The Houston Rockets have made some big trades over the course of their history. In the last few decades alone, the Rockets have traded for players like Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Tracy McGrady, and, of course, James Harden. They traded for Chris Paul in 2017 and then traded Paul for Russell Westbrook in 2019.
Houston struck gold yet again just before 2020’s February deadline by trading for Robert Covington from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Covington was terrific after the trade until the Rockets traded him to the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2020 offseason.
It would be safe to say that Rockets seem to have focused their attention on the trade market in recent years, with their emphasis on free agency seemingly not as important. That being said, we were still able to come up with a top-five list of the Rockets’ best free-agent signings ever, and while there may have been none in the past five years or so, we’re still pretty confident about the bunch we’re about to present below.
6-foot-6 shooting guard Lewis Lloyd signed with the Rockets in 1983 after spending the first two uneventful seasons of his career with the Golden State Warriors. It was in Houston where Lloyd hit his stride, putting up 17.8 points (on 51.6 percent shooting), 3.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.5 blocks per game in his first season with the Rockets.
In the succeeding offseason, Houston drafted the great Hakeem Olajuwon. Lloyd served as a pivotal piece on the Olajuwon-led Rockets who went all the way to the NBA Finals in 1986, only to be defeated by Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics.
Unfortunately, Lloyd’s career in Houston ended on a sour note. The former Drake University standout tested positive for cocaine in his fourth year in Houston, and he was handed a two-and-a-half-year suspension by the NBA. That pretty much marked the end of his career in the league, and while he was still able to return a couple of years later, he was clearly no longer the player he once was.
The legendary Rick Barry was an All-Star for 12 consecutive seasons (notwithstanding the year he sat out due to legal issues) prior to joining the Rockets as a free agent in 1978 at the age of 34. There’s no denying that this was already at the tail end of his decorated career, but the fact that he signed with Houston means that he has to be on this list.
It’s not like he was terrible in his final two seasons with the Rockets, though, as he actually averaged a career-best 6.3 assists (along with 13.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals) per game in his debut campaign with Houston.
Playing alongside another Rocket great in Moses Malone, Barry helped guide Houston to back-to-back playoff appearances before retiring in 1980.
One of the biggest names to sign with Houston is none other than Dikembe Mutombo, who is widely considered one of the best defensive big men this league has ever seen. Much like Barry, however, Mutombo signed with the Rockets during the twilight of his career. He played out the remaining five years of his illustrious career in Houston but was definitely a shell of his former self.
Mutombo averaged just 15.6 minutes per game in five years with the Rockets, putting up 3.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game. He may not have made much of an impact in Houston, but as far as big names go, he is — technically — the greatest player the Rockets have ever signed.
The reason why we have Jeremy Lin on this list is because of one simple fact: Linsanity. Several Rockets news outlets were buzzing about the 6-foot-3 point guard when he signed with Houston as a free agent in 2012 following a memorable stint with the New York Knicks.
He was one of the biggest names on the market that summer and the fact that he chose the Rockets was a big win for the organization. We have to mention, though, that Houston signed him to a $25 million deal not long after they cut him during the preceding season’s training camp.
Lin may not have brought his trademark explosiveness to Houston — the NBA was already able to figure him out by then — but he was still able to provide some decent output during his two seasons with the side, averaging 13.0 points, 2.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.3 steals per contest.
After establishing himself as one of the league’s premier big men during his time with the Orlando Magic, Dwight Howard had a rough season with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012-13. In a bid to revive his tarnished image, the former first overall pick opted to sign with the Rockets to play alongside James Harden.
Howard was dubbed an All-Star in his first season in Houston, averaging 18.3 points (on 59.1 percent shooting), 12.2 rebounds, 0.8 steals, and 1.8 blocks per contest. He then helped the Rockets get to the Western Conference Finals in 2015.
The 6-foot-10 center, however, parted ways with the Rockets after the 2015-16 season, following another disappointing postseason run as they fell to the Warriors 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs.
Nonetheless, in terms of name recognition and impact, Howard is arguably the best player the Rockets have ever signed as a free agent.