Elie, who certified the semi-final comeback against the Suns, when in Game 7 he converted a 3-point shot from the corner that gave the Rockets a pass to the West Finals after going 3-1 down. After the victory at Phoenix (with Charles Barkley, 59 wins in the regular season), the Rockets passed the Spurs of MVP David Robinson and his lieutenant, Dennis Rodman (62 wins), in six games (and 35.3 + 12 , 5 + 5 + 4.2 from Hakeem) and crushed Shaq's Magic (another 57 wins) in the Finals, those who avoided the confrontation with a Jordan who had returned in the middle of the season, and with Olajuwon clinic included. And to put the icing on the cake, coach Rudy Tomjanovich defined what had happened with a phrase that has gone down in the annals of sport: "Never underestimate the heart of a champion."

It has been 25 years since that ring, now almost 26. A quarter of a century in which there has been neither heart nor champion in Houston, a city (the fifth largest metropolitan area in the United States) centered on a huge industry and in its great cultural diversity, but that disconnects when watching sport and has lost interest in a team that has evolved (or regressed, depending on how you look at it) and today has squads far from the idiosyncrasy in which it once participated, almost created, Olajuwon. The public at the Toyota Center is cold and quiet and, in basketball, has dropped several decibels as he waited, with increasing faintness, for his team to return to the top. And the reality is that the Rockets (almost) have always been candidates, constantly and insistently, moving well in the market and bringing up rosters with historical names that, however, have never squared in the playoffs and have been diluted with the pass of the time. From Pippen and Barkley to James Harden to McGrady and Yao Ming, two names intrinsic to the modern era of the NBA, Houston has played in the betting as a contender. And always, always, always, it has failed. And so on, for the past 25 years.

Different opportunities, identical ending

Olajuwon's project did not stay in 1995. Those Rockets still had two more competitive years, of 48 and 57 wins, with a second-round elimination in the first of those seasons against the finalists Sonics, who overwhelmed him without option. They were the last big numbers for Hakeem (26.9 + 10.9), who in 1996-97 fell from double-double for the first time in his career ... and opted for the ring for the last time. A triple by John Stockton left them without options in the sixth game of the Western Finals, and while the Jazz of MVP Karl Malone opposed a title they never won, the Rockets said goodbye and the NBA was orphaned from one of the Finals that we most wanted to witness: one between Olajuwon and Jordan.

In 1998-99 they formed one of those dream teams that can only be seen on the Play Station (and in the second decade of the 21st century): Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley came as free agents to a project that was reeling, which had an Olajuwon aged 36 and joined by two men aged 33 and 35 respectively. Eddie Johnson or Antoine Carr were also there, but not Mario Eli, Sam Cassell, Kenny Smith or Robert Horry, who had already headed to Los Angeles to show off that quality that he has developed more than anyone: being in the place and the right place. The project was shipwrecked in the first round precisely against the Lakers, those of Shaq and Kobe, who won 3-1 and advanced to fall again, before the arrival of Phil Jackson and the birth, with his eternal (and eternal) figure , from one of the greatest dynasties in recent NBA history.

Olajuwon remained on the roster until 2001 and retired from the Raptors, away from a franchise, his, in which he had been everything and to which he gave away his greatest days of glory, ones that he has never had. Tomjanovich held out until 2002-03 and coached the giant Yao Ming for a season before cancer forced his retirement, only broken by a brief stint with the Lakers, in 2004-05. With Ming, the NBA began an opening towards Asia that has generated many millions, and an expansion that far exceeded that experienced in previous years, when it was already in some development. The Chinese giant joined Jeff Van Gundy first and Tracy McGrady later, with another dream team that, however, was always beaten in the playoffs. In fact, McGrady, one of the greatest offensive talents of the turn of the century, only passed the first round in the luxury invitation that the Spurs granted him in 2013, with whom he reached a Finals in which he did not participate and that his team ended up losing.

There were also plenty of coaches in Houston: Rick Adelman arrived in 2007, thanks to a Daryl Morey who landed a few months earlier. The era of the genius of mathematics has reached today, and the last years of Ming and McGrady have passed through it, a project that was dissolved with the departure of the scorer in 2009-10 and the retirement of the pivot a year later. when the everlasting injuries punished their ailing bodies. The top of that project, which reached 22 consecutive victories (the third best record ever) in 2007-08, was reached the semifinals of the West with a tidal wave of injuries the following year, when Kobe Bryant's Lakers, Pau Gasol and Phil Jackson headed for the ring. In that time, more famous names passed through the franchise, and although McGrady had to see how his team went through the first round without him in 2009, the squad had people like Aaron Brooks, Ron Artest, Luis Scola or Shane Battier among its ranks. . Also with Dikembe Mutombo, who devoted himself entirely to his role as showman (which he performs fabulously today) when he broke his knee in the first round against the Blazers, already 42 years old.And the crisis continues

The last great project of the Rockets has ended like all those that have been after that ring, the one of 1995, which fell in love with the fans and went around the world. Not the same, since it has been closer than anyone to repeating the feat of the ring, but in a similar way, since the award has been just as non-existent as with McGrady, Pippen and company. With McHale on the bench, the Rockets reached the Western finals for the first time since Olajuwon in 1997. It was in 2015, with a loss to a Warriors who have been a real Chinese torture for Texans. They were the ones who eliminated them in 2019, in the Western semi-finals, but especially in 2018, with 3-2 up for the team led by MVP James Harden, who landed in the franchise in 2012 as a scapegoat for the Finals that the Thunder lost to the Heat.

That year, 2018, was the peak of the post Olajuwon project, the closest the team has come to returning to its glory days, ones that have not flown over a team that has run out of Daryl Morey for a quarter of a century. , Mike D'Antoni and, of course, Harden himself. And a last project, that of the last decade, through which Jeremy Lin, Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Austin Rivers and a long list of players who have passed been role-playing or real stars. And not even with that team, the best of all, have the Rockets managed to go back to the past or carve out a future. Now, without the pieces that have left, the 25 years will be even longer and the crisis will continue with Stephen Silas on the benches and John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins on the court, illustrious names that are not as illustrious as the previous ones and with which the Rockets will not be able, this time, to opt for the longed-for ring. Hakeem Olajuwon's shadow is very (very) long. And promises in his absence have never been kept. Basically, because winning is not so easy because of one thing that, sooner or later, everyone learns in the NBA: it never is.

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