The San Diego/Houston Rockets (four years in San Diego, before moving to Houston for the 1971-72 season), have been defined through the years by their talented big men.
Sure, the Rockets have had the occasional backcourt standout, but all of their meaningful success has come with a gifted big man (or two) in the middle.
It started with Elvin Hayes, a dominant but polarizing (maybe nicest thing ever said about him) big man from the University of Houston who joined Rockets in the franchise’s second season and put up massive numbers for four sub-.500 teams, one of whom (the 37-45 1968-69 team) snuck into the playoffs and was dismissed in six games. This was a fitting result for the Elvin Hayes era.
Why? Because it’s hard to expect much success from a guy who, by all accounts, is one of the least likable in NBA history.
Hayes was once referred to by Alex Hannum, his first NBA coach, as "the most despicable player I have ever coached."
And Hannum had him during a stretch when Hayes was a perennial All-Star and good for no worse than 25-15 a night!
The Rockets, now without a big presence in the middle, made the playoff just once in four years after Hayes’ departure.
Then, in the 1976-77 season, the team added a raw 21-year-old center to the mix... his name was Moses Malone.
If the Elvin Hayes era was defined by a mercurial star churning out big numbers for subpar teams, the Moses Malone era was all about toughness and hard work combined with great talent.
This was what Malone used to twice carry the Rockets to the Western Conference finals, and to the 1981 NBA Finals.
In their first 18 years, the Rockets won a grand total of one playoff series (first round against the Knicks in 1974-75) without Moses Malone on the roster.
Moses left in 1982, sending the team into a tailspin...just 43 wins over the next two seasons.
Heading into the mid-1980s, the Rockets lucked (tanked?) their way into consecutive No. 1 overall picks and saw the arrival of a pair of potentially transcendent big men- Ralph Sampson in 1983 and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984.
Over the next two seasons, the duo racked up big numbers and created matchup hell throughout the Association, gaving birth to the short-lived Twin Towers era of the 1980s.
After the duo led the Rockets to the 1986 Finals, injuries robbed Sampson of much of the next two seasons, and he was traded to the Golden State Warriors in 1988.
The Rockets, now Hakeem’s team, endured a string of early playoff exits, and even contemplated trading a disgruntled Olajuwon in the early 1990s.
Fortunately, they resisted this urge, and Olajuwon rewarded the organization's confidence in him, elevating his game from "near-superstar" to “top ten all-time,” and powering the Rockets to the top of the league with consecutive titles in 1994 and 1995.
After Hakeem’s departure around the turn of the century, the Rockets faced a handful of lean years before lucking (this time legitimately) into the top pick in the 2002 draft, 7’6” Chinese big man, Yao Ming.
While the Yao era has seen a return a to respectability, the big man’s inability, along with the inability of fellow star Tracy McGrady, to stay on the floor has transformed the past decade in Houston into a mirror image of the careers of its stars.
Lots of potential, promises of greatness, flashes of brilliance, but disappointing in the end.