In 2010 LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to to join his friends Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. That squad was thought to be one of the first player assembled super-teams in NBA league history. Since then, many other players have tried to assemble their own “Big Threes” with varying success. But before the age of player-driven super teams assembling, front offices tried this method out via trades and signings. Some worked, like the Boston Celtics in 2007-08, going from league-worst the previous season to NBA champions in the matter of a season. And others failed miserably. One in particular that failed was the 1998-99 Houston Rockets.
The 1998-99 Houston Rockets had three future hall-of-famers on its roster Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Scottie Pippen. On paper they looked like they could fill the void that Michael Jordan’s second retirement left and run the table for at least a season or two. Olajuwon was the number one overall selection in the 1984 NBA Draft. He had already brought the Rockets two NBA championships. And the Rockets front office may have thought that with a little more help he could bring them one or two more.
Prior to the 1996-97 NBA season the Rockets went after Barkley. They sent Chucky Brown, Mark Bryant, Sam Cassell, and Robert Horry to the Phoenix Suns for Barkley and a 1999 second-round draft pick. But the ensuing two season the Rockets came up short in the playoffs. Both times they were eliminated by the Utah Jazz (who won the Western Conference both seasons). Then in another move to bolster the roster, prior to the 1998-99 NBA season, the Rockets traded for Pippen. They sent Roy Rogers and a 2000 second-round draft pick to the Chicago Bulls for Pippen. And thus, the team was formed.
The 1998-99 NBA season actually started on February 5, 1999. The lockout shortened season was due to a delay in the NBA and National Basketball Players Association coming to a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement. Therefore, the season was shortened to 50 games. The Rockets had a decent season finishing with a 31-19 record and clinching the fifth seed in the Western Conference. Olajuwon, Barkley, and Pippen finished first, second, and third in points per game respectively. But in the playoffs, reality kicked in. They faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first-round, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant who were just coming into their own.
The Lakers proved too much for the Rockets. Olajuwon who had just years earlier bullied O’Neal in the finals was now getting bullied by him. Age was effectively catching up to him. And Pippen and Barkley were at each other’s throats all throughout the season. This didn’t help in the playoffs when they probably needed each other the most. They only won one game and lost the series 3-1.
The 1998-99 Houston Rockets had three future hall-of-famers on its squad. But they fell well short of expectations, getting bounced in the first-round of the playoffs. And before the start of the 1999-00 season, Pippen was traded to the Portland Trailblazers for a smorgasbord of players (none of which made much contribution to the team). The Rockets would also end up missing the playoffs for the next four seasons.
Putting Barkley, Pippen, and Olajuwon together sounded great on paper; but it in fact was not. Pippen still had a few more good seasons left with the Blazers. But Barkley and Olajuwon were in the twilights of their respective careers and just didn’t have the physicality left to compete with the newer generation of big men in the league. It was a failed experiment of an early “Big Three”, and a lesson as to what can happen if you try to mortgage your team’s future to go into win-now mode.