Key Stats and Trends
- All-time level defender, anchoring excellent defenses despite mediocre teammates
- Team and individual metrics improved across the board in the postseason
- Never played on a great team; isolation game and weak passing make scaling a concern
If Shaq was Wilt incarnate, then Hakeem was Russell. Standing over 6-foot-10 and weighing 250 pounds, he paired the quickness of a guard with the strength of a big. This allowed him to cover the court with a controlled chaos, helping and recovering almost at will:
Hakeem didn’t start playing basketball until he was 15, but his athleticism made up for any shortcomings. He could bite on upfakes in his early years, but his incredible ability to control his body and recover limited any damage:
Young Olajuwon tried to block just about everything, and thanks to the tighter spacing of the era, he nearly did.1 Hakeem blocked hundreds of high-leverage shots at the rim, and his aggression and perfect timing turned him into a basketball eraser:
Yes, that was the unblockable Sky Hook. Olajuwon’s court coverage was unrivaled among 3-point era centers, so he could briefly lose his man (Bill Cartwright, No. 24 in the next play) before covering enough ground to muck up the dribbler and block the shot:
He was also able to eliminate shots in man defense, using his strength to absorb contact and still elevate to meet the ball:
As he aged, he became a smarter defender, no longer chasing every attempt and minimizing his defensive errors. Here, instead of merely challenging the shot, Hakeem plays some basketball chess:
He seemed to learn this trick around the ’89 or ’90 season, providing lightning-quick help to alter shots, then dropping an arm to guard against a pass if he felt the attacker change his mind. Again, watch his left hand here:
This effectively made his double teams tax free (rebounding aside), because ball-handlers couldn’t hit Olajuwon’s man with his passing wall in the way. He still had the occasional lapse, usually from a preoccupation with the action in front of him:
Yet he was so quick that he could often influence plays even without anticipating them. Here he is pouncing on unsuspecting penetrators:
I tracked over 800 possessions of his for this series, and he transitions from committing defensive errors at a moderate rate in the ’80s to a low rate in the ’90s. Olajuwon’s frequency of “elite” help plays — swooping over in unreasonable fashion to disrupt action near the hoop — is the highest I’ve ever recorded. While his awareness might not have matched Garnett’s, his horizontal game was still excellent; he’s arguably the quickest and fastest center ever, possessing cat-like reflexes and the ability to guard almost anyone.
No film study of him would be complete without mentioning his steals. Hakeem deflected countless balls and topped 2 steals per game in five of his first seven seasons, despite not gambling much. Many of his thefts came from quickly jumping entry passes or flicking at dribblers like this:
On offense, his scoring arsenal was robust when he entered the league. If mid-’90s Olajuwon was firing on all cylinders, late ’80s Hakeem operated at 90 percent capacity. His Dream Shakes and eye-popping moves were there in the early days:
Those weren’t highlights either — those moves were his post game. His strikes were decisive and nearly indefensible; he hit more difficult shots with regularity than anyone besides Kobe Bryant. When younger, Olajuwon would pick up a bucket or two a game just by unleashing his agility and strength on overmatched defenders. Here, he makes like an edge rusher in football, ducking around his man before sealing him for a score:
This repertoire made him an excellent isolation scorer. I tracked possessions where he was in single coverage, and Olajuwon averaged an incredible 1.22 points per play.2 In games from the early ’90s, Houston went to an Hakeem iso 19 percent of the time when he was on the court, more than Kobe’s 2006 rate of 17 percent, per Synergy.3 Of course, he had just about the fiercest spin move outside of Michael Jackson too:
But Olajuwon made these ballerina moves into double or even triple-teams, forgoing easier shots for teammates. This was a major issue, particularly in the first half of his career, and instead of creating high-efficiency opportunities for other Rockets, he launched low-efficiency shots into multiple defenders:
Here’s another example leading to a turnover, in which Hakeem showcases his blazing speed that earned him a number of easy fast break scores during the ’80s:
Based on my sampling, from 1985-92 Hakeem missed an opportunity for creation about as frequently as he actually created one (over 4 plays per 100). This ratio was halved in 1993, as he started playmaking more frequently — around 8 opportunities created per 100, all-time levels for a big man — instead of forcing his own scoring into piles of defenders. In my sample, he shot under 40 percent on these double-teamed shots when he had a clear outlet valve instead.
Olajuwon’s subpar passing compounded the issue. He occasionally spotted cutters or high-leverage passes, but couldn’t always deliver the ball accurately or timely:
By 1993, he was a better, more willing passer, comfortably tossing it back out to his shooters.4 In the second clip below, Hakeem finds a shooter with an unorthodox look-away, then demonstrates his amazing offensive rebounding:
He was a premier offensive rebounder when he entered the league, posting a top-15 rate of all-time in his rookie season. As his athleticism tapered off in the early ’90s, he was still quite good in this area, above the 80th percentile in those years among high-usage big men. He tracked the ball well off the rim, and even tossed in the occasional swim move to outmaneuver opponents on the glass:
To recap, Hakeem entered the league as a skilled scorer and ferociously aggressive defender. He improved his shooting in the early ’90s (translating to even better isolation efficacy) as his defense wised up. In 1993, he shifted his floor game towards creating more, although he struggled with this for his entire prime. In 1994, he was a half-step slower and lacked some of his explosiveness, reflected by a decline in defensive rebounding and blocks. And in 1995, another half-step came off as Father Time wore on him steadily until the end of the decade.
Quantifying Olajuwon can feel like solving physics. He’s essentially the only all-timer to never test his portability by playing with top-end talent, although his brush with other stars in ’97 yielded decent results given that the Big 3’s combined age was 101. When younger, his shoot-first tendencies made it unlikely that he could play a more team-oriented game, although his improved ’90s repertoire should have fit comfortably next to any perimeter star. And most notably, his individual and team offense regularly improved in the postseason, turning Houston from an afterthought into a championship contender despite its marginal personnel.
Before the 1984 season, a rebuilding Rockets team drafted 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and played at a 32-win pace (-3.1 SRS). The next year, they added Olajuwon, upgraded their guards and climbed to a 45-win clip (1.4 SRS). Both sides of the ball improved, but notably, the defensive efficiency jumped about 2 points and the Rockets finished fourth in defensive rating. Given his role and skill set, it’s likely Hakeem was responsible for a good chunk of this improvement as a rookie. In 1986, the Rockets weren’t much better in the regular season (a 47-win pace), although their offense grew as the defense dipped below average.
However, in the ’86 postseason, Houston excelled, improving its offensive rating from 110.2 to 110.7 despite tougher playoff competition. While offensive centerpieces typically decline against stingier postseason defenses, Olajuwon was one of the few who improved, elevating his scoring volume and efficiency. Most NBA mid-level offenses show a natural bit of relative improvement against harder postseason opponents, but Olajuwon’s Rockets were a whopping 2.7 points better.5
In other words, Hakeem’s offenses were inelastic, likely caused by his ability to take and hit difficult shots. This is a double-edged sword; Olajuwon’s poor shot selection and isolation tendencies can prevent an offense from flourishing, but they also made Houston resilient to most good defenses. There was nothing for the opponent to take away because he was already taking hard shots. More on this in a second.
Those ’80s Rockets teams were poorly constructed, bottoming out in 1983, then never really filling the roster with valuable role players. Sampson and Hakeem were supposed to be the future, but injuries derailed Ralph. Meanwhile, because of their immediate success, the Rockets added the following legends through the draft: Steve Harris (1985), Buck Johnson (1986, a rotation player by his third season), Doug Lee (1987) and Derrick Chievous (1988).6 Compounding matters, two rotation players were given a multi-year ban in the middle of the ’87 season for recreational drug use. It wasn’t until they stepped off the treadmill of mediocrity in 1992 that they snagged a worthwhile rookie in the lottery named Robert Horry.
As you can see, there was minimal roster turnover, which is stupefying for a non-contender. Instead, Houston spun its wheels for a handful of seasons with a marginally talented group on both ends of the court. The ’80s Rockets never surrounded Hakeem with shooters to punish teams for double-teaming off his guards, and they regularly finished in the bottom-half of the league in 3-point shots attempted.
Olajuwon still left an impact footprint though. With Sampson, Hakeem missed 18 games in 1986 and ’87, and the Rockets were 3.3 efficiency points worse on defense without Hakeem. Then, with Sampson gone entirely, (1987-91), Olajuwon posted the best defensive stretch of his career.7 His court coverage and rim erasures led them to a five-year relative defensive average that was 3.4 points better than the league, finishing in the top five in each season. He did this with moderately strong defensive forwards (Rodney McCray in ’87 and ’88, then Otis Thorpe, who joined in ’89), but lacked elite defensive talent or a notable defensive system.8 During that stretch, Olajuwon led the NBA in defensive rebounding rate twice and block percentage once. Below, you can see how those Rockets stack up against the best unique five-year defensive stretches from 1970 to the mid ’90s:9
Given the makeup of the league in the ’80s, I’m not sure it was possible for anyone to generate a super-team on defense like the 2000s Spurs. Houston never went all-in on that end like Pat Riley in New York, and thus their league-best ratings weren’t statistical outliers. Still, as the above chart depicts, only a few franchises had a better five-year defensive stretch than the Rockets in that period, a feather in Olajuwon’s cap.10
Without a second legit star and a fairly underwhelming supporting cast (apologies to Buck Johnson, Mitchell Wiggins and Sleepy Floyd), Hakeem still led the Rockets to a 52-win pace at full-strength in 1990 and 1991, on par with many notable lone-star efforts in history. His isolation scoring game made him a classic “floor raiser,” ensuring his teams weren’t overrun by stifling opponents. This trait is significantly more appealing in Olajuwon than every perimeter player in history — including young Jordan — because it’s paired with his defense, making it easier to win without offensive dominance. And Hakeem wasn’t just a great team defender, he was an individual shutdown artist of the highest order. Opposing All-Star centers lost nearly 4 points per 36 and more than 5 points of efficiency against him during the heart of his career:
On offense, Houston’s improvement coincided with Hakeem’s personal development as a creator (per the scouting report). The ’80s Rockets were often poorly spaced with idle perimeter threats who watched Olajuwon dance with half of the opponent’s roster. But Rudy Tomjanovich’s Rockets were loaded with capable shooters waiting to hit spot-up jumpers, and the ’94 team set a record for 3-point attempts in a year (at the time).11 Then in 1995, the Rockets increased their 3-point frequency by 36 percent, setting another record for attempts with a shorter 3-point line.
However, efficiency was almost always an issue for Hakeem. Early in his career, his difficult shot selection and poor passing tendencies limited his offensive impact. The Rudy T years tapped into his ability to punish double teams and unleashed a high-variance strategy that was a threat to any opponent in a seven game series. But even with his shift in ’93 to a more willing creator, Olajuwon still took an enormity of challenging, double-teamed attempts, dampening his percentages. Here’s how his three-year peak compares to the other great big men of the 3-point era in the “Big 3” offensive dimensions of scoring, efficiency and creation:12
In the postseason, Houston relied on him even more, and he responded by (amazingly) upping his scoring and creation. Here’s the same snapshot of the 3-point era big men, except this time using playoff data from those same seasons. Notice how Hakeem moves from the weakest creator to the strongest while maintaining his efficiency:
All of this had a profound impact on the Houston offense. From 1993 to 1995, the Rockets were about a point better than the defenses they faced in the regular season, averaging 109 points per 100 possessions. But in 57 playoff games, with Hakeem ramping up, Houston was 5.3 points better than the defenses it faced, posting a 111 offensive rating. So while the Rockets hovered around 50-wins during the season with a small margin of victory, in those 57 playoff games they posted a 7.6 SRS (62-win pace) by maintaining a small margin over the best teams in the league. Hakeem’s inelasticity as a player likely turned Houston into a resilient team.
The Rockets took one last swing in 1997 when they added Charles Barkley to form a “super” (but elderly) team with Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. When healthy, that was actually the best regular season team Hakeem ever played on (57-win pace). Ideally, when more talent arrives, stars develop a synergy and create easier shots for each other. That didn’t quite happen, as Hakeem posted comparable scoring numbers with slightly lower creation rates and the Rockets finished 3.6 points better than average on offense at full-strength. Age was certainly a factor at that point, but the results were a tad underwhelming.13
Using Jeremias Engelmann’s three-year APM study from 2002-16, the best defensive players improved their teams by about 4.5 points per game. (The best offensive players approached 5.5 per game). Did the slightly congested spacing during his prime amplify his incredible ability as a help defender? I think it did, and thus his combination of scoring and defense provided a devastating package, even before he started passing more. If his resiliency truly made his ’93 and ’94 teams closer to 60-win competition, then his peak was likely matched by only a few players ever.
Augmented Plus-Minus (AuPM) paints him as a star player who fell short of the elites at the end of his prime. His 1994-95 two-year AuPM average of +4.8 falls in “only” the 95th percentile, but given the evidence, it’s clear that Hakeem was one of the rare players ever to genuinely have a larger impact against superior playoff competition. AuPM also underestimates Tim Duncan — from ’06-09, it’s about 2.5 points short of his APM value every year — the most functionally similar player to Hakeem in history. Both were elite defenders with strong isolation games who created via kick-outs but lacked court vision. Duncan’s passing grew beyond Hakeem’s, but Olajuwon’s scoring game was more robust.
Hakeem’s scaled APM marks from his post-prime years — 1997 and 1998 — land him at +4.0 and +3.4, respectively, with better impact on defense, suggesting that his prime impact metrics could have indeed been elite.14 And multiple game-level plus-minus studies view him as a superstar who’s a rung below the all-time MVPs, which makes sense given some his down years; Olajuwon was caught in a shifting team identity during his injury return in 1991, then feuded with management over contract disagreements in the 1992 season.
I consider him the best defender of the 3-point era, and that value holds on any team. His questionable shot selection and inability to scale on offense are a concern and his team situation creates enough uncertainty that I’m a bit uneasy about his offensive valuations. But I have a hard time slotting him much lower, especially given his similarities to Duncan, and in the most negative light, he’s no lower than ninth. Yet, he has enough longevity and such a high peak that he could easily place fifth. In another close call, he comes in with the sixth-most valuable career in NBA history.
- While there are clear moments on tape that support the downfalls of block-chasing, there is no relationship between his increase in blocks and Houston’s defensive rebounding performance. They were never a great rebounding team, but that’s understandable given the defenders around Olajuwon.
- From 1986-95, the sample consisted of only 132 isolation plays, so take it with a grain of salt.
- For comparison, Synergy pegged Kyrie Irving as the NBA’s best isolation scorer in 2017, posting 1.12 points per play with a 6 percent frequency.
- In interviews, Hakeem has said he began to trust them more in 1993.
- Relative postseason offense takes an offense relative to the opponent’s regular season defensive rating as a substitute for league average.
- Chievous and Lee played a combined 227 NBA games. Johnson was out of the league by 30.
- From 1988-96, Hakeem finished in the top 10 in Defensive Player of the Year voting every season (1988 third; 1989 second by one vote; 1990 second; 1991 fifth; 1992 sixth; 1993 first, with the largest share in the award’s history at that point; 1994 first; 1995 third; 1996 fifth).
- I’m quite low on Don Chaney as a coach, and find his 1991 Coach of the Year award dubious, to say the least.
- “Unique” seasons are the best five-year stretches without any overlapping seasons. For instance, the best stretch during Detroit’s Bad Boy years was from 1988-92. The 1990 Pistons were similar, however they share seasons with the ’92 Pistons, and thus aren’t the best unique five-year stretch.
- From 1977 to 1994, there were two teams (the ’93 and ’94 Knicks) with a defensive rating better than 6.5 points from average, or one every nine seasons. From 1995 to 2017, there were 20 such teams, or one every 1.2 seasons.
- Houston took 243 more 3-pointers than third-place Phoenix, which was about the difference in attempts between Phoenix and 14th-place.
- This uses the non-3 estimate of Box Creation, which overestimates rates for most of these players but seems to nail Olajuwon.
- One theme from this series is how rare it is to jam together talent and alchemize something special: Outside of the ’08 Celtics, who weren’t even billed to win the East, the Heatles fared decently and the ’83 Sixers improved slightly, but the ’77 Sixers, ’97 Rockets and ’04 Lakers disappointed, while the ’69 and ’13 Lakers regressed.
- Weighting by minutes, he finished with the 37th-best four-year defensive peak on record at the very end of career (+2.5 per game).