Otis Thorpe has long been the subject of great intrigue amongst Rockets fans from the 90’s if for no greater reason than that he’s largely disappeared from the public eye. He was a pivotal piece of the first title team—and the lead up to it—was traded, and then sort of faded into oblivion during the remainder of his career.
I recently found myself horrified at my own thoughts upon questioning whether Thorpe would even make an NBA roster today. It may seem ludicrous given that Thorpe was a former All-Star and long one of the most dependable power forwards in the Western Conference, but it’s a serious question. Thorpe had no range to speak of, attempting 0.1 threes per game for his career. And while he was considered one of the best low post defenders in basketball, he was never a rim protector. In fact, Thorpe averaged only 0.4 blocks per game for his career with a high mark of 0.7 back in 1987.
While he averaged 14 points per game, most of that was of the garbage variety. I don’t seem to recall any postup abilities from my recollection of 1994. And despite being an imposing physical presence, Otis also didn’t live above the rim.
It all goes to show just how much the game has evolved. I don’t know that Clint Capela, who the Rockets just tied up for a king’s ransom, would have served as more useful to the ‘94 Rockets than Thorpe. Where Capela is one of the league’s best rim protectors and perimeter defenders, he struggles inside with physical opponents. Those Rockets had to go through the likes of Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, and Charles Oakley.
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.
I’ve been thinking about Charles Barkley’s 1996-1997 season a lot lately, in response to the discussion regarding the Rockets’ imminent acquisition of Carmelo Anthony. I read another article this morning explicitly stating that Anthony is most likely washed up. While concerns regarding his defensive limitations are absolutely warranted, I’ve found it very odd how thoroughly his offensive abilities have been written off. Anthony, of course, was very recently one of the best pure scorers in the game and is just a year removed from averaging over 20 points per game with New York. Just a season later, after playing in what is widely considered one of the worst situations for a supporting player in basketball, Anthony is being talked about like he’s 38 and completely finished rather than 34, his actual age.
It’s made me think back to just how damn effective Barkley was for the Rockets in his age 34 season after being acquired from Phoenix. Like Anthony, Charles was an injury prone defensive liability. But he was undersized, overweight, and not nearly as skilled offensively. But he was still a major threat that season, helping the Rockets win 57 games and pushing them past Seattle.
This isn’t meant as a direct comparison. Barkley had a God-given knack for getting boards that made his age irrelevant. But Barkley, at age 34, was the second best player on a championship contender. It’s bizarre to me that there are opinions out there that ‘Melo can’t even provide help in a limited role. He’s a flat out steal at the veteran’s minimum.
Note: the clip above is from the game during which Matt Maloney earned the contract which we are still paying off.
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Red94 is a blog about the NBA's Houston Rockets. It was created in 2009 by Rahat Huq and inducted into ESPN.com's TrueHoop Network that same year. Follow @redninetyfour on Twitter for all new post updates.