On May 12, 1996, the Houston Rockets were swept by the Seattle SuperSonics.
It was a hard-fought sweep. Seattle blew Houston out 108-75 in Game 1, but won the rest of their games by single digits. In Game 4, Houston rallied from being down 18 points in the 4th, and 9 points with less than 2 minutes left, to tie the game and force overtime. But Seattle prevailed 114-107, and a sweep is still a sweep.
It was Seattle’s 13th straight victory over the Rockets.
In addition, Seattle had also beaten Houston in a tight 7-game series in the 1993 Western Conference Finals – a game which it should be noted had some controversial calls at the end. And as great as the two Houston championship runs were, they did not face Seattle in either year. Both times, the Sonics were upset in the first round of the playoffs, in 1994 as the number one seed. While it is impossible to know for certain, it could be argued that things might have been different if the Rockets had faced Seattle in those two years.
How did Seattle stymie the Rockets so badly? How did the Rockets respond? And with today’s Rockets built around another (albeit inferior) post player, what possible implications are there for the present? We should first begin by looking at the Sonics. The Sonics in 1993 and in 1996 did not possess the exact same players. But not much had changed. Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp were the stars, George Karl was the coach, and the Sonics were much deeper than the Rockets. The Sonics routinely had 6 to 7 players play more than 24 mpg during the Payton-Kemp years. The Rockets from 93-96 normally had 5. On the wings, Ricky Pierce and Derrick McKey were key players for the 1993 Sonics, and Detlef Schrempf and Hershey Hawkins fulfilled the same role in 1996. Sam Perkins and Ervin Johnson filled up the middle.
Kemp in particular was the biggest problem for the Rockets. Kemp was never as smart as Hakeem, or as polished or coordinated. But he was just as big, just as strong, and possibly even faster, especially by 1996 when Hakeem began to falter. When Hakeem went for the block, Kemp was there for the offensive rebound. He was too athletic for Otis Thorpe and Robert Horry, and Kemp came up huge against the Rockets whenever Seattle needed him.
But beyond Kemp and Payton was George Karl’s “unique” defense. Up until the 2001-02 NBA season, the league did not allow zone defenses. Double teams were permitted, but players had to commit to the double and were not allowed to hedge. Otherwise, the result was an illegal defense violation. However, the Sonics under Karl used a pressing, trapping defense which had elements of zone. Hakeem was always relentlessly doubled by the Sonics regardless of whether he had the ball. Whether these were legal doubles or otherwise was a controversial matter.
At best, Karl skirted the line between legal and illegal defenses. At worst, he borrowed the Detroit Bad Boy’s maxim of “we will play as rough as we like and foul as much as we like and dare the referees to foul us out” and applied it to the illegal defense rules. The Rockets were far from the only team to complain about Seattle’s zone defense over the years. Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen stated that the Sonics played a zone defense before the 1996 NBA Finals began, and teams like Sacramento and the Lakers also complained. In 1996, Seattle received by a significant margin the most illegal defensive violations in the league.
It should be noted that Seattle was not the only team in the league to employ a quasi-zone defense with an emphasis on trapping. The Knicks and the Jazz were other teams who employed similar strategies. The NBA got rid of the ban on zone defenses in 2001 partly because they believed that the discussion over what was an illegal zone and what was not gave too much power to the referees. But the Sonics did it better than everyone.
(Side note: The legalization of zone defenses is important to understand in the context of Dwight Howard and the frequent question of “where have all the big men gone?” If a big man like Hakeem Olajuwon could struggle so much against Seattle’s zone defense, what hope does someone like Dwight Howard or Marc Gasol have? In addition, the fact is that building around an offensive big man is far more difficult and not as rewarding than has been assumed over the years. Centers and power forwards by the very nature of their position have difficulty getting the ball. One can only look back at the Yao Ming years and recall that however skilled Yao was in the post, getting the ball to him was an utter nightmare. Given these factors, the interest in an offensive big man has declined in favor of dominant wing players who can get the ball more easily and who under current defensive rules are just as capable of getting to the rim.)
All of these factors led to the 1996 sweep. After yet another loss to Seattle, Rockets management had to ask how they were going to get past them. Time was not on Houston’s side. Hakeem and Clyde Drexler were 33 and 34, while Payton and Kemp were 27 and 28. The Sonics had won 64 games in the regular season, took the best variation of Jordan’s Bulls to six games, and had even managed to keep His Airness in check. It was clear that the Sonics were going to become the team of the future – unless something ridiculous like Seattle signing a journeyman center to far too much money, resulting in an angry and underpaid Kemp demanding out, happened.
So what was to be done? There was an answer. Seattle was a ferocious defensive team, and on the offensive end they were a terror on the transition thanks to their athleticism. But they were a mediocre half-court offensive team. As noted above, Kemp lacked the offensive skills to be a reliable half-court scorer. While Gary Payton was a terrific defender and is one of the greatest point guards ever, he was a step below other elite point guards like Stockton when it came to creating offense. The Rockets needed a power forward who could work in the transition offense to counter Seattle, was large enough to do a better job defending Kemp than Robert Horry, and yet could also work in a half-court offense. If the Rockets were really fortunate, perhaps this power forward would have a long history of great performances against the Sonics.
In the 1996 offseason, it turned out that there was one available. A power forward with the Phoenix Suns, desperate for a championship, was interested in playing alongside Hakeem Olajuwon. And so on August 19, 1996, the “Round Mound of Rebound”, Charles Barkley, was traded to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, and two other players. Barkley would turn out to be the difference, as for the first time in franchise history, the Rockets defeated the Sonics in the second round of the 1997 NBA Playoffs. Barkley scored 20 points on 13 shots and had 14 rebound in the deciding Game 7.
But in the next round, the Rockets would find themselves up against the Jazz and an even better power forward in 1997. And after that six-game series, the Rockets would be scrutinized for their decision to trade for Barkley, their victory over their seminal rival Seattle forgotten and turned to ash.