Reflecting back on the Houston Rockets’ 1996 blockbuster trade for Charles Barkley

In this week’s episode, I looked back on one of the most controversial moves in Houston Rockets history: the 1996 trade that sent budding stars Robert Horry and Sam Cassell to Phoenix for future Hall of Famer Charles Barkley.  Many feel now that the deal was ill-advised, prematurely breaking up a team that had won consecutive NBA championships.  However, as I explain in Episode 103, I still maintain to this day that the move was the right one to make.

It wasn’t until after I had finished recording the episode that I remembered that during All-Star weekend in Houston a few years back, I had actually asked both Horry and Cassell about their thoughts on the trade.  Interestingly, Horry, unsolicited, mentioned the Kevin Willis angle, a twist on things I touched on briefly in the ‘pod:

I remember watching them and I was saying to myself, if they would’ve added Kevin Willis and Eddie Johnson to us…those were the two pieces that we needed.  Two other veteran guys that could deal with some inside presence, a guy that could give us some outside shooting.  If you look at it, we would have had a great lineup, we would have been able to compete.  I’m not saying we would have won a championship, but we would have been right there to compete.  And I know Utah wouldn’t have beaten us.

Cassell mentioned the flurry of injuries the team suffered in 1995-1996, an important backdrop to the trade.  He also responded, when I asked if he was surprised when he heard news of the trade, that he was, and that “[he] never got a chance to be the starting point guard for [the] organization.”  That Cassell would feel this way makes perfect sense, but is so revealing to hear after all of these years.  Those old enough to remember will recall that amongst the fans and the media, point guard was a major controversy at the time, with many people clamoring for the more talented Cassell to replace Kenny Smith in the lineup.  For his part, Sam said all the right things at the time and played his role, never creating a stir.  But you can sense the resentment in his voice in this clip – almost a feeling of being robbed of an opportunity for which he had bided his time for so long.  It’s always interesting to discover, after the fact, the emotions that might have existed behind the scenes.

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of

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