A lot of you guys are too young to remember this, but the narrative surrounding Sam Cassell later on in his career was simply that he was a winner. From Milwaukee, to Minnesota, to the Clippers, everywhere he went, he turned the team around quickly and made it highly competitive. Robert Horry’s reputation of course was as one of the greatest clutch performers in NBA playoff history.
As great as Dream was, the Rockets don’t win the two titles without Horry and Cassell. I think you all agree with that statement. And so I used to always find myself wondering whether those two were innately “clutch” or they just became “winners” from playing in championship settings from the very moment they both entered the league.
We can talk about Horry later some other day. Cassell was probably set to take over the starting role from Kenny Smith in 1996 had the Rockets not made the trade with Phoenix for Barkley. And so we don’t know what he would have become. We don’t know if he would have flourished into an All-Star though I think he would have. He likely would have bridged the gap from the end of the Olajuwon era.
I always thought the most fascinating counterfactual was the scenario that involved signing Kevin Willis without trading for Charles Barkley. I assumed such a signing would’ve been prohibitive without the cap space cleared by the Barkley trade until a reader pointed out last week that Houston signed Brent Price that same summer. The Price monies could have been allocated towards Willis. You would then have a starting lineup of Willis, Horry, Olajuwon, Drexler, and Cassell, with Elie off the bench. Judging how phenomenally Willis played during his stint with the team, one could argue that this iteration of the team might have been superior than the team they actually fielded. We’ll never know.