Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls ran the 1990s. The Bulls secured their first three-peat from 1991 to 1993 before winning another three titles between 1996 and 1998. But that two-year gap in the middle firmly belonged to the Houston Rockets.
Clyde Drexler, a 15-year veteran and Hall of Famer, was a part of Houston’s 1995 title over the Orlando Magic. And according to Clyde the Glide, Jordan’s brief time away from basketball had nothing to do with the Rockets going back-to-back.
The Houston Rockets won two consecutive titles after Michael Jordan retired
Jordan, fresh off his third straight title, shocked the basketball world in 1993 when he retired from the NBA. Months later, the 30-year-old began a professional baseball career with the Birmingham Barons of the Chicago White Sox farm system. That undoubtedly opened the door for 26 other teams to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the Rockets being one of them.
Led by All-Star big man Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets were already a perennial playoff contender. Yet their continuous bids to win a title kept falling short. That, of course, changed after Jordan left the NBA and the Bulls fell back into the pack of teams they routinely surpassed.
In the 1993-94 season, Houston finished with a franchise-best mark of 58-24. The Rockets then managed to exorcise their playoff demons with series victories over Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers, Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns, and Karl Malone and John Stockton’s Utah Jazz. Rather than meeting Chicago in the Finals, Houston instead matched up against the New York Knicks, defeating them in seven games to win its first title in franchise history.
Houston’s 1994-95 campaign didn’t feature the same dominant regular-season record its predecessor had. But at 47-35, the Rockets still managed to claw their way into the playoffs. With Drexler now on their side, the defending champs knocked off the Jazz, Suns, and San Antonio Spurs before going head-to-head with the upstart Magic. Unlike the previous season, this NBA Finals was over in a flash as Houston swept Orlando for title number two.
Clyde Drexler laughs off the notion of Jordan’s Bulls beating his Rockets
Members of the title-winning Rockets team have often had to field questions on whether their squad would beat Michael’s Bulls. That very same query was posed to Drexler on In the Zone with Chris Broussard.
Drexler, who had many battles with Jordan and even lost to him in the 1992 NBA Finals, wouldn’t entertain the notion of MJ’s retirement having anything to do with Houston winning consecutive rings.
“Jordan played in ’94-95 and I think Orlando swept them, right? And then we swept Orlando. There’s your answer. And taking nothing away from [the Bulls], they were phenomenal. But I actually talk about what happened, not what could’ve happened.”Clyde Drexler
In actuality, Jordan and the Bulls fell in six games to Orlando. But Drexler’s logic makes sense. If Houston beat the team that beat Chicago, Houston would beat Chicago. But some might argue it’s not as simple as that.
With Jordan off playing baseball, the Bulls were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Knicks, the same team Chicago knocked out in each of the three prior seasons. Hypothetically, it stands to reason that Jordan shifts that series in Chicago’s favor. And although Jordan did take the court for the ’95 playoffs, 17 regular-season games weren’t enough to get him truly ready for the arduous grind ahead.
However, Clyde the Glide isn’t dealing in hypotheticals. And there’s nothing wrong with only focusing on events that actually happened.
Even Jordan doubted whether the Bulls could beat the Rockets
Given Drexler’s Hall of Fame resume, it’s hard for the common man to argue with his take. But should we venture out into the world for a second opinion on the matter, Michael Jeffrey Jordan will certainly do.
His Airness had the chance to speak with former Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich over dinner some years ago. As Tomjanovich told The Athletic, the conversation advanced to the point of MJ sharing unprompted praise of the back-to-back title teams in Houston. Even the legendary competitor doubted his chances to beat the Rockets due to one particular player.
“He gave our team great respect,” Tomjanovich said. “He didn’t feel that they could contain Hakeem. They just didn’t have the personnel to do it. And he said he thought we were the team that gave them the most trouble.”
With respect to Drexler, Olajuwon was the reason the Rockets achieved liftoff. The 12-time All-NBA selection and Hall of Famer averaged career highs in points in both ’94 and ’95 with 27.3 and 27.8, respectively. The multiple rebounds and blocks champion, who was taken two spots ahead of Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft, was also one of the few players who had MJ’s number. In 23 head-to-head matchups, Hakeem was 13-10 over the course of his 18-year career.
Given the level of star power involved, it’s a shame we never got to see a Bulls-Rockets Finals matchup. But if we did, Jordan’s perfect Finals record might have come to a surprising end.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.