The Houston Rockets are currently in fifth place in the Western Conference and have a 33-24 record as they are close to finishing yet another long campaign.
The 2018-19 season for the Houston Rockets has been hectic from the very beginning.
Houston has had to deal with fights, suspensions, injuries, trades, contract disputes, and of course constant negative bombardment from most of NBA Twitter on a daily basis.
Amongst all the havoc, the Rockets have managed to stay in the mix in the West and find themselves only one game behind fourth place, four games behind third place, and six games behind second place.
Although making up four games (not to mention six) will be a very grueling task with only 25 games remaining, it will not be impossible for the Rockets as the third place Oklahoma City Thunder have the most difficult strength of schedule remaining, and the second seed Nuggets have the fourth-most difficult strength of schedule remaining.
Regardless of where Houston finishes in the standings, there are three things that the Rockets need to prove to indicate that they are still a title contender.
Next: No. 3: Health
The Houston Rockets were built around the trio of James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela, however, this season, the three have only played together for 23 games (they are 15-8 in those games).
With Clint Capela set to make his return on Thursday night when the Rockets take on the Lakers in Los Angeles, the trio will finally play game number 24 together.
It will be very important for these three to stay on the court for every game in which they have something to play for (and in the West that will likely be all 25 games).
Harden, Paul and Capela will have a lot of rust to knock off and will have to readjust to playing together.
It may even be a good thing if Harden’s consecutive streak of scoring at least 30 points (which currently stands at 31 games) comes to an end as it will likely mean that James Harden’s responsibility and requirement to help the Rockets win has decreased.
The ceiling for this Rockets team is unclear due to the injury issues they have had to endure.
The more games Houston plays with all their weapons, the more vivid their ceiling will become. When the Rockets trio has played together, they have played at a 53-win pace.
Next: No. 2: Consistency
One of the most frustrating parts of the Rockets season has been their lapses of effort when they get big leads and allow teams to get back into games.
The most egregious example came against the Oklahoma City Thunder on a Saturday night primetime game, in which Houston held a 26-point lead at one point, but Houston allowed for the Thunder to claw their way back into the game and eventually steal the win.
Had Houston been able to take care of business, they would only be three games behind the Thunder, but they were not able to finish the game.
The Rockets had a similar problem against the Brooklyn Nets and lost, and have had similar issues against Orlando and Toronto (in both games Houston had a double-digit lead and allowed both teams to make a comeback) at home but in those games, they were able to hang on and win.
A possible cause for these issues could be the high usage rate they have had to use on other role players who may not be used to playing a high amount of minutes. With Houston finally having a healthy squad, it will be crucial for the Rockets to drastically reduce these lapses if not eliminate them entirely.
Next: No. 1: Match up Against the League's Best
Matchups against the best
Despite not having the most difficult strength of schedule to close out the season, the Rockets still have a handful of games remaining amongst the best in the league.
Houston has to play games against a desperate Lakers team, Golden State (twice), Toronto, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Boston, Denver and close out the season against Oklahoma City.
The best way to figure out the ceiling for this Rockets team is to see how they stack up against the toughest opponents the league has to offer.
Impressive wins against these teams and Houston will demonstrate that they are still a powerhouse.
Considering everything the Rockets have had to go through this season, the fact that they still have an outside chance at the three/two seed (and to stay away from Golden State’s bracket), is remarkable and is the biggest testament to the Rockets resiliency.