Clutching tightly to memories of younger, better times, Houston Rockets fans do not take to kindly to the denigration of the legacy of one Hakeem Olajuwon. His remains a nebulous one, though, fraught with hypotheticals (“If he had actually got a chance to face Jordan in the Finals…”) and gross exaggerations (as all good mythical types accrue), to the point that it’s quite hard to place the towering figure of Houston sports. While certainly one of the greatest centers of all-time, where he ranks on that ridiculously stacked hall of champions continues to be the subject of debate among many angry forum heads around the world (shoutout to all my brothers in the struggle against getting sunlight). While this sort of semantic, sports-radio-in-hell argument seems to be strictly for the birds, for a fanbase so desperate to protect its relevancy, exactly how great Hakeem Olajuwon was takes on an importance usually not given by franchises who’ve had a little more going on in the last 15 years.
While the Rockets have seen their fair share of Hall-of-Famers and HOF-types stomp through town, no star left quite the indelible mark of Olajuwon. Calvin Murphy was a fine talent, but never the kind of franchise player that could elevate an entire team to greatness. Moses Malone probably has a few too many stamps on his frequent-flyer card to count Houston as his home solely because he once dragged them on his hulking shoulders to a laugher of a Finals appearance in 1981. Charles Barkley probably doesn’t even take calls from Les Alexander anymore. And Clyde Drexler, as many barbeque spots as he may open in the Greater Houston Metropolitan Area or embarrassing stints as the coach of the University of Houston, this city can’t rightfully claim his legacy, as it belongs in the Pacific Northwest.
No, Hakeem Olajuwon stands alone in Rockets history (and, hell, Houston sports history) as the solemn, venerable titan of the franchise, so making sure that his name remains in the tossing about of the Abdul-Jabbars and O’Neals is of preeminent concern to those associated with the red & yellow. Sad then that instead of being bandied about with those GOAT-types, the genuinely strange arc of Olajuwon’s career (Finals appearance, long stretch as insolent superstar keeping ragtag crew together, UNMITIGATED GLORY, fade to black) and the even more peculiar skillset of his have left that legacy completely up for debate, a subject actually quite made for those aimless shout matches on AM radio.
Describing Olajuwon’s game, as with most greats of his ilk, devolves into a string of superlatives. His versatility on the offensive end of the floor may never be seen again (a fact evidenced by the fact that he is one of four NBA players to ever post a quadruple-double, and even had another one that was later rescinded by NBA officials who disputed one of the assists). He was at once the greatest post operator of his time, while still possessing one of the most impressive inside-out games in league history, much less in 6’10″ men history. Unlike other centers, he could, and often did, begin his attack from well outside the paint, facing up unprepared seven-footers, never quite ready for the move (or nine) he was ready to reveal. Perhaps most fearsome of his offensive game was the mere fact that when the defense did everything right, denying him and his infinite touch the chance to get to the rim or an outright open shot, he would seemingly fade into a miserable turnaround jumper that just so happened to be his pet move, the Dream Shake. On defense? He propped up decades of mediocre Rockets perimeter defenders (Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell, an antique Drexler) with his nose for the ball, eventually rising up to be the statistical leader in blocked shots in NBA history. Distinguishing himself at almost all aspects of the forgotten end of the court, Olajuwon further distinguished himself by being the only player above the height of 6’8″ to find himself on the top 10 leaderboard in steals.
Paragraphs like the former essentially write themselves when talking about all-time greats, but at some point, the fawning ends, and the ridiculous urge to know just how good develops, which of course means, “How good was he when compared to everyone else?” Well, given the lacking credentials, even putting his name up there with Russell, Wilt and Alcindor seems heresy, but that next tier of greatness seems about right. Still, I’m not so much as interested in actually trying to really put this into list form, but simply to reveal the wistful bias that time elapsed and nostalgia can produce. One of the prime reasons fans and advocates of Dream stand by the claim that he was, if not the greatest pivot of all-time, at least the greatest of his time is that he went toe-to-toe with the vast majority of his contemporaries in the playoffs and, particularly during the Rockets’ two title runs, handed them all their heads. Ewing, Robinson, O’Neal- all were slayed by the Nigerian man with the soft touch. Because of this, Olajuwon’s superiority to those of his time, particularly Robinson and Ewing, is just assumed thanks to his victory of the head-to-head battle; however, when measured fairly, Robinson’s numbers in specific serve as a stark counterpoint to that particular line of logic. When comparing career-long offensive output, the argument ceases to exist: Robinson was the superior regular season baller, posting highs in PER that Dream never sniffs (30.7, 31, 29.4 and 29.1, whereas Hakeem tops off with 27.3 in 92-93. For those without context, Robinson’s numbers are positively Jordan-like, and the only player to top him in league-wide PER in any of those years was, you guessed, Mike himself) along with superior true shooting and effective field goal percentages throughout the careers of both. Some of that could be attributed to Olajuwon’s career-wide usage rate advantage over Robinson, which would of course lead to greater inefficiency, but the diffferential in usage rates over their careers is but 0.9 percentage points. With only that slight difference in use of possessions, Robinson still managed to post ridiculous offensive ratings (as did Dream, just slightly less ridiculous); the real kicker, though, is the difference in the numbers created by The Wages of Wins author Dave Berri, whose Offensive Win Shares and Overall Win Shares numbers paint a portrait of Olajuwon as a perennial All-Star… and Robinson as a god. Robinson lead the league in Win Shares per 48 minutes played in five seasons in his career, though only in one season that Jordan played, while Olajuwon never comes near their dominance according to Berri’s stats.
While some would take this moment to point out the defensive contributions that Olajuwon made that Robinson simply couldn’t have, the numbers also betray Dream in this regard. Their overall block and steal rates are disarmingly similar, and while Olajuwon eclipses Robinson in Defensive Win Shares by a great deal over their respective careers, individual defensive rating favors Robinson. Most advanced statistics still haven’t fully captured the impact that players like Olajuwon and Robinson have on a team-wide defense, acting as the last line of help for a Mario Elie that got broken off the dribble or an unsure-footed Vinny Del Negro, so comparing team defensive efficiency can generate a somewhat clearer image of the kinds of defensive mavens both were. Even those statistics contradict Dream’s legacy, as his teams ranked among the league’s five-best defenses eight out of his first ten years in the league, but Robinson led his Spurs to league’s best defense four times in his first ten years in the league, as well as one of the league’s five-best defenses for seven years out of that decade (in all fairness, the Spurs led the league in defense featured teams led by defensive geniuses Larry Brown and Gregg Popovich in those four years of league-leading defense, as well as another young defensive-minded big man by the name of Tim Duncan, who also may have hop-skipped both Dream and Robinson in this all-timers debate, helping Robinson for those last couple of years to hold down the paint).
In fact, stats never tend to favor Hakeem in this debate, except for one glaring exception: playoff numbers, particularly those of Olajuwon and Robinson’s much ballyhooed matchup against one another in the 1995 Wesertn Conference Finals. In that series, Olajuwon elevated himself to the levels of sublimity that have created this vaunted image in recent years, outscoring Robinson 35 points a game to 23 and even outrebounding the year’s MVP, while shooting a 56% clip throughout the whole thing. Overall playoff numbers tend to favor Dream as well, as he has higher overall PER, offensive rating and even Win Share stats. The playoffs crafted the hazy, almost mythical representation that most ardent Hakeem followers hold today, and it would only make sense that it would be there, when the games mattered most, where Olajuwon would earn his statistical victories over Robinson and the rest of his contemporaries.
By writing this, I had no intentions of iconoclasm, simply a little air-letting in the sails of Olajuwon that can get so puffed up after 15 years of post-title trauma for Rockets fans. Because of this, so often do we as fans find ourselves creating a tall tale out of what, in and of itself, was already beautiful and unthinkable. When a gorgeous myth starts to steal part of the mind-numbing greatness of reality, we have to look back and remember what made us care in the first place.