In 1986, the Houston Rockets sat at the top of the NBA Western Conference with the Boston Celtics in their sights as they challenged for what they thought would be the first of many World Championship runs in the franchise’s near future. What followed was a systematic implosion that left the organization in disarray till it finally steered itself back to the finals in 1994.
In 1983, the Houston Rockets selected 7’4″ Ralph Sampson out the University of Virginia with the number one overall pick, obtained by trading two time NBA MVP Moses Malone to Philadelphia for Caldwell Jones. The following year, after being accused of tanking the season with a 29-53 record, they secured the number one pick of the 1984 draft and acquired Hakeem Olajuwon out of the University of Houston forming what today is known as the original Twin Towers. It was unheard of during this era. Playing two centers on the court at the same time seemed like a glimpse into the future. It was Houston’s solution to the Lakers dominance in the West centered around Kareem Abdul Jabbar. In the race for the next seven footer, Houston had acquired two.
After making some key acquisitions and under the watchful eye of former 1981 World Champion Celtic coach Bill Fitch, the Rockets made the steady climb to the second seed in the Western Conference. By the time the 1986 playoffs began, they had finished with a regular season record of 51-31, first in the Midwest Division. After vanquishing the Sacramento Kings and the Denver Nuggets, the Rockets were set to take on the defending World Champion Los Angeles Lakers flying straight to LA from Denver.
Game one was business as usual for LA as Abdul Jabbar continued his post up dominance scoring 31 points on 57% shooting. Kareem exploited the fact that he had great footwork and extensive experience. Then without warning, due to Fitch’s offensive adjustment of making Rodney McCray a passer (he averaged 9.5 assists after game one) and the fact that Houston was capable of running with LA, the Rockets took the next 4 games. Behind the efforts of the Twin Towers and the contributions of Robert Reid, Lewis Lloyd, and Mitchell Wiggins (father of NBA player Andrew Wiggins), they ended the Lakers season with one of the most memorable shots in playoff history. The Rockets out rebounded the Lakers 217-196 for the series along with 36 blocked shots to Los Angeles’ 21. There was absolutely nothing LA could do against Olajuwon as he seemed to be part of every play that occurred on the court, whether it be offensively or defensively, exploiting the Lakers power forward mismatch.
Houston was no match for the Boston’s formidable front line of Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton (1986 NBA sixth man of the year) as the Celtics packed in the paint and exposed the fact that the Rockets had no true perimeter play since Reid was really a small forward and not a playmaking point guard. The Twin Towers went down 4-2 in the Finals.
On the heels of Len Bias’ unfortunate overdose, then NBA commissioner David Stern implemented some very strict rules regarding drug use that derailed the careers of many players. Lloyd and Wiggins were the two that directly impacted the Rockets roster as they had to serve two year suspensions.
On March 24, 1986 Ralph Sampson had suffered a career altering fall at the Boston Garden that began to take its toll on his body as it changed his gait causing a cascade of residual injuries. In December of 1987, after a disappointing second round 4-2 loss to the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1986-87 playoffs and an 11-8 start, the Houston Rockets traded Sampson to the Golden State Warriors for Eric Sleepy Floyd and Joe Barry Carroll. Only 18 months after defeating the Lakers, the Twin Towers slipped into NBA lore.
Houston of that era had a respectable roster that makes you question what the landscape of the West would have been had they stayed intact. Losing John Lucas to suspension hindered the 86’ Rockets as they lost his 15 points per game coupled with those 8 playmaking assists. Lloyd gave them the defensive presence in the back court while Wiggins was an explosive scorer off of the bench. They were the right mix of youth and experience. Although the Rise was meteoric, the Fall turned out to be cataclysmic.