History of the Houston Rockets

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The Rockets moved into the Toyota Center at the start of the 2003–2004 season.1

The Houston Rockets are an American professional basketball team based in Houston, Texas. The team plays in the Southwest Division of the Western Conference in the National Basketball Association (NBA). The team was established in 1967, and played in San Diego, California for four years, before moving to Houston, Texas.1

In the Rockets' debut season, they won games. After drafting Elvin Hayes first overall in the 1968 NBA Draft, they made their first appearance in the playoffs in 1969. After Hayes was traded, Moses Malone replaced him. Malone won two Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards during his time in Houston, and he led the Rockets to the 1978 conference finals in his first year with the Rockets. He also took the Rockets to the NBA Finals in 1981, but they were defeated in six games by the Boston Celtics. Two years after advancing to the finals, the Rockets won a franchise-low 14 games.2

In 1985, the Rockets drafted future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who led them to the 1986 Finals in his rookie year, where they lost again to Boston. In the next seven seasons, they lost in the first round of the playoffs five times. They did not win their first championship until 1994, when Olajuwon led them to a franchise-best 58 wins, and the championship. The Rockets repeated the feat in 1995, but in the following seasons, they did not advance to the finals again. They missed the playoffs from 1999 to 2003, and did not reach the playoffs again until they drafted Yao Ming in 2003. However, they would not advance past the first round of the playoffs for 13 years. In the 2007-08 NBA season, their most successful campaign to date since Olajuwon retired, they won 55 games, and won 22 games in a row,3 but still lost in the first round.2

This all changed in the 2009 NBA Playoffs, when the Rockets defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round and pushed the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in the 2009 Western Conference Semifinals.

San Diego Rockets (1967–1971)

During the Rockets' years in San Diego, they played in the San Diego Sports Arena.

The Rockets were founded in 1967 in San Diego, and after being bought by Robert Breitbard for 1.75 million dollars,1 they joined the NBA as an expansion team for the 1967–68 NBA season.4 The San Diego franchise nickname became the "Rockets" because Atlas rockets were manufactured in San Diedgo and due to the city calling itself "a city of motion." Jack McMahon was named the Rockets' coach,5 and the team's first draft pick in 1967 was the future Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley.67 However, the Rockets went on to lose 67 games in their inaugural season,8 which was then an NBA record for losses in a season.9

In 1968, after the Rockets won a coin toss against the Baltimore Bullets to determine who would have the first overall pick in the 1968 NBA Draft,10 they selected Elvin Hayes from the University of Houston.11 Hayes led the team to the franchise's first ever playoff appearance in 1969,12 but the Rockets lost in the semi-finals of the Western Division to the Atlanta Hawks, four games to two.12 In 1970 NBA Draft, the Rockets drafted Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich, who would both spend their whole careers with the Rockets.1314

Despite being coached by Hall of Fame coach Alex Hannum, the Rockets only tallied a 57–97 record and did not make the playoffs in the next two seasons.1516 Because of poor performance and attendance, Breitbard sold the team in 1971 to Texas Sports Investments, which was led by real estate broker Wayne Duddleston and banker Billy Goldberg. The group bought the franchise for $5.6 million, and immediately moved the team to Houston.1 The franchise became the first NBA team in Texas,17 and the team's nickname of "Rockets" took on even greater relevance after the move since Houston is home to Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center of NASA, as well as the city being nicknamed "Space City".18

Improving in Houston (1971–1981)

Although Houston was now an NBA city, it needed a suitable arena for the Rockets. However, the new arena wouldn't be ready until 1975. The city's largest indoor arena was 34-year-old Sam Houston Coliseum, but the Rockets refused to even consider playing there even temporarily. As a result, for the next four years the Rockets were forced to play most of their games at the University of Houston's Hofheinz Pavilion, while playing occasional games at the Astrodome and San Antonio's HemisFair Arena.

Before the start of the 1971–72 NBA season, Hannum left for the Denver Nuggets of the American Basketball Association,19 and Tex Winter was hired in his place.20 However, Winter, who said that Hayes had "the worst fundamentals of any player" he had ever coached,21 applied a system that contrasted with the offensive style to which Hayes was accustomed. Because of the differences between Winter and Hayes, Houston traded Hayes, who had led the Rockets in scoring for four straight years,2 to the Baltimore Bullets for Jack Marin at the end of the 1971–72 season.22 Winter left soon after, in the spring of 1973, following the Rockets 10th straight loss,20 and he was replaced by Johnny Egan.23

With a 41-41 record, the Rockets would earn their first NBA Playoff berth in the 1975 NBA Playoffs since moving from San Diego as well as winning their first playoff series in franchise history by defeating the New York Knicks led by Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe in a 3-game mini series, but would ultimately bow to the world champion Boston Celtics in 5 games in the semi-finals. The Rockets would move into their own arena, The Summit, the following season.

At the start of the 1976–77 season, the Rockets negotiated a trade with the Buffalo Braves to acquire Moses Malone,24 who had previously become the first player to go straight from the high school to the professional level.25 After Malone led the Rockets in rebounding for the first of six straight times,2 and established a then-NBA record for offensive rebounds in a season,24 the Rockets posted a franchise-best 49-wins and won the franchise's first Division Title finishing on top of the Central Division. After a first round bye in the playoffs, Houston defeated the Washington Bullets led by former Rocket Elvin Hayes as well as Wes Unseld in seven games in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, and advanced to the conference finals for the first time in their history, but they lost to the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers led by former ABA superstar Julius Erving. 4–2.26

Early into 1977–78 season, at a game on December 9, 1977, Kevin Kunnert got into a fight with Kermit Washington of the Los Angeles Lakers. As Tomjanovich approached the altercation, Washington turned and punched Tomjanovich squarely in the face, causing numerous fractures in his face.27 Tomjanovich spent the next five months in rehabilitation and returned to appear in the 1978 All-Star Game, but his averages significantly declined after the injury,28 and Houston finished with just 28 wins in the season.29

Murphy played all 13 of his seasons with the Rockets.

In the following season, Malone, Murphy, and Tomjanovich all played in the 1979 NBA All-Star Game, and Malone received the 1979 MVP Award.24 The Rockets also sent John Lucas II to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for Rick Barry, who went on to set the NBA record at the time for free throw percentage in a season by shooting 94.7%.30 The Rockets went 47–35 in Nissalke's last season as coach, and finished second in the Central Division, but they lost to Atlanta in a best-of-three first round series.31 In Houston's 1979–80 campaign, Del Harris replaced Nissalke as head coach, and he led the Rockets to a 41–41 record, tying the San Antonio Spurs for second place in the Central Division.32 The Rockets defeated the Spurs two games to one in their first round playoff series, they were swept by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.32

In the 1980–81 season, after the newly established Dallas Mavericks became the third NBA team in Texas,33 the NBA restructured the conferences and sent the Rockets, who had previously played in the Eastern Conference, to the Midwest Division of the Western Conference. In Harris's second season, Houston tied with Kansas City for second place in the Midwest Division behind San Antonio with a 40–42 record, and qualified for the playoffs with just one game left.34 During the season, Murphy set two NBA records, by sinking 78 consecutive free throws to break Rick Barry's mark of 60 set in 1976, and achieving a free-throw percentage of .958, breaking Barry's record set with the Rockets in 1979.35

In the playoffs, Houston began a run that began when they upset Los Angeles two games to one, and then defeated George Gervin's Spurs four games to three in the Western Conference semifinals.36 This resulted in a conference finals matchup with the Kansas City Kings, who were led by Otis Birdsong, Scott Wedman, and Phil Ford. When the Kings fell to the Rockets in five games,36 the Rockets became the only team in NBA history to advanced to the Finals after having a losing record in the regular season.37 However, after splitting the first four games of the series with Boston, Houston eventually lost in six games.38

The Twin Towers (1981–1993)

The following season, the Rockets improved their regular season mark to 46–36 but were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.39 Although Malone won the MVP in that season,24 in the following offseason, the Rockets traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers for Caldwell Jones,24 to avoid paying his salary.40 When the Rockets finished a league worst 14–68,41 Celtics coach Bill Fitch was hired to replace outgoing Del Harris,40 and after winning a coin flip with the Indiana Pacers to obtain the first pick of the 1983 NBA Draft,40 the Rockets selected Ralph Sampson from the University of Virginia.42

Although the Rockets finished only 29–53 in the 1983–1984 season, Ralph Sampson was awarded the NBA Rookie of the Year award,43 after averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds per game.43 Houston was again given the first pick of the 1984 NBA Draft, and they used it to select Hakeem Olajuwon from the University of Houston.44 In his first season, Olajuwon finished second to Michael Jordan in NBA Rookie of the Year balloting,45 and the Rockets record improved by 19 games, although they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.46 In the following season, both Olajuwon and Sampson were named to the Western Conference All-Stars in that year's all-star game,47 and the duo was nicknamed the "Twin Towers".48 In the playoffs, the Rockets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals in five games, after Sampson hit a buzzer beater to win Game 5, which Sampson said was "greatest moment of my basketball career".49 The Rockets competed in the finals for only the second time in team history,50 but the Celtics once again defeated the Rockets in the finals in six games.50 In the next year, the Rockets again made the playoffs, and advanced to the second round, before being eliminated by the Seattle SuperSonics.51 However, in the next three seasons, the Rockets were eliminated three straight times in the first round of the playoffs,525354 despite Don Chaney replacing Fitch as head coach in 1988.55

Chaney was named the Coach of the Year for the 1990–91 season,55 but the Rockets were once again eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, 3–0 to the Lakers.56 Midway through the next season, with the Rockets' record only 26–26, Chaney was replaced by former Houston player Tomjanovich.57 Although the Rockets did not make the playoffs,57 in the next year, the Rockets won-loss record improved by 13 games, as they won 55 games.58 However, the Seattle SuperSonics eliminated them in the conference semifinals.58

Hakeem Olajuwon era (1993–2000)

On July 30, 1993, Leslie Alexander purchased the Rockets for $85 million.59 In Tomjanovich's second full year as head coach, the Rockets began the 1993–94 season by tying an NBA record with start of 15–0.60 Led by Olajuwon, who was named the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year,61 the Rockets won a franchise-record 58 games.262 The Rockets recovered from being two games down to the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the playoffs,63 to advance to the finals.62 Houston was once again down by three games to two to the New York Knicks, but they managed to win the last two games on their home court, and claim their first championship in franchise history.2 Olajuwon was awarded the Finals MVP, after averaging 27 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots a game.61

The Rockets initially struggled in the first half of the 1994–95 season,64 and ended up winning only 47 games, which was 11 games lower than their previous year's total.6265 In a midseason trade with Portland, the Rockets obtained guard Clyde Drexler, a former teammate of Olajuwon at the University of Houston,66 in exchange for Otis Thorpe.67 Houston entered the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference, but managed to defeat the 60–22 Utah Jazz in the first round.65 They fell behind 3–1 to the 59–23 Phoenix Suns in the second round, but won three straight to win the series, and became only the first team in NBA history to overcome both a 2–0 and a 3–1 series deficit in a seven-game series.68 The Rocket then beat the 62–20 San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals,65 to reach the Finals against the Orlando Magic, led by Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway.69 When Houston swept the series in four straight games,65 they became the first team in NBA history to win the championship as a sixth seed, and the first to beat four 50-win teams in a single postseason en route to the championship.70 Olajuwon, who had averaged 35.3 points and 12.5 rebounds against the Spurs and regular-season MVP David Robinson in the conference finals,71 was named the Finals MVP, becoming only the second player after Michael Jordan to win the award two years in a row.70

The Rockets won 48 games in the 1995–96 campaign,72 in which Olajuwon became the NBA's all-time leader in blocked shots.73 They beat the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, but were swept by the Seattle SuperSonics in the second round.72 Before the start of the succeeding season, the Rockets made a dramatic trade that sent four players to Phoenix for Charles Barkley.74 The resulting "Big Three" of Olajuwon, Drexler, and Barkley led the Rockets to a 57–25 record,75 and Houston swept Minnesota in the first round. However, after a 7-game battle with Seattle, the Rockets fell in the Western Conference finals to the Utah Jazz, a team they had beaten on their way to championships in 1994 and 1995.75

The 1997–98 season was marked by injuries,76 and the team finished 41–41 with the eighth seed in the Western Conference.77 Houston once again faced the Jazz, this time in the first round, and they lost the series 3–2.77 Drexler retired after the season,78 and the Rockets made another bold trade to bring in Scottie Pippen to take his place.79 In the strike-shortened 1998–99 season, the Rocket went 31–19, but lost to the Lakers in the first round 3–1 of the playoffs.80 After the 1999 draft, the Rockets traded for the third overall pick Steve Francis from the Vancouver Grizzlies, in exchange for four players and a first round draft pick.81 However, after Houston traded a discontented Pippen to Portland (stating chemistry problems with old rival and now teammate Barkley),82 and Barkley suffered a career-ending injury,83 the rebuilt Rockets went 34–48 and missed the playoffs,84 for only the second time in 15 years.2

The 21st century (2000–present)

In the 2000–01 season, the Rockets worked their way to a 45–37 record, but still did not make the playoffs.85 In the following offseason, a 38-year-old Olajuwon requested a trade, and, despite stating their desire to keep him, the Rockets reached a sign and trade agreement, sending him to the Toronto Raptors.86 The proceeding season was unremarkable, as Houston's first season without Hakeem in almost 20 years was a disappointing 28–54.87 However, after Houston was awarded the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, they selected Yao Ming, a 7-foot 6-inch Chinese center.88 The Rockets' record improved by 15 games,89 but they missed the playoffs by one game.90

The Rockets playing the Utah Jazz in the 2008 playoffs

In the following season, Houston began playing in their new arena, the Toyota Center,91 and redesigned their uniforms and logo,92 as long-time coach Tomjanovich resigned after being diagnosed with bladder cancer,93 and was replaced by Jeff Van Gundy.94 The Rockets finished the regular season with a record of 45–37,95 and earned their first playoff berth since 1999,2 but the Lakers again handed the Rockets a loss in the first round.95 In the offseason, Houston saw major changes in the roster as the Rockets acquired Tracy McGrady in a seven-player deal with the Orlando Magic.96 The 2004–05 season saw McGrady and Yao lead the Rockets to their best record in 10 years,2 finishing at 51–31 and seeded fifth in the Western Conference playoffs.97 However, their season ended in the first round of the playoffs as they lost to their in-state rival, the Dallas Mavericks, in seven games,97 despite leading the series 2–0.98

The following season, after an injury-plagued year in which McGrady and Yao missed a total of 70 games, the team finished with only 34 wins, and missed the playoffs.99 The Rockets improved by 18 games the next year, with 52 wins,100 but once again lost in the first round after leading 2–0, when they lost in seven games to Utah.101 After the loss, Van Gundy was fired,102 and the Rockets hired Rick Adelman to replace him.103 In the following year, despite Yao suffering a season-ending injury for the third year in a row,104 the Rockets won 22 consecutive games, which is the second longest winning streak in NBA history. This streak included going 13-0 in the month of February, making them the first team since the 1996 Chicago Bulls to finish an entire month undefeated. 3 Houston finished their season 55–27,105 but were eliminated for the second year in row by the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, 4 games to 2.106

The next off-season, the Rockets acquired Ron Artest from the Sacramento Kings. The new "Big Three" of McGrady, Yao, and Artest barely played any games together due to nagging injuries. McGrady's knee bothered him for much of the year, hampering his performance, and he eventually opted for mid-season microfracture surgery which would keep him out for the season. Despite this, the team then went on to win 53 games that season and earned themselves a first-round match-up with the Portland Trail Blazers. Houston struck fast, blowing the Trailblazers out on the road in game one en route to a 4–2 series win and their first time advancing from the first round since 1997.

However, despite winning the first game of the 2009 Western Conference Semifinals against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Rockets ended up losing a tough-fought series in seven games, and saw Yao leave with an injury that sidelines him for the upcoming season and Artest leave the team after signing with the Lakers in the off-season. All this included McGrady's injury as well as the acquisition of Laker defensive star Trevor Ariza to counter the Artest move, but they also ended up losing sixth man Von Wafer to Europe.

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