It’s been an uncomfortable season all-around for one of the NBA’s most well-known franchises. The Houston Rockets have failed to ignite this season, with trade rumours, failed role players and head coach sackings continually derailing their progress as a team – and for now, it has them just outside the playoff picture.
But there is still some hope that the James Harden-led Rockets could still prove the doubters wrong and feature in the post-season party, especially after a surprise victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. But just how far can fans expect to see their beloved franchise go if they do survive the regular season?
Will Houston Even Make the Playoffs?
Things look daunting in that Western Conference, that’s for sure. Teams like Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are always going to be there to chew lesser teams up, but Houston could still end up battling it out with them at the end of season party.
Whilst the campaign didn’t get off to a great start, eventually costing Kevin McHale his job, their final run-in could herald some success.
Following that unexpected win over the Thunder, the Rockets now face four non-factors in the Playoff run; the Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves, L.A. Lakers and Sacramento Kings.
None of these franchises would be inciting fear into the likes of Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady, but then again this is a Houston team that has found little consistency over the year, with James Harden and Dwight Howard failing to craft any partnership of note.
However, considering the final games of some of the Rockets’ competitors, it places them in great stead for a Playoff trip.
Who do Houston face in the post-season?
There are a couple of places you don’t want to be when you head into the playoffs, and that’s in the seventh or eighth spot in the West. That’s because you’ll be going up against two teams that are both boasting 65+ winning records and are near impossible to beat on their home court.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly where the Rockets are likely to end up; facing the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs over seven games – and it’s hard to pick and choose which one you’d prefer.
The Warriors have lost just twice at home in their past 55 games, San Antonio are yet to lose in 39 encounters at the AT&T Centre.
The Bay Area franchise have a reigning MVP in Steph Curry, along with a supporting cast including arguably the best shooting guard in the league. Meanwhile, the Spurs have an uber-experienced playoff roster and Gregg Popovich pulling the strings. Either team is a nightmare match-up over a playoff series.
That would put a chill down even the great Hakeem Olajuwon’s lengthy spine. But could the Rockets somehow upset one of this season’s greatest teams?
It’s going to be Harden
If there’s one player that’s able to pull Houston out of the Texas quicksand it’s James Harden. Given his offensive capabilities, he’s likely to be the focal point of anything good coming out of Houston white and red in the post-season, but he comes at a cost.
Whilst he’s been exposed defensively throughout the regular season, the playoffs can be an entirely different beast – enhancing highs and further exposing flaws in almost any players’ game.
But whilst other teams struggle to find weak spots in the likes of the Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City franchises, there’s a gaping hole in the Houston defence which can’t go unmissed. Whilst Dwight Howard is there as an anchor to pick up Harden’s slack, his ineptitude at the defensive side of the floor is like blood in a shark tank for many teams, giving them an opportunity to go at Houston with little worry about being halted efficiently.
However, the plus side for Houston and James Harden is that his defensive ability is often based on mentality. If the Former Thunder guard can improve his awareness throughout the playoffs, he may be able to up his game just enough to pose a problem for other Western Conference teams – including Golden State and San Antonio.
Add to this his uncanny ability to get to the free throw line and convert those attempts, and you’ve got yourself a player capable of carrying you through a series or two. Although, asking him to drag the Rockets to the Finals will prove an Everest-styled task – and he’ll need some help.
Where’s the Support?
One man who will have to shoulder some of the weight is Dwight Howard, who despite numerous trade rumours has stuck with Houston for the long haul this season. Whilst his partnership with Harden seems strenuous, given his size and talent he could still prove a major factor, especially on defensive side of the floor.
Even he admits that he needs to work alongside Harden to ensure that the Rockets have any chance at a ring - as quoted on CBS sports.
“We both have to figure out how we're going to make this thing work. It's on us. We've got the rest of the season and the playoffs, and we can do it. It's a mindset. It's a mentality. And the whole team will fall in line when me and him are on that same page and the team sees that we're strong together.
“If we can just come together like we're supposed to and like we want to, then I'm telling you, we can win a championship.”
Another major contributor will have to be Trevor Ariza, who despite crafting a niche in the NBA has yet to really guide Houston to success. His ‘three and D’ style is exactly what Houston needs, though, especially if they are to go up against the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson.
Meanwhile, other helpful contributions will be required from Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and surprise NBA veteran Michael Beasley, who’s found another team willing to take a chance on him for an offensive boost.
Simply put, it’s going to require a consistent team effort for this Houston franchise to make the playoffs and then go any kind of distance. So, whilst the Rockets may not have got comfortable just yet in the regular season, they could still slide into their groove and provide one of the shocks of the year if they do join the post-season party.