To all Rockets fans who have heard: “Oh, the Rockets won their two championships when MJ was playing baseball, right?” This article is dedicated to you.
One of the biggest misinterpretations in the history of the Rockets franchise is how critics claim the only reason they won back-to-back championships was because Michael Jordan unexpectedly and inexplicably left the NBA to play baseball. True, MJ and the Bulls were coming off of winning three straight NBA championships (90-93), and true, Chicago posted the best record in the NBA in those three straight years. But another true (and overlooked) fact is Hakeem and the Rockets matched up better against the Chicago Bulls than any other team in the NBA during those three straight years.
Looking at the numbers, from 1990 to 1993, MJ and his Bulls were a shocking 1-5 in the regular season against the Rockets. By this time the Bulls were quickly becoming the most dominant team in basketball. They had the best overall player, one of the best role players in the history of the NBA, and the Zen Master who has broken a lot of the major coaching records. So why were the Rockets so successful against the Bulls? There are two major reasons.
The first is that the Rockets were ahead of the curb in terms of defending Jordan. Now, if teams are going against a LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, they will be okay if those individual superstars get their points. Teams focus on shutting down their teammates. In those six games, Jordan continued his dominance but the Rockets were able to stop Scottie Pippin, B.J. Armstrong, Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant, John Paxson, etc. In only one of the losses, did someone aside from Jordan score over 20 points (Pippin). Also, it is not like the games were close. The Rockets had an average win margin of 12 points. They played great team basketball, and in a majority of the wins, all five Rockets starters scored in double digits.
The second major reason is Hakeem. The Bulls had no answer for ‘The Dream.’ Cartwright struggled mightily against him, even elbowing him in the eye in 1991, forcing Olajuwon to miss 25 games. In every contest against the Bulls during this three-year span, Hakeem recorded a double double. How many did MJ have against the Rockets? One. The sad thing is MJ jetted out of town right when Hakeem was getting started. In 1993-94, he recorded one of the most memorable seasons in NBA history, becoming the first player to be named NBA MVP, NBA Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP in the same season; all this while leading the city of Houston to its first major sporting championship.
I would also take the Rockets depth over the Bulls. Aside from MJ, Pippin, and Grant, the Bulls had no other real threats, especially coming off the bench. Ed Nealy, Ricky Blanton, and JoJo English don’t strike fear in my heart. In comparison, Houston had Otis Thorpe, Vernon Maxwell, Kenny Smith, Robert Horry, Mario Ellie, and Sam Cassell.
In both 1990 and 1991, Houston was eliminated by the Lakers in the playoffs, thus forced to go home early. But there is no doubt, while they were watching the Bulls rack up three straight titles, they knew if they had the opportunity to play ‘Air Jordan’ in the Finals, the Rockets would have had as good a chance as any team in the NBA to knock of the defending champions.