During former general manager Daryl Morey’s tenure, the Houston Rockets were known for taking “small ball” to the extreme.
The strategy resulted in multiple playoff appearances, but none of those led to a championship. The style of play certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and many doubted the formula.
However, things haven’t always been that way in Houston. Throughout their history, the Rockets boast a Hall of Fame class of big men. Let’s look back at some of the best centers in Houston Rockets history.
Before we name the best big men in franchise history, let’ start with an honorable mention: Ralph Sampson
Sampson kicks off things because he presents one of the biggest “what ifs” in the history of the team. Houston drafted the 3-time National College Player of the Year with the top pick in the 1983 NBA draft. The 7-foot-4 behemoth immediately made an impact in his rookie season and made the All-Star team in his debut campaign.
He led the Rockets to the NBA Finals in just his third NBA season but lost to the Boston Celtics in six games. Unfortunately, injuries derailed Sampson’s career after the 1986-87 season, his final All-Star campaign. In five seasons with the Rockets, Sampson averaged 19.7 points and 10.5 rebounds, to go along with four All-Star selections and an All-NBA nod in 1984-85. If injuries didn’t take their toll on his career, Sampson would have become one of the most revered players in franchise history.
Now, let’s move on to the three Hall of Fame big men who banner the Rockets’ all-time depth chart at the center position.
3. Yao Ming
The Rockets selected Yao Ming with the no. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft. Yao’s arrival to the NBA became a milestone moment for the NBA. The move headlined several Rockets news outlets as Yao became the first international player to be drafted first overall without playing a single college basketball game.
The Chinese big man had many doubters prior to entering the NBA. Many analysts predicted that Yao would fail in the NBA. However, Yao proved his naysayers wrong by showcasing a well-rounded game. Initially tagged as soft, the 7-foot-6 big man used his length and size to dominate on both ends of the floor. Despite his size, he also had a feathery touch from the outside.
Much like Sampson, however, Yao’s career was also cut short due to injuries, mostly to his foot, and needed to retire by the age of 30. Nonetheless, this didn’t impede him from making the Hoops Hall in 2016.
In a little over seven seasons with the Rockets, Yao averaged 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. In terms of franchise accolades, he currently ranks second in total blocks, sixth in rebounds, and seventh in points. He made the playoffs four times with Houston, including leading them past the second round in 2009. He also made eight All-Star selections through his career and was also named to the All-NBA team five times, including the 2nd team in 2006-07 and 2008-09.
2. Moses Malone
Moses Malone arrived in Houston in the 1976-77 season and made an immediate impact for the Rockets. Malone had his breakout season in 1978-79, where he averaged 24.8 points and a league-leading 17.6 rebounds en route to his first MVP award.
A dominant force inside the paint and on the boards, Malone would lead the Rockets to the playoffs in four straight seasons from 1979 to 1982. Despite finishing the regular season with 40-42 record, the Rockets reached the 1981 NBA Finals with Malone leading the way.
Unfortunately, the 6-foot-10 star could not lead Houston past the Boston Celtics, which won the series and the NBA title in six games. Houston followed up its 1981 Finals appearance with a first round exit in 1982, which prompted Malone to move to the Philadelphia 76ers in the following season, where Malone led the Sixers to the championship.
The 13-time All-Star only spent six seasons in Houston and never won a ring there. But it is with the Rockets where he had arguably the best individual seasons of his career. Malone blossomed as a legitimate superstar in Houston, averaging 24.0 points and 15.0 rebounds in 464 total games.
To this day, Malone’s 15 boards a night marks the highest rebounding average ever in franchise history. The 3-time MVP also ranks third in total rebounds, third in blocks, and sixth in points.
1. Hakeem Olajuwon
As decorated and as talented as the aforementioned names are, nobody comes close to Hakeem Olajuwon‘s standing as, not just the best center in franchise history, but as the greatest Houston Rocket of all time. Drafted by the Rockets with the first overall pick in 1984, The Dream became the driving force of the franchise’s only two championship teams in 1994 and 1995.
Along with Ralph Sampson, the 7-footer instantly made an impact and helped lead the Rockets to the 1986 NBA Finals in just his second year in the league. Disappointing seasons followed after Sampson struggled with injuries. However, the past failures strengthened his will and determination to eventually lead the Rockets to back-to-back NBA championships in the mid-1990s.
Devoid of a muscular frame, Olajuwon used his footwork and finesse to dominate inside the paint. His patented “Dream Shake” victimized many defenders over the years. Likewise, he also utilized a silky smooth jumper and a savvy low post game to score with ease.
Not only was Olajuwon a force on offense, he also dominated on the defensive end. To this day, the Nigerian big man still holds the record for most blocks in NBA history with 3,830. He also leads the Rockets in multiple statistical categories, including games played, field goals made, points, rebounds, and of course, blocks.
Olajuwon played 17 seasons with the Rockets, where he turned in averages of 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks.