Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao Ming and the 10 Greatest Centers in Houston Rockets History

Dan BartemusCorrespondent IMay 1, 2011

Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao Ming and the 10 Greatest Centers in Houston Rockets History

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    Remember when the center position used to dominate the NBA?

    Most of you probably don't because the last decade of professional basketball has been guard oriented. 

    But way back when, it was the giants in the paint that often decided the outcome of each game, and the teams that had a premier big man stood at the front of the line. It's no wonder then why the Houston Rockets were one of the NBA's elite franchises from 1980-2000.

    Hakeem Olajuwon was selected as the No. 1 overall pick by the Rockets in the 1984 draft and rose to such great heights that the public either forgot or deemed it unnecessary to chastise the organization for passing on Michael Jordan.

    The Dream is simply the best center to ever don a Rockets uniform, and arguably the best that ever lived. It's no secret that he is No. 1 on this list, but what about Yao Ming? What about Ralph Sampson and Otis Thorpe?

    Where do they rank on the list of the top 10 centers in the rich history of the Houston Rockets? Take a look.

10. Kevin Kunnert

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    Kunnert was the 12th overall selection in the 1973 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls, but was traded to the Rockets midway through the season for Matt Goukas and Jack Marin.

    The four full years he spent in Houston were Kunnert's most productive. From the beginning of the '74 season to the end of '78, Kunnert averaged 10.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, above his career averages of 8.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks over nine years.

    Kunnert had the NBA's sixth highest field goal percentage in 1974-75, and finished in the top 10 in total rebound percentage in three consecutive seasons from '75-78.

    Solid, but unspectacular, Kunnert was just good enough to land at No. 10 on the list of best Rockets centers. Not bad.

9. Chuck Hayes

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    Hayes was picked up by the Rockets after going undrafted in 2005 following a stellar college career at the University of Kentucky. 

    As far as numbers go, Hayes' actually pale in comparison to what Kunnert produced in his four-and-a-half seasons in Houston. 

    Coming off his most productive year in which Hayes averaged eight points, eight rebounds and finished with the second most first place votes in the Defensive Player of the Year vote, he still has career averages of 4.4 points and 5.8 rebounds.

    So how in the world did Hayes make the list and finish ahead of Kunnert? Because Hayes is 6'6' and is one of the best at defending a position where his man typically stands five or six inches taller. His physical limitations have never limited his actual impact on the court, and while I never saw Kevin Kunnert play, I bet he would have little trouble making him nothing more than a spectator. 

    Hayes is a great competitor, winner and essential glue guy. He has valiantly carried the Rockets through Yao Ming's various injuries and has come up big a few times in the postseason. 

    The picture you see above shows his reaction after taking a charge on Utah's Derrick Fisher in the final seconds of Game 5 of Houston's 2007 first round series with the Jazz. The Rockets led by two points at the time and that charge allowed them to hold on to the win and take a 3-2 series lead. 

    His contributions often get overlooked, but not here.

8. Dikembe Mutombo

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    One of the NBA's jolliest giants undoubtedly lands on this list as a nod to his overall career achievement. 

    An eight-time All-Star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year, Mutombo played his last five seasons in Houston and his best statistical output came in 2004-05 when he averaged four points, five rebounds and just over one block per game. Nothing special, but Mutombo gave the Rockets a lift numerous times when Yao was either injured or in foul trouble. 

    He always provided a wall in the paint and his shot blocking ability never left him. Mutombo solidified the Rockets' front line and also provided a deep and experienced voice in a locker room that generally lacked leadership during his tenure. 

    Deke was respected by everyone and still receives a standing ovation from the Toyota Center crowd each time he joins Owner Les Alexander in his courtside seats. 

7. Kevin Willis

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    Willis signed with Houston as a free agent in the summer of 1996 at the age of 34. He played two full seasons before getting traded in 1998, and came back for one more in 2001-02.

    The initial stop was a good one for Willis, as he averaged 11.2 points and 7.5 rebounds in his first year, and improved to 16.1 points and 8.4 rebounds in 1997-98. Willis averaged a double-double in the playoffs that year, a run that ended prematurely in the first round. 

    The Michigan State Spartan alum returned in a reduced role in '01, contributing six points and six rebounds per night off the bench. 

    Willis finished his 21-year career with over 17,000 point and just under 12,000 rebounds, and will always be remembered for his toughness and rebounding prowess.

6. Otis Thorpe

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    The Rockets acquired Thorpe in a trade with the Sacramento Kings just before the start of the 1988 season, not knowing they were getting a player that would help the organization win its first championship.

    Thorpe, like Willis, was never the starting center for Houston, but he started at forward alongside Olajuwon and was used to spell The Dream at center, so I say they both qualify as Rocket centers.

    He played six-and-a-half seasons in Houston, averaging 15.8 points and 9.7 rebounds, becoming the perfect complement to Olajuwon. Thorpe had three years where he averaged a double-double and two others were he was just tenths of a point short in the rebounding category.

    The Boynton Beach, Florida native averaged 14 points and 10.6 rebounds in Houston's championship season in 1993-94, and contributed 11.3 points and 9.9 rebounds during the playoffs.

    In a way, Thorpe also contributed to the Rockets' second title in 1995. He was the main piece on Houston's end that helped it acquire Clyde Drexler from Portland in a blockbuster trade deadline deal.

5. Yao Ming

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    Ah, the case for Yao Ming. Easily the most difficult player to place on this list.

    Were it not for all of the injuries, Yao probably ends his career behind only Olajuwon or, worst case, No. 3 behind who you will soon find out is No. 2. 

    Of every player on this last and maybe every center before, during and after Olajuwon's career, Yao's game most closely resembles Dream's. The footwork. The graceful spin. The soft shooting touch. Money from the charity stripe. Dream Shake. Shanghai Shake. 

    The comparisons could go on forever. The only difference is Olajuwon had the benefit of health. Yao had that initially, missing just two games in his first three years, but never again thereafter. 

    In the next six seasons, Yao missed 25, 34, 27, 5, 82, and 77 games. Too bad because he had figured out the NBA game and was just hitting his prime when injuries struck him down. 

    Yao has career averages of 19 points, 9.3 rebounds and two blocks, with nearly identical numbers in the playoffs. He was twice in the lead or in the hunt for league MVP before going out, in 2006-07 and '07-08.

    Unfortunately, we'll never know just how great Yao would have been. But make no mistake, the big fella was great.

4. Elvin Hayes

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    Hayes was the No. 1 pick of the San Diego Rockets in 1968 and spent the first four years of his career playing for the Rockets before being dealt to the Baltimore Bullets in 1972.

    The Big E made an instant splash with the Rockets, leading the league in scoring as a rookie at 28.4 points per game, not to mention 17.1 rebounds. His next three season averages in scoring and rebounding were as follows: 27.5/16.9, 28.7/16.6, 25.2/14.6.

    Those remarkable numbers make you wonder why the organization dealt him for Jack Marin. Hayes was traded back to the Rockets in 1981 and he had three more successful seasons in red before retiring after the 1983-84 season. 

    Hayes finished his career a 12-time All-Star, six-time All-NBA selection, and NBA Champion as part of the 1973 Washington Bullets. He had career marks of 21 points, 12.5 rebounds and two blocks.

3. Ralph Sampson

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    Sampson's career wasn't as great as Elvin Hayes' or maybe even Yao's, but his four-plus seasons in Houston were tough to top.

    The Rockets selected Sampson No. 1 overall in 1983 and right out of the gate he averaged 21 points, 11 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, leading the previously hapless Rockets to the 1984 playoffs. 

    He averaged 22 and 10, and 19 and 11 the next two seasons, teaming up with Olajuwon to lead the Rockets to the 1986 NBA Finals, which they lost in six games to the Boston Celtics.

    It was after that when Sampson's body began to wither. He played six more seasons, never suiting up for more than 61 games. Recognizing this, the Rockets dealt Sampson to Golden State in December '87 for Joe Barry Carroll and Sleepy Floyd.

    Like Yao, Sampson showed flashes of a legend and even helped the organization reach the Finals. Unfortunately, his career was sidetracked far too early due to injuries and we'll never know to what level he could have risen.

2. Moses Malone

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    Malone had two solid seasons in the ABA before being traded from the Buffalo Braves to the Rockets in October '76.

    Score one for the Rockets. His points per game averaged increased in every season for the next six years, going from 13.5 in the 1976-77 season to 31.1 in his MVP season of 1981-82. Malone also averaged 15 rebounds per game over that six year period, becoming one of the most dominant players in the NBA. 

    Malone's dominance helped lead an otherwise lackluster Rockets team to the 1981 NBA Finals despite a 40-42 record. They were defeated by the Celtics in six games. In the 21 games that postseason, Malone averaged 26.8 points and 14.5 rebounds. 

    He was a 12-time All-Star, three-time MVP, two-time All-Defensive team selection and an eight-time All-NBA choice. 

    Malone won a title in 1983 with the Sixers and was named Finals MVP.

1. Hakeem Olajuwon

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    No suspense here. If there was any coming in, I ruined it in the intro.

    The argument could be made that Olajuwon was the greatest center to ever play the game of basketball, but there is no arguing his place in Rockets history. He's the best center and best player to ever wear a Rockets jersey, and it will take someone special to change that.

    Two-time NBA Champion. Olympic Gold Medalist. Two-time NBA Finals MVP. League MVP in 1994. Twelve-time All-Star. Twelve-time All-NBA selection. Nine All-Defensive teams. Two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

    Should I go on? Okay. He scored 26,946 points, grabbed 13,748 rebounds, and is the NBA's all-time leader in blocks with 3,830.

    Dream averaged 26 points and 11 rebounds in 145 playoff games, including averages of 29.2 and 11.3, 29 and 11, and 33 and 10 in the three postseasons that ended with trips to the NBA Finals. 

    Olajuwon had it all. An offensive game that stretched to 18 feet and a repertoire that included a slew of unstoppable post moves, highlighted by none other than The Dream Shake.

    Remember the work he did on David Robinson in the 1995 Western Conference Finals? Or what Shaquille O'Neal said earlier in the decade when asked if he was the greatest center of all time?

    To that Shaq replied: "Olajuwon. I saw it first hand."

    He was referencing their meeting in the '95 Finals, where the Rockets swept Orlando in four games.

    The NBA Elo Player Rater is a system used to rate the best players in NBA history based on everything from statistics to career achievement.

    Olajuwon is ranked No. 7. Three centers-- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell-- are rated higher.

    That's debatable. What's not debatable is who is No. 1 on this list.

    That would be Hakeem. In a landslide.