Dream Week: Paint the White House Green
FD's Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be officially released on October 26, but the celebration is beginning early. Inspired, and curated, by Brian Phillips of Run of Play, DREAM WEEK features some of your fastest and most favorite writers trying to crack the mystery of Hakeem Olajuwon and his Rockets.
Kevin Pelton is co-author of Pro Basketball Prospectus 2010-11, and a regular contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He also considers himself an amateur Sonics historian in his spare time. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.
We talk a lot about Hakeem Olajuwon in the context of his rivals. Olajuwon peaked during an era when the NBA was blessed with an abundance of Hall of Fame talent at the center position, and he was able to prove his superiority in head-to-head showdowns. During the 1994 and 1995 postseasons, Olajuwon's Rockets eliminated Patrick Ewing's Knicks, David Robinson's Spurs and Shaquille O'Neal's Magic. Each time, Olajuwon comfortably outplayed his rival to win the series' biggest matchup.
What has received less attention is the opponent Olajuwon never could top, his nemesis of sorts. You might assume that is a reference to Michael Jordan, but such a description would be unfair to Olajuwon, who never faced Jordan in a game with anything of consequence on the line after the 1982 Final Four, when both players were freshmen. He never got a chance to test himself against the Bulls in the NBA Finals. Instead, Olajuwon's true kryptonite was the Seattle SuperSonics, who owned him for an entire decade.
The numbers are striking, really. The Sonics' domination of Olajuwon and the Rockets was even greater than I remembered as a fan of the team growing up. From 1987 through 1996, the two teams squared off four times in the playoffs. The Sonics won every series, including season-ending defeats in 1993 and 1996 that bookended Houston's back-to-back championships. In 1996, the Sonics swept the two-time defending champs out of the playoffs. So much for the heart of a champion.
The 1996 sweep capped a two-year stretch in which the two teams played 12 times. The Rockets never won any of those matchups. All told, the Sonics put together a 13-game head-to-head winning streak that seems more appropriate for a series between a champion and a cellar-dweller, not two elite teams.
Now, I know what Houston fans are thinking. "What about 1997?" they counter. Well, that didn't count. Not because Shawn Kemp was on his way out of town amid rumors of his alcoholism, though that certainly did not help matters. (1) No, the problem is that the Rockets irreparably altered the landscape of the Western Conference by trading for Charles Barkley in the summer of 1996.
Up to that point, Houston, Phoenix and Seattle had been the conference's three elite teams, and they had an unusual relationship that can best be understood in the context of the game rock-paper-scissors. Each team had a matchup advantage over one of the others. The Sonics owned the Rockets, but struggled against Barkley and the Suns (who knocked them out of the playoffs in 1993 and won eight out of 15 head-to-head matchups from 1992-93 through 1994-95). Meanwhile, Houston always beat Phoenix. The Rockets won 10 of the 16 games between the teams from 1992-93 through 1995-96 and famously upset the Suns en route to both of their championships.
During this stretch, matchups were key to the outcome of the Western Conference postseason. The two years Houston won championships, the Rockets managed to avoid the Sonics, who were ignominiously upset in the opening round in 1994 and 1995. From this perspective, Robert Pack and Nick Van Exel were just as critical to Houston's back-to-back titles as Jordan's retirement. (2)
While Barkley was able to neutralize the Sonics' traps by facing up and playing away from the basket, the Seattle pressure defense was almost perfectly designed to frustrate Olajuwon. Rudy Tomjanovich's offense was built on a simple principle: Defenses would have to choose between letting Olajuwon play one-on-one in the post or giving up open three-pointers to the Rockets' shooters. Only the Sonics, because of their long, athletic defenders, could cut off both heads of the Houston attack.
With their ability to switch, trap and throw two and even three defenders at the post, the Sonics created a chaotic game that was anathema to the predictability the Rockets needed for their offense.
"We just have to play basketball, because our system, the way we organize, the way we go by the book, won't work against this team," Olajuwon told the Seattle Times in 1996. "You can't run a set offense against this team. We can't just bring the ball down, throw it inside, then kick it out." (3)
None of this is to say the Sonics shut Olajuwon down. In fact, some of his greatest performances came in defeat against Seattle. In the deciding Game 6 of the teams' series in 1987, Olajuwon had 49 points and 24 rebounds in a double-OT game. Still, the Sonics won. In the 1993 playoffs, when the two teams played an epic seven-game series that ultimately hinged on Seattle sweeping the teams' two-game season-opening series in Japan (4) (the home team won every game, but the Sonics held home-court advantage by virtue of winning the season series), Olajuwon recorded a double-double in every game and topped 20 points six times in seven games. Still, Seattle won.
What stands out in my memory from that 1993 series was how rarely Olajuwon rested. He played at least 44 minutes in four of the seven games, including an even 50 in Game 7, which went to overtime. (2) Every time Olajuwon did go to the bench, there was immense pressure on the Sonics to build up a lead against Houston's second unit. Even against the team that stopped him better than any other, Hakeem loomed larger than life.
(1) In fact, despite low shooting percentages and eight turnovers in Game 7 at Houston, Kemp had a good series before sealing his fate in Seattle by demanding a trade.
(2) Pack was key to Denver's stunning Game 5 win at the Seattle Center Coliseum, which made the Nuggets the first eight seed ever to win a series. Van Exel torched the Sonics throughout the Lakers' first-round victory the following year.
(3) This quote came after Game 2. Things would get no better in that series.
(4) It was on the long flight to Japan where Olajuwon apparently repaired his relationship with then-Houston owner Charlie Thomas. In another fascinating point of Olajuwon-Sonics connection, one of the deals the Rockets considered for their star would have brought back Benoit Benjamin, Derrick McKey and a second-year point guard named Gary Payton from Seattle. Now that's an interesting "what if?" Would Olajuwon and Shawn Kemp have become the greatest frontcourt duo of all time, or would they have gotten in each other's way in the paint? Would Payton have become a star with Otis Thorpe and Benjamin on the receiving end of his alley-oops?
(5) Stunningly, Rudy T did not want to go to a 37-year-old Tree Rollins.