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The State of the NBA: Houston Rockets

When the NBA announced that the 2019-20 season was being suspended in an attempt to help stop the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the Houston Rockets were in the middle of a rough patch, The trade that sent Clint Capella to the Atlanta Hawks left the Rockets without much in the way of size, and the small ball gameplan was struggling to keep pace with the best teams in the Western Conference. When play was stopped the Rockets were 40-24 on the season, sitting in the West’s sixth seed with the Dallas Mavericks hot on their tails. 

We have no way of knowing when the NBA will decide to resume the regular season, nor do we have the foggiest idea how the playoffs might be staged if the schedule is forced to be cut short. We can, however, look at possible first round match-ups and how the Rockets might fare in each one.

  1. If the season were not to resume and the playoff began based on current seedings, the Rockets would open at the Denver Nuggets. Denver has struggled down the stretch, particularly against teams with strong backcourt play, and that is Houston’s clear specialty. They can’t match up in the middle with Nikola Jokic, but their backcourt tandem of James Harden and Russell Westbrook should be more than enough to make up for that. Denver simply lacks the guard play to exploit Houston’s front court weakness. If there is a team the Rockets would absolutely love to see in the first round, it’s the Nuggets.
  2. If the season does resume, there’s a possibility that Houston could move up and face one of a number of teams. The first might be the Utah Jazz, a team that has been up and down due to injuries and roster changes and also the first team with players who tested positive for COVID-19. If healthy, the Jazz pose many matchup problems for the Rockets, with a dominant low post force in Rudy Gobert and outstanding talent in the backcourt with former Memphis Grizzlies star point guard Mike Conley and rising star Donovan MItchell. Utah has the size, depth and talent to make life difficult for Houston, and would probably prevent them from seeing the second round of the playoffs.
  3. It’s also within the realm of possibility that the Rockets could wind up playing the Oklahoma City Thunder if some shortened schedule were played before the playoffs. The Thunder were supposed to be blowing things up, and trade rumors swirled around much of their roster prior to the trade deadline. When the deadline passed without major moves, it seemed to add to the team’s already considerable confidence. Before their season came to an abrupt stop the Thunder had won eight out of ten games and were playing as well as any team in the West. Former Rockets point guard Chris Paul has made his mark with a squad that has depth in the front court and back court and has the tools to handle Houston’s small ball attack. This is not a team Houston would like to see in the first round.
  4. If the Dallas Mavericks were to get hot and the Rockets were to continue to struggle, Houston could drop as far as the seventh seed, which would put the, up against a well-rested and hungry LA Clippers team. The Rockets’ recent four-game skid included a blowout loss to those same Clippers, a game in which Westbrook was brilliant, but Harden struggled and the Clippers’ big men took advantage of Houston’s lack of height. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers would no doubt be very happy to let Kawhi Leonard take Harden out of the series defensively, leaving Houston grossly overmatched. The absolute last thing the Rockets want is to face the LA Clippers in the playoffs, let alone in the first round.

There is no way to know how the rest of this NBA season will pan out. The league could cancel all remaining games and start the playoffs on schedule with seedings as they are, they could play a shortened number of games, or they could just cancel the rest of the season altogether including the playoffs. That last seems unlikely due to the amount of revenue that would be lost and the idea that there would be no real champion for 2019-20. It seems likely that there will be some number of playoff games played, and if that’s the case the Houston Rockets should be hoping to catch the Denver Nuggets for their best shot at moving on.

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