Whether the Houston Rockets are pretenders or contenders heading into the Orlando bubble is up for interpretation, as they are not without their questions.
The Houston Rockets have not had a certified identity for a majority of this season, and it showed by the time that play halted in March. For a team that was supposed to be right atop the league competing for a championship, they landed in the Western Conference’s 6-seed at 40-24, inconsistently showing signs of potential.
When the NBA resumes play later this month, expectations for the Rockets seem unclear. This is a team that could seemingly compete for a championship, but simultaneously get bounced out in the first round of the playoffs. That irregular circumstance has everyone unsure what to make of the Houston Rockets for the remainder of the season, especially with such a long hiatus.
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The midseason switch to small-ball was clearly a monumental change for the Houston Rockets, and the experiment proved to be hit or miss. They went 8-6 after trading away big man Clint Capela before the NBA suspended play, which was not the best but could have also been far worse.
Houston picked up a few notable wins against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz, and the Boston Celtics twice in that 14 game stretch. However, in that same run, the team suffered disappointing losses to inferior teams such as the New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, and the Orlando Magic.
This stretch, although small, showcased the Rockets are capable of beating some of the best teams in the league, but also losing to some of the worst on any given night. Because of this inconsistency, the Houston Rockets are a difficult team to assess. What is this team capable of doing? Can they be a dark horse candidate? Are they potentially a first-round exit?
They certainly have all of the pieces to be a legitimate contender, and it all starts with their backcourt comprised of two former league MVPs. Russell Westbrook was on a tear offensively since the small-ball transition, averaging 31.7 points per game. On the other hand, James Harden struggled to an extent, as he averaged 29.4 points per game, far below his typical quota.
While the tandem’s ability to contend in the postseason remains questionable, another significant variable will be P.J. Tucker’s ability to play the center position at a high level. With Capela out, the 6’5″ Tucker slid to the five, and although he is a stellar defender, he is not a natural center. Could Tucker genuinely hold his own in a seven-game series against Anthony Davis or Nikola Jokic? It is yet another question that could ultimately make or break Houston’s season.
For the next few weeks, this level of uncertainty will hover over the Houston Rockets like a black cloud. Depending on how they fare in the upcoming eight seeding games, the Rockets could land anywhere between the 2-7 seed in the Western Conference. Their schedule is as follows:
- Dallas Mavericks – July 31st
- Milwaukee Bucks – August 2nd
- Portland Trail Blazers – August 4th
- Los Angeles Lakers – August 6th
- Sacramento Kings – August 9th
- San Antonio Spurs – August 11th
- Indiana Pacers – August 12th
- Philadelphia 76ers – TBD
Houston will undoubtedly have their hands full with that schedule, as they are a combined 7-8 against those teams on the season. These games will be a small preview of what the Rockets could potentially achieve in the postseason, and their seeding will be detrimental to their success. If this team can slide up from the 7-seed up to the 3-seed or even the 2-seed, they could turn some heads.
At the moment, it is all far easier said than done for the Houston Rockets. This is a team that has been through so much turmoil this season that many are unsure where they fall on the spectrum. Small-ball might be the ultimate turn off for most when considering Houston’s title chances, but in this irregular NBA restart, nothing should come as a surprise.
In a few months, this could be a team that hoists up the Larry O’Brien Trophy or becomes one of the most significant disappointments in recent memory.