Just as Pippen, Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong began to be seen as more than just Jordan's assistants when Chicago won its second title, so have Olajuwon's teammates begun to establish their own identities. Drexler, of course, was a star before he came to Houston, but he reinvented himself in the Finals. After 11 seasons without a championship he had a reputation as a player with great stats who didn't seem to want a title quite badly enough. He refuted that notion with his passionate play against Orlando.
But Horry, the 6'10", third-year forward, was clearly the Rocket who opened the most eyes during the playoffs. Grant, the Magic power forward who had such a difficult time in the Finals against Horry, astutely compared Horry to Pippen, Grant's former Chicago teammate. Horry's astounding versatility was indeed reminiscent of Pippen. He is both a dangerous three-point shooter and an excellent slasher and finisher around the basket. He also played defense, rebounded and handled the ball exceedingly well, and had it not been for the relentlessly spectacular play of Olajuwon, Horry would have received serious consideration for Finals MVP.
The only serious flaw in Horry's game in the last two years had been his inconsistency, his tendency to drift into the background at times, but he may have shaken that permanently in the Finals. "This championship is even sweeter than the first because I feel I'm a bigger part of the offense now," he says. He's also a bigger part of the defense. The turning point for Horry, a natural small forward, may have come in the Western Conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns when he asked to guard Charles Barkley, the Suns' All-Star power forward. "It was something that needed to be done, and I felt that I could do it," Horry says.
Horry began spending more time at power forward in February, when Houston traded Otis Thorpe to Portland for Drexler; Mario Elie eventually took over his spot at small forward. That left Cassell as the Rockets' only reliable reserve, and that lack of depth is another obstacle to the Rockets' being considered a great team. "I don't think they have the players from top to bottom that we had, for instance," says Dumars. However, as Dumars notes, "in a way that lack of depth makes what Houston did even more amazing."
The Rockets have also heard the theory that the league is weaker than it was even a few years ago and that their titles are somehow less impressive because they have no equally formidable team against which to measure themselves, the way the 1980s Lakers could gauge themselves against the Celtics, for instance. "But you can look at that the other way," says Daly. "The Rockets went into the playoffs the last two years with a lot more teams thinking they had a realistic chance of winning it all than when those Lakers or Celtics played. I don't think any team has ever had four tougher playoff opponents than Houston did this year."
It's not just the number of championship contenders that has changed. The style of play has also altered drastically. "It's a different era," says Daly. "Very few set plays are run anymore. It's become a post-up league, where you throw the ball into the post, basically wait for the double team and then kick it out to the shooters, who are even more dangerous now that the three-point line is closer than it's ever been." In that way the Rockets are a team perfectly suited to their era. They have the best post-up player alive in Olajuwon, plus a variety of marksmen. Thus Houston defines its times every bit as much as the repeat champions before the Rockets did theirs.
And Daly, for one, thinks Houston's adaptations and achievements rank the Rockets with their fellow repeaters. "They most definitely belong with the great teams of recent times," says Daly. "I don't see how anyone could deny them that. Not anymore."
Imagine the scene: Magic, Isiah and Michael beckon Hakeem. They call for more chairs to be placed around the table of greatness. Then they motion for the Houston Rockets to take their rightful place.