Revisiting The Barkley Rockets: Was He Worth It?

As we are in the depths of the NBA off-season and waiting for a couple of big names to (maybe) be traded, I thought this would be a good time to review an old controversial big trade: The Rockets’ trade of Charles Barkley in the summer of 1996.  Houston traded two key young players (Sam Cassell and Robert Horry) for a 33-year old Barkley in a bid to squeeze another title out of the Hakeem Olajuwon/Clyde Drexler core.  The trade didn’t win Houston a title but was it a bad deal?  Opinions vary.

The first item that comes up online searching the trade is a 2010 Bleacher Report story that describes the trade thusly: “the Houston Rockets stupidly and stubbornly gambled on a major move in 1996 after winning back-to-back titles, trading away four vital players for an old and grumpy Charles Barkley. Those four players? Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Chucky Brown, and Mark Bryant.”  The article further explained that: “Horry went on to win numerous rings while Cassell went on to lead many, many teams to some great seasons…Not only was Barkley not that good of a player by the time he joined the Rockets in 1996-97, but he also never truly fit in with the entire Houston locker room chemistry that was such a vital part of their back-to-back glory years.”  Bleacher Report correctly articulated the cost but, perhaps, understated Barkley’s contributions for Houston. 

In 2021, Rahat Haq of the Houston Chronicle revisited the deal where he described the trade as: “controversial, and to this day, remains one of the most hotly contested debates amongst Rockets fans….Many still feel that the Rockets messed with a formula that wasn’t broken.”  Haq also gave a little more context for the trade.  The Rockets were swept and badly outplayed by Seattle in the 1996 playoffs: “[t]he Sonics, featuring All-Stars Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, were a matchup nightmare for the Rockets as composed during the title years. Payton tormented the Rockets’ point guards and the Sonics’ defensive scheme allowed them to swarm Olajuwon without leaving the Rockets’ 3-point shooters open.”  Haq ultimately concluded that the trade was worth the risk and attributed the inability to win a title to Houston failing to get enough role players to fill in the other slots.

Both sides of the argument have some merit but I thought we could review the trade de novo now to see where we come out on this question…

State of the Rockets in 1996

Any judgment of the risk/reward analysis must start with the state of the Rockets as of the end of the 1995-96 season.  On paper, the Rockets were okay but here were the hard numbers:

-48-34, 1.63 SRS, 12th on offense, 14th on defense.

-Hakeem had an excellent season (26.9 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 25.5 PER, .166 WS48, 4.9 BPM). This was basically in line with his near peak but he was turning 34.

-Drexler was quite good but a step down from his peak (19.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 5.8 apg, 20.0 PER, .161 WS48, 4.0 BPM) and he was turning 34 and missed 30 games with injuries.  Houston was 32-20 in games he played and 16-14 without Clyde. (For posterity: Olajuwon missed 10 games and Houston was 47-25 with Hakeem and 1-9 without him).

-Horry was turning 26 and his typical nice season (13.7 PER, .089 WS48, 2.3 BPM).  Cassell was turning 27 and had been solid (16.8 PER, .110 WS48, 0.3 BPM) but not at an age where a breakout seemed likely. (Bryant and Brown were serviceable vets but quite fungible).

-The sweep by the Sonics clearly spooked Houston management. Seattle outscored Houston by 11.7 ppg and Payton (24.5 ppg) and Kemp (21.8 ppg, 13.8 rpg) were unstoppable while Hakeem struggled (18.3 ppg on .523 TS%) and the Rocket PGs couldn’t get much done (Cassell was 9-37, .243% from the field). In fact, the Rockets went 0-4 against Seattle in the regular season too.  This seemed like a bad match up for Houston as constituted in 1995-96.

-In addition to Seattle, the Western Conference was very deep with Utah, San Antonio, and the Lakers (who were soon to sign Shaq) all at least as good as the Rockets.  The Rockets had gone 2-2 against Utah, 1-3 against the Spurs, and 0-2 against Shaq.  In short, Houston was likely to be a four or five seed, having to beat two great teams (one of whom would likely be their kryptonite in Seattle) without homecourt.  (Houston somehow won a title in 1995 playoffs as a six seed but that was a once in a generation run).   On top of that, if the Rockets could somehow make another miracle playoff run in the West, they would have to beat the Michael Jordan Bulls, who were coming off a 72-10 season.

Was Barkley the right choice?

So, Houston’s option was to stand pat and hope that Horry and Cassell breakout or try to get more sure-fire power to take a shot or two while Hakeem and Drexler were still near their primes.  Barkley seemed like the only big name available via trade at the time (the biggest vet names traded that off-season besides Barkley were Rod Strickland and Larry Johnson). 

In terms of non-Shaq free agents available, Reggie Miller would’ve been a fascinating fit with Hakeem and the Miller’s negotiations did get messy but he did return to Indy at over $11 million per year while Barkley’s older deal paid him only $4.7 million.  Also, Reggie wouldn’t address the Sonics/Shawn Kemp problem. 

There were other considerations for the Rockets to lean towards Barkley as well.  Mike Tulumello wrote in “Breaking the Rules,” a book that chronicled Barkley’s 1995-96 run in Phoenix, that: “[f]rom the Rockets’ perspective, the spin of the trade was that they’d gained a superstar necessary for one or two more serious runs at the title.  But it seemed at least equally true that the Rockets’ owner Les Alexander met the Suns’ demands for another reason.  Barkley’s persona guaranteed the Rockets the high visibility that would create a favorable climate for the Rockets’ top long-term goal: a new arena.”    

How good was Barkley circa 1996?

Barkley was an undersized power forward and was not known for having a great work ethic.  In theory, he seemed like a bad candidate to age well in his mid-30s. On paper, however, the stats were still pretty good. In 1995-96, Barkley played the most games (71) and minutes (2,632) since 1992-93 and his actual stats were right around what he put up the last four years: 24.8 PER, .191 WS48, 5.7 BPM.  I’m not sure what a physical showed but, purely as a player, Barkley should’ve been pretty good for 1996-97.

The fascinating second issue was how the ball dominant Barkley would adjust to playing with two other stars.  Barkley told Sports Illustrated before the season that opponents would have issues stopping them: “[y]ou’re not going to not double-team Hakeem and you’re not going to not double-team Clyde Drexler.  I’m pretty sure people are going to double-team me.  That’s six guys.” Here’s how Barkley’s stats from his final year in Phoenix compared to that first year with Houston:

1995-96: 37.1 mpg, 23.2 ppg, .521 eFG%, 11.6 rpg, 3.7 apg, 24.8 PER, .191 WS48, 5.7 BPM

1996-97: 37.9 mpg, 19.2 ppg, .526 eFG%, 13.5 rpg, 4.7 apg, 23.0 PER, .224 WS48, 5.7 BPM

Barkley was really good in 1996-97 for Houston but had to adjust to a third banana role on offense.  His usage dropped from 27.5 to 23.2, his lowest since 1986-87 (Hakeem’s usage was 30.4, near his high-water mark, and Drexler’s 23.5 was virtually the same as the season before).  Barkley got touches by rebounding like a fiend.  He posted a near career high 20.7 TRB% and dished at also near career high 20.6 AST%.  He may have been loud in the locker room, but Barkley fit in really well on the court. 

The 1996-97 Rockets: Oooooooooooold (mostly)

The Rockets lost a lot of depth to get Barkley and SI described the bench as “thin as a supermodel and not nearly as pretty.”  Houston filled the roles with very veteran players.  The top seven players in minutes played per game were all 33 or older except rookie Matt Maloney, who won the starting point guard job out of the CBA.  Maloney was not athletic and didn’t penetrate much and, instead, was a solid spot up three-point guy.  He was basically John Paxson and not a true point guard (the offense ran through Drexler anyway and the Rockets were fifth in the NBA in assists and 26th in turnovers). 

Health was an issue.  Hakeem played 78 games but Barkley did wear down under heavy minutes and played only 53 games (the Rockets were 41-12 in those games).  Drexler played 62 games (Houston was 46-16 in those games).  Overall, they went 57-25 and were well balanced (7th on offense, 10th on defense, 8th in pace).  Even better, they matched up well against the good teams:

  1. versus the Bulls

3-1 versus Shaq’s Lakers

3-1 versus Seattle

2-2 versus Utah

(The Spurs bottomed out and did not compete due to David Robinson’s injuries).

In the playoffs, Houston beat nemesis Seattle in an epic seven-game series where Barkley was a key factor in matching Kemp.  Maloney played relatively well against Payton as well.  In the Western Conference Finals, however, Utah beat Houston 4-2 and John Stockton ran wild (20.5 ppg, .651 TS%, 10.3 apg) and hit the series winning shot over Barkley.  Barkley had a pretty good series and held Karl Malone to .494 TS%. So, no title but the Barkley gambit worked pretty well in Year 1. 

1997-98: Things Get Messy

Despite the nice 1996-97, the Rockets were clearly a declining asset.  The key players were a year older, and Vegas was skeptical.  Houston’s odds of winning a title in 1996-97 were +700 and had an over-under of 53.5 wins.  The title odds rose to +1200 for 1997-98 with an over-under of 50.5 wins.

Drexler and Barkley were relatively healthy (both playing about 70 games) but the anchor, Hakeem, was wearing out.  Olajuwon struggled with injuries and played only 47 games (Houston was 26-21 in those games, 15-20 without him).  Both Barkley and Hakeem were good but their stats were also creeping downwards to their lowest advanced numbers since their rookie seasons (for example: 3.0 BPM for Hakeem, 2.8 BPM for Barkley). 

Overall, the offense was still good (8th) but the collective age showed most on defense where they dropped from 10th to 25th.  The Rockets started 12-5 but wore down and ended up 41-41 and were an eight seed overall. Late in the season, the Rockets attempted to inject some energy into the core by trading for young point guard Damon Stoudamire from Toronto but the Raptors backed out of the deal when they realized there were better offers out there.  The deal probably wouldn’t have helped Houston much anyway because the problems were on defense (not Damon’s forte) and Stoudamire’s ball dominant style wouldn’t work great on a team with three ball dominant players already.  (In fact, Stoudamire was not a star scorer when he ended up in Portland).

Houston drew the Jazz in the playoffs and played them really tough.  Houston stole Game 1 in Houston and were up 2-1 in the series at one point.  They had the chance to close Utah out in Game 4.  The Rockets were up 11 after one quarter in Game 4 when Barkley tore his triceps when Greg Foster landed on him.  Houston was outscored 40-16 immediately after the injury and the series was effectively over.  It’s not as though the Rockets were likely to make a deep run (they would’ve had to beat Tim Duncan/David Robinson Spurs AND the Shaq/Kobe Lakers the next two rounds).  Still, Houston was feisty enough that but for an untimely fluke injury, they may have at least upset the Jazz. Either way, it was clear that real title contention with the old man core was getting less likely.

Did Barkley feud with Hakeem and Drexler at all?

As mentioned above, Barkley did have some rough moments with his fellow stars.  Larry Platt’s “Keepin’ It Real,” details troubles from early in the 1997-98 season: “After last week’s last-second loss at Portland (Barkley missed two layups with the game on the line), Olajuwon complained about not getting the ball down the stretch.  Barkley told Eddie Sefko, a beat writer for the Houston Chronicle, that Hakeem is ‘a big baby.’  Drexler chimed in, taking Olajuwon’s side, unable to resist the opportunity to needle Barkley publicly.”  The three stars then did a press conference after this spat affirming that there was no dissension on the team

Later in the year, as the team really struggled, the Barkley/Drexler beef simmered again.  Platt wrote that: “[t]he buzz is that Drexler and Barkley are feuding and can no longer play together….Drexler is, after all, an adherent to the crossover ethic that Barkley finds so phony.  One team source blames Drexler: ‘Clyde is jealous,’ the source says, pointing out that Barkley’s flamboyance naturally overshadows Drexler’s quiet, classy demeanor….But those close to the team, including Barkley himself, scoff at the idea of significant friction between the two stars.  In other worse, it’s nothing a winning streak wouldn’t straighten out.”  It was clear that Barkley and Drexler were never buddies but any talk of a big rift in the locker room was overblown.

1998-99: A New Big Three

Even though he was still pretty good, Drexler retired after the 1997-98 season to coach the University of Houston (he would go 19-39 in two years before resigning).  Houston replaced Drexler with a 33-year old Scottie Pippen to team with Barkley (now age-35) and Hakeem (age-36).  The Rockets had also found a few useful active young guards in rookies Michael Dickerson and Cuttino Mobley.  This new combo led Vegas to give them strong(ish) title odds of +500 and some optimism about recapturing the 1996-97 magic.

On the court, the core stayed healthy and the old guys were better than the prior year too (Hakeem ticked up to a 3.2 BPM and Barkley to 4.5 BPM).  The overall offense was strong (5th) and the defense was back to adequate (15th) resulting in a 31-19 record for a lockout shortened season. 

The Rockets were a solid mid-seed but really struggled against the best of the West (3-9 against the top four seeds in the West) and fattened on non-playoff teams (Houston was 20-4 against them).  The Rockets were a five seed and drew the Kobe/Shaq Lakers in the first round.  The Lakers took the series 3-1 but the games were relatively close.  Both Barkley (23.5 ppg, 13.8 rpg, 3.8 apg) and Pippen (18.3 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 5.5 apg) played well but Hakeem (13.3 ppg on .426%) was crushed by prime Shaq (29.5 ppg, .523%).

Pippen became disenchanted with Houston’s post up offense and demanded a trade after the season.  Barkley, who took a pay cut to help get Pippen, considered the demand disloyal and said so publicly.  Pippen, who has never been afraid to nuke people who annoy him, did just that to Sir Charles stating that: “[Barkley] can never expect an apology from me. If anything, he owes me an apology for coming to play with his sorry fat butt.”  Pippen was able to force a trade to Portland shortly after this.

1999-00: It’s over, Johnny

Houston still wanted to try to ride Barkley and Olajuwon for 1999-00, this time adding rookie star Steve Francis to the mix but the wheels finally fell off for the older stars.  Barkley blew out his patella tendon 20 games into the season and Hakeem played only 44 games and was also ineffective.  The injuries didn’t really matter to the Rockets’ overall performance anyway.  Houston was 7-13 when Barkley got hurt and finished 34-48 for the season.  Barkley retired and went on to an announcing career where he’s made a better salary than he did as a player.

Summing it up

The Barkley Era yielded one bona fide title run in 1996-97, a few decent moments the next two years but no more playoff wins.  Barkley played mostly very well and there is little evidence that he was a source of serious trouble in the locker room.  The Drexler fight was exaggerated and the Pippen fight appears to have been 90% Pippen trying to force a trade to a better team.

Had the Rockets just kept Cassell and Horry during that time span, they would’ve been solid but not any better in 1996-97.  After 1997, Houston might’ve have been better with Cassell and Horry but a title shot wasn’t realistic then anyway.   An argument can be made that Houston could’ve traded Cassell and Horry for a better return later (Cassell was traded for Jason Kidd a few months after the Barkley trade) but that would be gambling that a better star was going to be available midway through the season.  It was not readily apparent in the summer of 1996 that Kidd was going to be traded anyway (Kidd’s career is a whole other article!).

Barkley told SI in 1996 that “[i]f we don’t win the championship, I’ll be crushed.  But I don’t make guarantees.”  In that sense, the Barkley trade was a disappointment.  Ultimately, Barkley was very good on Houston (and surprisingly adaptable) but they couldn’t get to a Finals in the small window when their stars were young enough to dominate and they were just okay the rest of his tenure.  Still, it was worth the gamble for Houston relative to cost and the Barkley Years were never boring.