Rockets History

Why Hakeem Olajuwon is the Greatest International Player Ever

N.B. Lindberg
Houston Rockets v Washington Bullets
Houston Rockets v Washington Bullets / Mitchell Layton/GettyImages
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Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets gets mobbed
Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets gets mobbed / BRIAN BAHR/GettyImages

Hakeem's Unassailable Case for Greatest International Player

The all-around excellence led him to be the all-time blocks leader and the only player to be in the top ten for both blocks and steals. Hakeem wasn’t just an all-world defensive anchor, he was also an offensive focal point. 

Over the course of his 18-season career (why did he spend that single season in Toronto?), he averaged 21.8 points per game. His 12-season peak from 1985-86 to 1996-97 saw him average 24.5 points per game on 51.4% shooting. His skills in the post were so legendary that following his retirement NBA superstars routinely sought him out for lessons and wisdom. 

Analytics also smile on Hakeem's career. During his playing career, the terms win shares (WS), player efficiency rating (PER), box plus/minus (BPM), and value over a replacement player (VORP) were hardly uttered. Fortunately, the necessary data to calculate those stats was collected and thus we can peer back into his career with a more modern approach. 

Hakeem ranks 19th in career NBA WS, 49th in career WS per 48 minutes, 17th in career VORP, 29th in BPM, and 20th in PER. For international players, he ranks 2nd in win shares, 7th in win shares per 48 minutes, 2nd in VORP, 5th in BPM, and 2nd in PER. 

His regular-season exploits paint him as a top-25 player all-time and leaves him only second to Dirk Nowitzki in a few stats for tops among foreign-born players, but the metrics likely sell him short. Defensive metrics are incredibly tricky and even with recent improvements in player tracking data, statisticians still believe that they lag behind offensive metrics. As the best defensive player of his era, there’s a high likelihood that Hakeem’s impact was not completely captured. 

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