Sitting with a sub .500 record in ninth place the Houston Rockets have their work cut out in the final 27 games this season.
It’s not been fun in H-Town this season with the the home town team simply not taking care of business. This year has been an exercise in inconsistency as the team flirts with playing up to their potential or down to their competition.
Currently on a 3-game losing streak the winners of those games punctuate exactly how futile the Rockets season has been for fans this year. It’s one thing for the team to lose to their Western Conference Finals opponent, especially when that team is leading the league with a historic march toward setting a new standard of excellence. But what stings isn’t the loss to Golden State, rather it’s the fact the Rockets were competitive in that game, but then turned around and sandwiched it with efforts no where near as aggressive.
The back to back losses to the Portland Trail Blazers perhaps signify best why fans in Clutch City are reeling over the Rockets apparent lack of interest this season. Portland replaced the Rockets as the 7th seed with their 2 recent victories and also knocked them into 9th place out of the playoffs.
Entering the season the Blazers were the team pundits (including myself) expected to plummet down the ladder and no one would have faulted them if they had. I ask you to consider what other team could literally lose 5 of their top 6 players (4 starters) and remain in the top half of their conference. So, it was expected this would be a rebuilding year, but Damian Lillard has simply refused to lose. His dogged leadership coupled with C.J. McCollum‘s sudden ascent and the quality coaching of Terry Stotts has the Blazers performing as perhaps the most surprising team in the NBA.
Stopping to reflect on that fact underlines why the Rockets failure to replicate their efforts of last season has everyone scratching their heads in confusion. Last season’s team may have over achieved finishing second in the West, but there was good reason for optimism with the returning core in tact, additions to the depth of the squad and for the most part a healthier team.
Yet the issues on and off the court appear to be a factor of chemistry, leadership and most unacceptably a lack of consistent effort.
Entering the All-Star break the Rockets mediocre performances has finally resulted in the inevitable fall from grace as they dropped from 7th to 9th with a sub .500 record.
Returning from the break they’ll have just 27 games left to alter their destiny this season. Making this battle even more difficult is 18 of these games are against teams currently seeded in the playoffs and 9 against the top 4 teams in each division. A particularly bad period will occur between March 11th and April 6th when the Rockets play 14 games with all save 1 against seeded teams (Timberwolves).
At this point catching any of the top 4 seeds is virtually out of the question as they trail the Golden State Warriors by 22.5 games, the San Antonio Spurs by 19 games, the Oklahoma City Thunder by 13 games and the Los Angeles Clippers by 9 games. They play the Spurs and Clippers one more time and the Thunder twice in their remaining 27 games.
Feb 12, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Western Conference guard James Harden of the Houston Rockets (13) speaks during media day for the 2016 NBA All Star Game at Sheraton Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Chasing down the competition:
As for the teams they’ll place their sites on here’s where they stand:
With news Marc Gasol has suffered a broken foot that does open the door somewhat as Memphis will now need to cling to their 5th seed without the services of their paint protector and best all round player. The Rockets face the Grizzlies one more time (March 14th) and currently hold a 1-2 record against Memphis, so need the win in this final meeting just to draw even on the season series. Ideally this is the seed the Rockets will want to capture as finishing 6th through 8th is as close to a guarantee of first round sweep as you can get (GSW, SAS and OKC sit 1, 2, 3).
The Grizzlies sit 5 games ahead of the Rockets so they’ll be the most difficult to catch (even with Gasol out). Making that battle even more trying is of Memphis’ final 29 games 15 are against the bottom tier of the league and 10 of those are against the bottom 5 teams (3 games vs. the Lakers, Suns and 2 each vs the T-Wolves and Nuggets). Memphis does have 7 back to back sets to still play, but may luck out as 2 of those sets feature games vs. the Golden State Warriors (both on the second night of the series) at the end of the schedule. If the Warriors have beat the Bulls 72-10 record by that point in the season perhaps they’ll rest some of their core as they prepare for the post season.
The teams sitting in 6th and 7th have been the most impressive squads this season given the talent they lost (or couldn’t retain) in the offseason. Dallas and Portland truly have risen to the challenge, but could the final portion of the . Through the final portion of the schedule.
Of the teams the Rockets are chasing Dallas has the easiest final schedule of 27 games, just 4 back to back sets and only 8 games each versus the top 4 and top 8 in each conference.
The Blazers have 28 games remaining with 6 back to back sets and 16 games versus the top half of the Association and 9 versus the top 4 from the Conferences. Next to the Rockets the Blazers probably have the most difficult closing schedule.
The Jazz have 30 games remaining, 7 back to back sets 11 games against the top 4 of the Conferences and 14 versus the top 8 from either side.
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Through this stage in the season the team who just wouldn’t quit despite constant adversity last year is a far cry from this season’s struggling inconsistent bunch. If we are to take any hints from James Harden‘s All-Star Interview (transcribed here) it would be how much esteem he holds Donatas Motiejunas in. Harden cited D-Mo on more than one occasion as a big part of why the team have suffered (due to his absence) and why they’ll improve. As much as I’ve been singing Motiejunas’ praises in my posts perhaps we should remind Mr. Harden that great teams are able to overcome the loss of a main contributor. For example the Raptors suffered the loss of their big man Jonas Valanciunas for close to 20 games and have played the majority of the season without their big free agent signing of DeMarre Carroll, but look where they sit!
Moving forward we’ll see how the trade deadline effects rosters across the Association and whether Daryl Morey will make any changes tomorrow or during the buy-out phase (which has a bit longer window than the trade deadline) via players released. Regardless of any roster changes which may or may not occur the goal through the final 27 games has to be consistency. Even if the Rockets are successful with that goal it will still be a tough challenge just to return to the post season.
After Thursday’s trade deadline we’ll know exactly how much more difficult that task will be depending on which players suit up for the first of their final 27 in Arizona to play the Suns. And in another Harden All-Star takeaway he said the Rockets needed this break to
With the trade deadline around the corner, make sure you visit Space City Scoop on a daily basis for our trade series. Each day, SCS will feature an article on who the Rockets should trade for or what it would take to part ways with the players currently on the roster. Finally, we’ll assess the Rockets and each team in the Association in terms of what their needs are, if they should be buyers or sellers, and also speculate on who would be the ideal trade target.