The Houston Rockets will be tested with their difficult remaining schedule when the NBA resumes next month, ultimately revealing their true colors.
For several years the Golden State Warriors were the ultimate roadblock that prevented the Houston Rockets from competing for a championship. With Golden State having been injury-plagued and out of the picture this season, it appeared as Houston’s window of opportunity was wide open, despite emerging juggernauts such as the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers.
The acquisition of Russell Westbrook to pair next to James Harden formed an MVP backcourt that, on paper, looked as if it could contend for a championship now. With several injuries and inconsistent play, the team made a monumental change mid-season as they transitioned to small-ball basketball.
With Clint Capela out and Robert Covington in, it appeared the Houston had complete faith in their backcourt to take them to the promised land. A move that, so far, has proved questionable.
The Rockets went 8-6 after trading Capela before the NBA suspended play. They picked up some stellar wins against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz and the Boston Celtics twice. However, in that same stretch, the team suffered disappointing losses to subpar teams such as the New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets and the Orlando Magic, among others.
Without a true center in the frontcourt, opposing teams flourished on the glass and took full advantage of Houston’s lack of size. The Rockets were able to pick up those notable wins because of their prolific offense. If the shots weren’t falling, they had no chance against anyone.
As controversial as the deadline deal was, Houston is stuck with it for at least the rest of this season. Currently slated as the six-seed in the Western Conference, Houston will have a very telling schedule ahead when the NBA resumes on July 31, something that could make or break its entire season.
If the NBA’s projected format for return is true, the Rockets’ eight opponents when play resumes will be:
- Los Angeles Lakers
- Portland Trail Blazers
- Sacramento Kings
- Dallas Mavericks
- Milwaukee Bucks
- Indiana Pacers
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Toronto Raptors
Although Houston is a combined 7-6 against those teams on the season, each could prove troublesome for the now small-ball Rockets. All of those teams provide a matchup nightmare in the frontcourt and could demolish Houston’s contention chances before the postseason even begins.
In this upcoming stretch, the team will face prominent names such as Anthony Davis, Brook Lopez, Kristaps Porzingis, Hassan Whiteside, Marc Gasol and several other top-heavy big men. Will the Rockets, specifically their 6’5 center P.J. Tucker, be able to hold their own against some of these top-tier big men in the game?
This question remains to be answered, as their 14 game small-ball run was a rather small sample size for such a massive adjustment.
If Houston cannot stay afloat in this stretch, any chance of competing in the post-season will clearly diminish, and this small-ball experiment will be a considerable failure. A lot resides on Tucker’s shoulders for the upcoming resumption of play, but the same goes for the team’s backcourt.
One positive from Capela’s departure is that it opened the door for Westbrook offensively, as he exploded for 31.7 points per game on 54.5 percent field goal shooting since. Harden, however, “struggled” in that stretch as his 34.4 points per game decreased to 29.4 points in such a short time.
If both members of this backcourt can get on the same page and have Tucker play some otherworldly defense, that could be the team’s only sliver of hope this season. However, right now, the current state of the Rockets does not appear promising.
The small-ball experiment has shown that the Rockets can defeat some of the best teams in the league on any given night but also lose to some of the worst. As the NBA return draws closer to its July 31 return date, the Rockets have plenty of unanswered questions. Their answer to stopping opposing big men being the most apparent.
This final eight-game stretch will show the team’s true colors, whether they are a genuine contender or just a massive disappointment.
It is hard to judge the Rockets in their entirety at the moment, as they appear to be a dark horse contender to some, while a potential first-round exit for others. Only time will tell, but it will be intriguing to see how the small-ball experiment turns out in the coming months.