When you see this headline in your Houston Rockets TeamStream, somehow I imagine thousands of you, en masse, channeling Jim Mora as you scream in unison:
Much like this Houston Rockets team, this season is still in its infancy. There are potential trades to be made, potential injuries to be played through, potential twists and turns and unforeseeable circumstances, both for the Rockets and all through the league.
How could anybody possibly know whether this team will make the playoffs?
The answer's easy: We don't. We're just supposing, playing the "what if" game.
Won't you play along?
OK, first things first: If the season ended right now, the Rockets would be one game out of the playoff picture. So let's look at the teams ahead of them.
Four teams appear to be locks—again, if anyone can be called a lock after 20 games of an 82-game season. Last year's Western Conference representative in the NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder, have won their last eight games and are a shoo-in. The ageless wonders from San Antonio are 9-1 in their last ten games; somewhere in a drawer in Spurs headquarters, there's a picture of Dorian Gray that's turning silver-and-black.
In the fifth position is this year's surprise squad, the Golden State Warriors. Even without Andrew Bogut, the Warriors are 8-2 in their last ten games. Imagine what kind of record this squad might amass when Bogut replaces punchless Festus Ezeli, who's averaging three points and four rebounds a game in Mr. Bogut's stead. If Andrew doesn't surpass those numbers, it'd be a Festus miracle.
That leaves three spots. Vying for those spots are:
- the Los Angeles Lakers, who will at some point get a huge lift from the return of Steve Nash;
- the Utah Jazz, whose already formidable frontcourt will eventually get Derrick Favors back at full strength;
- the Dallas Mavericks, who are still over .500 despite not having team leader Dirk Nowitzki;
- the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are about to get former rookie sensation Ricky Rubio back from injury.
Not counting the Denver Nuggets (who don't appear playoff-bound despite the Ty Lawson/Andre Iguodala backcourt), that leaves nine viable playoff teams. And that's not counting the Rockets. In addition, unlike the four teams listed above, Houston does not have anyone coming in like the cavalry on their roster—unless you count Royce White. (I don't).
OK. Well, when I look at the situation from the point of view that the competition is both massively fierce and stands to benefit from returning players…well, instead of half-full, our cup suddenly looks like a second-rate magician's dribble glass. (Dribble pun not intended, but nevertheless applicable and surprisingly impressive.)
So what's working in the Houston Rockets' favor?
For one thing, youth. The Rockets are the NBA's youngest team. Youth in the beginning of a season usually spells turnovers and porous defense; so it has been for the Rockets, who lead the league in turnovers per game.
But youth at the end of a season...well, as long as you've got a year of NBA experience under your belt (those rookies used to a 24-to-30 game college schedule usually hit a wall in their first NBA season), it means fresher legs come playoff time. Which means the Rockets might have a leg—or said more accurately, legs—up on the competition.
Also, as a young team, this group is not under pressure to make the playoffs. Operating without pressure can be a real freedom and a distinct advantage.
Another ace up the Rockets' sleeve: general manager Daryl Morey. Morey is well-known for pulling trades off in-season. And though he's met his minimum quota with the blockbuster James Harden swap, Morey still might well be a buyer come trade deadline time—if the Rockets are still in the hunt, which they figure to be based on the roster's talent.
In addition, Morey has carefully constructed the team to be fiscally responsible. So there's room to add a free agent at any time during the season should Morey choose to go that route.
Now to the current roster: Will this team improve enough in-season to be able to fend off teams who are returning either impact players or stars?
Without James Harden to monopolize the ball and the flow of the game—which forces Lin to become a primary jump shooter, the weakest aspect of his game—Jeremy Lin broke out for Houston against the Spurs on Monday night, scoring 38 points on 11-of-21 shooting in the loss.
It seems that Lin and Harden, with similar skill sets, are not a match in Houston's backcourt. When Harden is out this season, Lin is scoring twice as much, shooting more often, getting to the free throw line three times as much, and shooting better from long range.
So for those thinking more on-court time together is all Harden and Lin need to be the dynamic duo we were all hoping for, it's time to rethink.
Okay then. Are the Rockets going to get rid of one or the other?
Maybe. And if they do, I'm betting it's Lin. Here's why: This is Lin's first really big game for the Rockets (he had 21 against the Knicks early in November). But Harden has had lots of them.
If management had to push all their chips in at this moment on either Lin or Harden, there's no question that based on stats, they'd choose Harden. After all, coach Kevin McHale has already chosen to run the offense through him.
If a Lin trade were to happen, and if the team gets both true value and someone who will better complement Harden, the roster would have what it takes to make the playoffs as a seven or eight seed.
However, if the roster remains as it is (and don't kid yourself: his last name notwithstanding, Royce is not gonna be riding in on a white horse), it's a vastly different story. Because of the wealth of credible competition in the Western Conference, I would regretfully have to predict that the Rockets will be on the outside looking in.
Though that might be a devastating proposition to Rockets fans, it isn't even necessarily bad news to the team itself. Next year would remain full of promise.
But it's still this year. The season is still young. The Rockets almost beat the mighty Spurs and Jeremy Lin scored 38 points—more than James Harden has scored in every game but two this season.
So enough playoff supposing for now. There's still plenty of time to dream about what could be. At the moment, let's enjoy what is.