Legacy of Bigs: Ranking the Houston Rockets' greatest centers of all-time

There's an obvious choice at the top spot, but the debate begins after that.

Photo of Michael Shapiro
Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon (34) looks to pass the ball under defensive pressure from the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing during the first quarter of the fifth game of the NBA Finals at Madison Square Garden 17 June 1994. 

Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon (34) looks to pass the ball under defensive pressure from the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing during the first quarter of the fifth game of the NBA Finals at Madison Square Garden 17 June 1994. 

BOB STRONG/AFP via Getty Images

Ball-dominant guard James Harden was the face of Rockets basketball for much of the past decade, but few franchises in NBA history have a legacy of impactful centers quite like Houston.

The Rockets have featured a number of standout big men across the last half-century, including some of the greatest players to ever step on the hardwood. Hakeem Olajuwon turned Houston into "Clutch City" in the 1990s. Yao Ming is at least partially responsible for the NBA's evolution into a global game. Previous decades brought a number of dominant scoring bigs to Houston, including one who recently had his number retired and hoisted into the rafters at the Toyota Center

So, who stands tallest among the giants to ever grace the floor in Houston? Let's count down the 10 greatest centers in Rockets' history.

10. Kelvin Cato

The No. 15 pick in the 1997 NBA draft was a mainstay in the paint for the Rockets from 1999-04, though the period isn't necessarily a memorable one for the Rockets. Houston finished under .500 for the first time since 1983-84 in 1999-20, and they reached the playoffs just once in Cato's five seasons.

9. Dikembe Mutombo

Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks to pas against Dikembe Mutombo #55 of the Houston Rockets during a game at Staples Center on October 30, 2007 in Los Angeles, California.

Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks to pas against Dikembe Mutombo #55 of the Houston Rockets during a game at Staples Center on October 30, 2007 in Los Angeles, California.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Mutombo is more of an honorary mention here after closing his Hall of Fame career in Houston. Yet while Mutombo was nearly a decade removed from his last All-Star appearance in 2001-02 when he arrived in Houston, he still served as a solid rotational cog for four seasons. He logged 15.4 win shares in 267 games, playing his last contest just two months shy of his 43rd birthday.

8. Chuck Hayes

Hayes is far-less accomplished than the previous big man on this list, but we should be allowed a brief shoutout to one of the more recognizable Houston role players of this century. The 6-foot-6 center spearheaded the small-ball revolution for the Rockets in the mid-2000s, with the "Chuckwagon" lineups becoming a staple as Daryl Morey reinvented the sport. Do we care that Hayes never scored even eight points per game in a single season? Not at all. He'll rightfully live on in the hearts of Rockets diehards forever as a key piece of Houston's reinvention. 

Chuck Hayes #44 of the Houston Rockets makes a shot over Darius Songaila #9 and Emeka Okafor #50 of the New Orleans Hornets at the New Orleans Arena on January 2, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Chuck Hayes #44 of the Houston Rockets makes a shot over Darius Songaila #9 and Emeka Okafor #50 of the New Orleans Hornets at the New Orleans Arena on January 2, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

7. Dwight Howard

How does one properly assess Howard's Houston tenure? One one hand, he played just three seasons with the Rockets, saw his scoring dip each year and his final campaign was a 41-41 dud that lacked any real semblance of joy. But that may be a little overly harsh. Howard's arrival in 2013-14 marked a nine-win jump compared to the previous year, and in the postseason, Howard often delivered. He averaged 26 points per game in the first round against Portland in 2014, and he feasted against Dallas to kick off the playoffs the next year. Let's just say the good vibes with Howard didn't last too long after that. 

6. Ralph Sampson

One of the greatest players in college basketball history is more of a great what-if story in the NBA. Injury woes limited Sampson to just 456 games across nine seasons, but in his early years, the Virginia product was a dominant force. He blocked just shy of 500 shots in his first three seasons with the Rockets, each of which coincided with an All-Star appearance, and he delivered one of the most iconic moments in franchise history during the 1986 playoffs.

Sampson is one of six rookies in league history average 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in a season, but as is a theme on this list, his Houston tenure wasn't exactly a lengthy one. He logged just over four seasons with the Rockets before a trade to Golden State in 1987. 

5. Clint Capela

Capela is unfairly a bit of a forgotten man in the James Harden era. He emerged as a two-way force in the last decade after arriving as a quiet teenager in 2014, and at the height of the Rockets' 2010s run, the Capela-Harden two-man game was as dominant as any in basketball. Capela averaged a double-double in each of his final three Rockets seasons. He led the NBA in field-goal percentage in 2017-18. Perhaps Capela's skill-set is a bit limited, but he thrived in his role as a paint protector and rim-runner extraordinaire. His growth is a perfect encapsulation of Houston's impressive development pipeline in recent decades. 

Yao Ming #11 of the Houston Rockets celebrates during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on October 26, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.

Yao Ming #11 of the Houston Rockets celebrates during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on October 26, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

4. Yao Ming

The top pick in the 2002 NBA draft made an indelible impact on the sport as the NBA rapidly increased its fan base in China and across the world. And Ming was far more than a a global ambassador. He was a downright dominant center at his peak, including a 2006-07 campaign in which he became one of six players this century to average at least 25 points and two blocks per game. Yet a litany of injuries limited Ming's career. He retired after the 2010-11 season, logging just 486 career games. 

3. Elvin Hayes

The Big E earned his flowers from the Rockets in November as the franchise retired his No. 44 jersey, and for good reason. Hayes was instrumental in turning the Rockets from a laughingstock into a playoff team in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his rookie year with the San Diego Rockets remains one of the best in NBA history. Hayes averaged 28.4 points per game in his first NBA season, becoming only the second rookie in history to lead the league in scoring. Hayes then joined the Baltimore Bullets after four seasons with the Rockets, ultimately winning the championship in 1978. 

2. Moses Malone

Like Hayes, Malone made his greatest mark on the game's history with another franchise, as he led the 76ers to the championship in 1983 during his famous "Fo, Fo, Fo" postseason run. But don't forget Malone's accomplishments in Houston. He registered five consecutive All-Star nods with the Rockets from 1977-82, earning a trio of rebounding titles in the process. Malone remains the only Rockets player to ever win multiple MVP awards, capturing the trophy in both 1978-79 and 1981-82.

Rockets fans will want to forget Malone's exit from Houston. An impending ownership change forced a shedding of salary, and in return for Malone, the Rockets received veteran big man Caldwell Jones and a first-round pick in 1983. Jones was off the roster one year later, and the Philadelphia pick turned into serviceable-yet-unspectacular forward Rodney McCray. Luckily for Houston, another center arrived and altered the course of the franchise shortly thereafter.

1. Hakeem Olajuwon

There's no debate for who should take the top spot in our rankings. Olajuwon is the greatest player in franchise history and among the greatest players of all-time, amassing a resume matched by just a handful of big men. Olajuwon earned 12 All-NBA honors and nine All-Defense nods in 18 seasons. No player has recorded more blocks since the stat was first tracked in 1973-74. Olajuwon brought Houston to the NBA Finals in his second season, then claimed back-to-back championships two decades later.

Olajuwon is the face of excellence for Houston basketball. It's a question whether anyone will ever again match his greatness.

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