Will Houston Rockets Be Playoff Front-Runners or Underdogs?

John Wilmes@@johnwilmesNBAContributor IJanuary 28, 2014

Houston Rockets' James Harden strikes a pose after dunking the ball against the Milwaukee Bucks during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, in Houston. The Rockets won114-104. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

In the wicked mix of the vicious Western Conference, the hierarchy of title contenders can change on a dime—the Houston Rockets can tell you all about that. Where will we see them at season’s end?

They’re dangerous. Everyone knows that much.

They’ve been a top-five NBA offense since the beginning of the season and have shown few signs of slowing in 2014. 

They’ve ridden their ceaseless counterattacking style, focused on a maximum of open-court threes and at-the-basket opportunities, to an impressive 30-17 record after Tuesday night's win over the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs are the incumbent Western Conference champions who—like the Golden State Warriors—the Rockets have had an easy time with this year.

Houston even showed signs of answering one of the largest questions looming on its horizon, as the Spurs turned to Hack-a-Dwight methods and Howard responded with 13-25 free-throw shooting—not pretty, but enough to prove the strategy ineffective, as that mark equates to the Spurs allowing 50 percent from the field on all defensive possessions when said tactic is employed.

The method really only merits use when it causes the free-throw shooter to get down on themselves and make fewer than half of their shots.

Surviving such a ploy shows that the Rockets have some patience and mental persistence.

However, questions remain about their playoff form. Despite bringing in Dwight Howard to shore up their rim protection, Houston’s defense has looked middling at best.

Their offense, meanwhile, has at times appeared anemic against more disciplined, experienced teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers, who deny them their simple, quick actions and force them into half-court sets, exposing these Rockets for their lack of intricacy. They’ve been blown out by both teams repeatedly.

They also lost two in a row to the Memphis Grizzlies this past weekend.

The obvious truth afoot is that this Houston squad still doesn’t know itself all that well. The Rockets are a freshly cobbled bunch who need at least a solid year together before they can accumulate the kind of continuity necessary to push through the carnivorous pack of their historically potent conference.

That’s not to say that they’re without a chance this year. Impressive as the West is, it’s also a frequently fickle beast.

Injuries and unexpected individual surges caused last year’s postseason a number of big surprises. The Warriors nearly knocked off the Spurs behind Stephen Curry’s star moment after upsetting the Denver Nuggets. The Memphis Grizzlies eliminated the Thunder after Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus in the first round. 

It would be foolhardy to conclude that the Rockets can’t be the lead in one of this year’s emerging narratives.

They have a tremendous wealth of weapons on their roster with Howard, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and the refreshing, second-year power forward Terrence Jones, who fits right into the team’s schemes and has solidified himself as a starter and frightening scorer.

Give these Rockets an inch and they’ll lift off.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

But if they do find their ideal balance and make a splash, it will be as just that—an up-and-comer. It will be as a team proving something still lacking from its resumethat it's a real contender capable of punching out anyone in a seven-game series.

As it stands, the Rockets are at least one tier below the championship party. When it comes to the postseason, their chances at success are limited. They’re underdogs.

It'll take a lot to prove that impression wrong. They trumped expectations with their run at the Thunder last season, so they're familiar with success in the role. However, perception has changed and it will likely take at least an appearance in the Western Conference Finals to take the league off guard this season.

Are the Rockets capable of that? We'll see.