Ranking the Greatest Houston Rockets Since 2000

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJuly 29, 2019

Ranking the Greatest Houston Rockets Since 2000

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    James Harden, Clint Capela and Chris Paul
    James Harden, Clint Capela and Chris PaulTyler Kaufman/Associated Press

    James Harden is already one of the best to ever play in the NBA and is hands down the best Houston Rocket since 2000. Clint Capela has rapidly become one of the best current centers. And though both of Chris Paul's seasons in Houston ended in heartbreak against the Golden State Warriors, he was also clearly one of the best Rockets of the past two decades.

    To fill out the rest of the top 10, we considered individual production and accolades (All-Star Games, All-NBA teams, etc.), contributions to team success and advanced metrics such as win shares (WS), value over replacement player (VORP) and player efficiency rating (PER).

    Only a player's production since the beginning of the 1999-00 season factored in here. Contributions before then will be mentioned in career highlights but not measured.

    The team-success factor didn't play a huge part in this ranking since the Rockets haven't even won the Western Conference Finals since 1995, but it did hurt a few guys who peaked during Houston's brief playoff droughts (2000-03 and 2010-12). It also helped a couple of players who played a key part in bringing the Rockets back from those down years.

    But since 12 of Houston's last 20 seasons featured either first-round exits from the playoffs or winning records that fell short of qualifying for the postseason, the individual accolades were most important by far. And considering only four Rockets have been named to multiple All-Star Games in the past two decades, you should already know who our top four players are.

Honorable Mentions

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    Eric Gordon
    Eric GordonRick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Eric Gordon: Though he's averaged at least 16.2 points in each of his three seasons with Houston, his PER (13.5), WS/48 (0.081), box plus/minus (-1.7) and VORP (0.4) are all staggeringly low. It often feels like Gordon is one of Houston's most indispensable pieces, but how much value is he actually adding?

              

    Rafer Alston: He was Houston's third-leading scorer and top assist man for most of the Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming era, but he was never an efficient one. Alston shot 38.1 percent from the field and consistently had the worst offensive rating among Houston's starters. In his defense, it could not have been easy to bounce between go-to scorer, set-up guy and background contributor depending on whether McGrady and Yao were healthy.

              

    Trevor Ariza: In addition to spending five solid seasons in Houston as a three-and-D wing, he played a key part in James Harden's development into a drive-and-dish expert. But except for one great series against the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2015 Western Conference Semifinals, Ariza always seemed to vanish in the postseason. And at just 35.4 percent, he was rather average for a three-point "specialist."

             

    Shane Battier: He was the original Ariza, but a much less assertive one on the offensive end. Battier was named to the All-Defensive second team twice while with Houston and shot 38.8 percent from distance. He was a perfect fit with Yao and McGrady as a guy who didn't need many touches but could deliver daggers when necessary. Battier was the toughest player to leave out of our top 10.

              

    Chandler Parsons: One of Houston's best return-on-investment players of the past two decades, this second-round pick spent three seasons with the Rockets, scored more than 3,000 points and didn't make a seven-figure income until leaving for the Dallas Mavericks. It's still preposterous to think that the Rockets couldn't even get out of the first round in 2014 with Parsons, Harden and Dwight Howard at their disposal.

                

    Kevin Martin: He averaged 23.5 points and arguably should have been an All-Star in 2010-11. But Martin only played 144 games with Houston, and the Rockets missed the postseason in all three of his seasons on the roster. At least he was a key part of the trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder that brought Harden to Houston.

              

    Kyle Lowry: Like Martin, Lowry was one of the stars during Houston's lost years. He averaged 13.8 points and 6.6 assists while shooting 37.5 percent from three-point range during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. It wasn't until he was traded to the Toronto Raptors that his career really took off, though.

                

    Hakeem Olajuwon/Dikembe Mutombo: They were absolute legends of NBA lore. But Olajuwon was already 37 for the 1999-00 season, and Mutombo was 38 before he even got to Houston and wasn't anything close to the finger-wagging rim-protector he used to be.

10. Patrick Beverley

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Career Marks with Houston (2012-17): two-time All-Defensive, 9.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.3 SPG, 37.5% 3PT, 12.7 PER, 0.113 WS/48

    Patrick Beverley's impact with Houston was pretty much the polar opposite of what Dwight Howard brought to the franchise. (More on that shortly.)

    Bev wasn't much of a numbers guy. Though he was a more-than-capable shooter who started at point guard for most of his time with the Rockets, his best scoring average was 10.2 points per game. He never led the team (let alone the league) in any major category. He had just nine double-doubles in 291 regular-season games.

    But he won over the hearts of fans with his relentless hustle.

    Please know this is said with the utmost respect: Beverley is a professional nuisance. His nickname might as well be Gnatrick since he's a pesky bug who will fly right in the face of anyone. He's the type of player who you adore when he's on your team and the type of player who the other 29 fanbases absolutely cannot stand.

    It didn't matter if he was matched up with someone his size like Russell Westbrook or a bigger foe like Kevin Durant or LeBron James. Beverley was going to give 110 percent on defense to frustrate those stars and make them work for every bucket. That mentality got him first-team All-Defensive honors in his final season with Houston.

    Beverley's defense arguably played a significant role in James Harden's rise to superstardom, too. Harden's defensive effort was a travesty when he first got to Houston, but Beverley picked up that slack for several yearsand did so without expecting much in return on the other end of the floor. Maybe Harden would've set the NBA on fire regardless, but it certainly didn't hurt to have Beverley doing most of the heavy lifting on D.

    Were this a ranking of fan favorites in Houston, Beverley would have been an easy choice for the top five. But it hurts that the team's deepest postseason run while he was on the roster came in 2015 when he missed the playoffs due to a wrist injury. If his defense was that crucial to the Rockets' success, they wouldn't have gotten to the Western Conference Finals without him.

9. Luis Scola

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    Dave Einsel/Associated Press

    Career Marks with Houston (2007-12): 14.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.9 APG, 16.9 PER, 0.125 WS/48

    After Yao Ming missed at least 25 games of both the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, the Rockets decided to get some frontcourt insurance in the form of European veteran Luis Scola.

    Scola was originally drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 2002, but buyout issues with his Euroleague club (Tau Ceramica) kept him from ever playing for them. San Antonio traded his draft rights to Houston, and he was finally able to join the Rockets at the age of 27.

    He quickly became one of their most reliable players and placed third behind Kevin Durant and Al Horford in the 2007-08 Rookie of the Year race.

    His scoring average increased during each of his first four years in the NBA, peaking at 18.3 in 2010-11. He also averaged at least eight rebounds in his second through fourth years in Houston.

    Scola was basically Houston's entire frontcourt presence on offense for his final three seasons there. The Rockets have seemingly always had volume-scoring guards, but big men who put up points have been few and far between. He made 1,564 two-pointers and grabbed 1,739 rebounds from 2009-10 through 2011-12. No other Rocket had more than 644 or 1,064, respectively.

    And during the full two decades, only Yao and James Harden had more two-pointers or rebounds with Houston.

    Unfortunately, the Rockets missed the playoffs despite posting a winning record each of those three years, wasting his contributions and somewhat devaluing his impact with this franchise.

    Advanced metrics like box plus/minus (BPM) and VORP didn't do Scola any favors, either. He had a 0.0 BPM and 5.8 VORP during his five-season run with Houston, suggesting he was a league-average player. In reality, he was an efficient and durable power forward who might have been the perfect complementary player to in-his-prime Tracy McGrady or Harden if he had gotten the chance to play with either.

8. Dwight Howard

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Career Marks with Houston (2013-16): one-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA, 16.0 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 20.0 PER, 0.148 WS/48

    Pairing James Harden with Dwight Howard should have been a championship formula. The former was No. 3 in our ranking of the greatest NBA shooting guards since 2000; the latter was No. 2 on the centers list. Considering Harden was 24 and Howard was 27 when they joined forces, it's inconceivable that they never came all that close to winning a title in three seasons together. 

    And that's why it was at least a little tempting to leave Howard out of our top 10 even though he earned a spot on the All-NBA second team during his first year in Houston and averaged 17.9 points, 13.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks through his three postseasons.

    Houston's most successful season with Howard (2014-15) was the one in which he missed 41 regular-season games. The Rockets were almost as good without Howard (27-14) as they were with him (29-12) that year. And in his last season there, they failed to finished with a winning record for the first time in a decade and got smoked by the Golden State Warriors in the first round.

    Howard was impressive in his first season (18.3 PPG, 12.2 RPG). But between knee/back injuries and an inability to get along with Harden, he wilted in a hurry. By Year 3, it didn't even look like he wanted to be on the court half the time.

    In June 2016, Howard left for the Atlanta Hawks via free agency, and Houston brought in Mike D'Antoni to mold the Rockets into the three-point-heavy title contender we've known and loved to watch for the past three years. They've been better off without his attitude and horrific free-throw shooting, and it's hard to imagine how he would've fit into this offensive scheme if he hadn't declined his $23.2 million player option for the 2016-17 season.

    Still, he has some of the best stats of Houston's past two decades, ranking 15th in points, seventh in rebounds and sixth in blocks in just 183 games. His lasting impact may feel like a swarm of locusts to most fans, but he was effective when he wanted to be.

7. Cuttino Mobley

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    DAVID J. PHILLIP/Associated Press

    Career Marks with Houston (1998-2004): 17.1 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 37.2% 3PT, 15.5 PER, 0.105 WS/48

    Everyone remembers Steve Francis, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady as Houston's stars of the early 2000s, but people often forget Cuttino Mobley played one heck of a second fiddle to Francis for five years and was a prominent part of the trade with the Orlando Magic that brought McGrady to the Rockets.

    On the franchise leaderboard for the past two decades, Mobley ranks fourth in both total points (6,961) and win shares (33.6), boasting a slight lead over McGrady in both categories. He scored at least 1,260 points in each of his final five seasons with Houston, thriving to the tune of 21.7 points per game during the 2001-02 season.

    The difficulty in pinpointing his deserved spot on this list is that his most noteworthy season was Houston's worst (28-54) of the past 35 years. It's not Mobley's fault Francis missed 25 games that year, nor that the third-best player on the roster was either Kenny Thomas or Kelvin Cato. But it's never a great sign when a player's best stats come during a lost year.

    Moreover, Mobley was never an All-Star, consistently had one of the worst defensive ratings on the roster and didn't come anywhere close to making the type of impact with rebounds or assists that Houston's other top guards have made. He was just a good scorer for a team that didn't amount to much and got better immediately after it traded him away.

    That said, his scoring ability helped keep the Rockets somewhat relevant (aside from the 2001-02 mess) during what could have been a futile stretch between the last few ineffective years of Hakeem Olajuwon's career and the beginning of the Yao Ming era. The Rockets won at least 43 games in three of his final four seasons, and they might have been the worst team in the league without him.

6. Clint Capela

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Career Marks with Houston (2014-Present): 12.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 22.2 PER, 0.204 WS/48

    Clint Capela made little impact early in his NBA career while serving as Dwight Howard's backup, but he has been on a meteoric rise since then. His minutes, points, rebounds and win shares have increased with each season, and he's now a double-double machine and one of the best "old-school" centers in the league.

    Capela has averaged a double-double each of the past two seasons and has generated a combined total of 21.0 win shares during that time. That is the 10th-highest total for those two seasons, and the top nine of that list is littered with MVP candidates.

    Perhaps if he weren't such a liability at the free-throw lineor if he had a jump shot with any range or could create his own offense without assists from teammatesCapela would be getting some love in All-Star and All-NBA conversations.

    It looked like he had taken a big step forward in that regard this year, shooting a still-not-great-but-career-best 63.6 percent from the charity stripe. However, he reverted to a dreadful 42.9 percent in the playoffs. Capela now has career free-throw percentages of 52.5 during the regular season and 50.3 in the postseason.

    Even though he's a major asset in the paint for rebounds and rim protection, that Achilles' heel makes him unplayable during critical offensive possessions, as any opposing coach worth his salt will joyfully send him to the stripe rather than allow James Harden to drain a dagger.

    Capela still plays a huge role in Houston's regular-season success, though. And if he ever figures out how to make teams pay for sending him to the line, he could be the X-factor that finally brings this team back to the NBA Finals.

5. Chris Paul

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Career Marks with Houston (2017-19): 17.1 PPG, 8.0 APG, 5.0 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 36.9% 3PT, 22.0 PER, 0.218 WS/48

    Chris Paul's two-year run in Houston was eerily similar to Kyrie Irving's stint with the Boston Celtics.

    He was a star long before he was traded to his new team. He was supposed to be the missing piece that finally got a franchise back to the NBA Finals. He missed a good chunk of both seasons due to injury. He still managed to put up more impressive numbers than the vast majority of players in the past two decades of franchise history. But he will be remembered by fans predominantly as a failed experiment.

    (At least the Rockets were able to get something in return when Paul left.)

    As was the case throughout his time with both the New Orleans Hornets and the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul played a big role in carrying his team through the regular season and into the playoffs. Even though James Harden was the primary ball-handler, Paul averaged at least 7.9 assists each season. He also supplied the Rockets with good defense and became one of their many three-point weapons.

    He generally put up rock-solid numbers in the postseason, too, including a jump to 21.1 points per game during the 2018 playoffs before the hamstring injury that kept him out of the last two games of the Western Conference Finals. It just wasn't ever enough.

    That 2018 run might have been his one shot to get to the promised land, and it was certainly Houston's closest call since the 1990s. Unless he's able to get there in the few years he has left, Paul is going to go down in NBA lore as the best player to never make the Finals.

4. Steve Francis

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    DAVID J. PHILLIP/Associated Press

    Career Marks with Houston (1999-2004, 2007-08): 1999-2000 Rookie of the Year, three-time All-Star, 19.0 PPG, 6.3 APG, 6.0 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 34.5% 3PT, 19.0 PER, 0.132 WS/48

    Perhaps the best possible summation of the early-2000s Houston Rockets is that Steve Francis played in almost as many All-Star Games (three) as he did postseason games (five).

    They had one of the most unstoppable players in the country, but they simply didn't have much to pair with Francis after mortgaging the future to keep or acquire the final few years of Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen in the late 1990s. Two seasons before they drafted Francis, all four of the Rockets' leading scorers were at least 34 years old.

    That's how you end up with a starting lineup with one star and a bunch of guys like Shandon Anderson, Walt Williams, Eddie Griffin and Maurice Taylor.

    Despite the dreadful supporting cast, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1999 draft put on a show on a nightly basis. Francis averaged at least 18 points, six assists, five rebounds and one steal in each of his first four seasons. During that same time, the rest of the NBA combined to produce just three such seasons: 1999-00 Gary Payton, 2002-03 Kevin Garnett and 2002-03 Jason Kidd.

    When the Rockets finally made the playoffs as the Western Conference's No. 7 seed in Francis's final season on the roster (2003-04), he averaged 19.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 7.6 assists during the first-round loss to Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. And that came at the end of the least impressive of his five years.

    Had the rest of the team been good enough to make the playoffs when he was at his best in 2001 or 2003, he might have averaged a triple-double. But that never happened, making his theoretical impact on a well-rounded roster one of the great "What if?" debates of this generation.

3. Tracy McGrady

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Career Marks with Houston (2004-09): three-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA, 22.7 PPG, 5.6 APG, 5.5 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 21.1 PER, 0.143 WS/48, 2017 Hall of Fame Inductee

    As good as Steve Francis was in Houston, there's no question Tracy McGrady was an upgrade.

    After leading the NBA in scoring during each of his final two seasons with the Orlando Magic, T-Mac put up at least 24.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists during each of his first three seasons with the Rockets. The only other players to hit each of those marks in any of those three years were LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter.

    Those were four of the best players of the past two decades, and McGrady would be in that conversation if his career hadn't been defined by injuries (fair) and postseason failures (not so fair).

    McGrady dealt with back spasms long before he got to Houston, but they became a severe problem during the 2005-06 season. He missed 35 games that year, during which the Rockets had a 7-28 record. (They went 27-20 when he played.)

    When he was healthy enough to go, McGrady was incredible. Between Dec. 28 and Jan. 23 that season, he scored at least 32 points in eight of nine contests. The lone exception was a Jan. 8 game in which his back flared up so badly he had to be carried off the court on a stretcher and taken to the hospital at halftime.

    McGrady also missed 16 games in 2007-08 while battling knee and shoulder ailments during what proved to be the last high-level season of his career. Despite the injuries, he went to three All-Star Games and was named to three All-NBA teams during his first four years in Houston.

    When he played enough to get Houston into the playoffs, McGrady always made a huge (albeit short) impact. In 20 career postseason games with the Rockets, he averaged 27.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 7.0 assists, and he scored at least 18 points in every contest. For what it's worth, LeBron's career postseason averages are 28.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.1 assists, so T-Mac was hardly a dud in the playoffs.

2. Yao Ming

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Career Marks with Houston (2002-11): eight-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA, 19.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 1.6 APG, 23.0 PER, 0.200 WS/48, 2016 Hall of Fame Inductee

    Just like teammate Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming made it into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in spite of a career that ended prematurely and left everyone wondering how much different things would have been had he been blessed with a "normal" amount of injury luck.

    Yao immediately proved himself worthy of the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2002, and he only got better from there. Even though Amar'e Stoudemire edged him out for Rookie of the Year honors, Yao averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in his debut season.

    By the end of Year 3, Yao had only missed two games and already had 4,000 career points and more than 2,000 rebounds. He was 24. McGrady was 25 and had just made a career-best 78 starts for the Rockets in 2004-05. All signs pointed toward this pairing going on a run like Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant did with the Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps become the NBA's late-2000s dynasty.

    However, Yao and McGrady missed a combined 148 games over the next three seasons, failing to win a single playoff series despite each averaging better than 21 points all three years.

    Yao made the proverbial leap for those three seasons, averaging 23.0 points and 10.2 rebounds. He would've been a legitimate candidate for MVP if a seemingly endless string of foot and knee injuries hadn't kept him out of at least 25 games each year. 

    But in addition to the extra All-Star Games and All-NBA teams, Yao ranks ahead of McGrady because he finally had another healthy season in 2008-09 (77 games) and, while McGrady was on the shelf with a knee injury, led Houston past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.

    Sadly, Houston would've been much better off without winning that series, because the ankle injury Yao suffered in the second round against the Lakers limited him to just five games played for the rest of his career.

    Though his time in the NBA was brief (486 games), Yao was one of the greatest to ever suit up for the Rockets.

1. James Harden

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Career Marks with Houston (2012-Present): 2017-18 MVP, seven-time All-Star, six-time All-NBA, two-time Scoring Champ, one-time Assist Champ, 29.0 PPG, 7.7 APG, 6.0 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 36.4% 3PT, 26.5 PER, 0.239 WS/48

    James Harden has more than a little bit of work left to do before he can bypass Hakeem Olajuwon on Houston's all-time list, but he's the clear choice for No. 1 since 2000.

    Not only has Harden been selected to six All-NBA teams, but he has also been on the first team in five of the past six years. He's the only Rocket to earn first-team honors since Olajuwon in 1996-97.

    Harden has averaged at least 25 points in each of his first seven seasons with the Rockets, and he has pushed that rate north of 30 while winning the scoring title each of the past two years. He made at least 175 three-pointers in all of those seasons, including an unreal spike to 378 triples in 2018-19. He didn't quite break Stephen Curry's record (402 in 2015-16), but he's now on the list with Curry as the only players to make at least 300 in a season.

    And that's just the points. Add in the assists and rebounds and his seven-year averages with Houston are so absurd that the only other players in NBA history to hit those marks in even one season are Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook.

    His win shares since the start of 2012-13 (100.9) are the best in the NBA. Only LeBron (93.3), Kevin Durant (91.3), Curry (89.4) and Chris Paul (82.4) are within even 25 of him. In seven seasons, he almost has as many win shares as Carmelo Anthony accumulated in 16 years (101.0).

    It's not hard to see why Harden won MVP in 2017-18, had three other second-place finishes (2014-15, 2016-17 and 2018-19) and has placed within the top nine of that vote during every season with the Rockets.

    If he could just get them to win a championship or two, Harden would have to at least enter the fringe of the NBA's G.O.A.T. conversation. As is, the soon-to-be 30-year-old is stuck in the same category Peyton Manning occupied before finally getting his first Super Bowl: a fantastic stat machine worthy of all sorts of individual regular-season honors who simply can't seem to win the big one.

    But in the context of rankings for a franchise that hasn't played for a title since 1995, "fantastic stat machine" is more than enough for the top spot.

             

    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference.

    Kerry Miller is a multisport writer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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