Why breaking up the Rockets’ championship core was not so bad

Houston Rockets Sam Cassell (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Houston Rockets Sam Cassell (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images) /

While many former Houston Rockets think their winning core was broken up too soon, results for both the team and departing players show the decision worked out for many.

After the Houston Rockets won their second title in a row in the 1994-95 season, they were beaten soundly by Shawn Kemp and the Seattle SuperSonics in the following playoffs. After that, the front office took a huge gamble in the hopes of continuing short-term success, trading away Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Chucky Brown and Mark Bryant for Charles Barkley.

Since then, the move has been judged harshly in NBA circles and has even recently been questioned by players on those 90s squads. For all the bad press this trade received, though, the season right after was still one of the Rockets’ best.

The Rockets got off to a 21-2 start in 1996-97 and finished that season with a 57-25 record even though Barkley missed almost 30 games.  The Rockets had also brought Kevin Willis,  Eddie Johnson and Sedale Threatt into the mix.

One of the main reasons for the trade was to defeat the Supersonics, which ended up paying off in those playoffs. Barkley came through in Game 7 against Seattle when he scored 20 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in a five-point deciding win.

The Rockets finally vanquished their toughest competition of the 1990s with the help of Charles, but, unfortunately, the next round also brought on one of the biggest shots in NBA history.

The Rockets were seconds away from forcing overtime and a possible Game 7 against the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals when John Stockton broke free after an illegal screen was set and made the game-winning 3-pointer that sent the Jazz to their first-ever NBA Finals.

This was the beginning of the end for the championship hopes of this Rockets team, but their series victory over the Sonics was a victory in its own right.

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While the big trade obviously was a factor, it was an injury plague that really hampered the team’s success in the next few years, and the Rockets were knocked out in the first round for the first time since 1991.

Drexler retired at the end of the 1998 season and the Rockets made another blockbuster trade, bringing in six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen. Unfortunately, though, the team could never recover any of the previous magic.

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The lockout before the 1998-99 season did not help the situation, as the Rockets finished with a good record but ran into the Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, falling 3-1 in the series. Mario Elie, however, ended up winning another NBA title, as he had just left in the offseason to sign with the San Antonio Spurs.

Cassell and Horry also had plenty of success after their trade from the Rockets. Cassell helped take the New Jersey Nets to the playoffs for the first time in four years in 1998 before being defeated by Michael Jordan and the Bulls.

He would then go on to help the Bucks make it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2001. Cassell would finish his career with the Boston Celtics, where he won his third NBA championship in 2008.

Probably the biggest winner in the entire trade ended up being Robert Horry. Big Shot Bob went on to win three championships with the Los Angeles Lakers before capping his career off with two more with the San Antonio Spurs. Horry is still one of only two players (John Salley) to ever win a ring with three separate teams.

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While the Rockets didn’t immediately benefit from their risky trade, it did come with its benefits for many of the players individually while also setting the team up for a future that would include Steve Francis, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.