The 2014 NBA All-Star Game is in the books, and now it's back to business for the Houston Rockets. The main question heading into the second half of the season is where will the team go from here.
When Houston returns to action on Feb. 19 against the Lakers, it will be riding a seven-game winning streak. The team is 37-17, which has earned it the third spot in the Western Conference and second place in the Southwest Division.
Dwight Howard, James Harden and Chandler Parsons have grown into one of the league's most devastating young trios. Meanwhile, forward Terrence Jones continues to make a name for himself as one of this season's breakout stars.
However, an NBA season isn't a sprint. It's a marathon. Houston's hot first half will be rendered meaningless if it can't make good on its goal to contend for a championship immediately. As the team works to establish an identity, these next four months will tell the story of who this team is.
To make the final stretch more interesting, here are five predictions for the Houston Rockets as they come out of the All-Star break.
Let's get the most obvious predictions out of the way first. According to The Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen, the Houston Rockets are "expected to be as active as ever in talks and as likely to make a move by (the trade deadline) as they were before their run to the All-Star break."
"(Rockets general manager Daryl) Morey would not discuss goals for the trade deadline," Feigen goes on to write, "but several other individuals with knowledge of the team's thinking said the Rockets already sought to land a backup wing who is strong defensively and can catch-and-shoot..."
The name that best fits what Morey is looking for is former Rocket and current Washington Wizards small forward Trevor Ariza. The 28-year-old is averaging 14.4 points per game while shooting 44 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent from behind the arc.
The problem is finding a suitable package that would entice the Wizards into making a deal. Ariza's price tag is pretty steep ($7.7 million), and the only Rocket that makes sense financially is center Omer Asik, whom Washington doesn't have a need for.
Another player who fits the bill is the New York Knicks' Iman Shumpert. Shumpert's name has been tossed around in trade talks recently, particularly in a deal for Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried, according to a tweet from ESPN's Marc Stein. A deal for the 23-year-old may be a little tough for Houston to pull off, given its lack of intriguing trade chips.
Regardless of who it is, the safe bet is that a deal will happen. Morey is far too savvy to stand pat. He has to know that his team, for as good as it's been, is still a move or two away.
The battle for the All-NBA First Team's center spot essentially comes down to Dwight Howard and Indiana Pacers big man Roy Hibbert. Midway into his first season in Houston, Howard has been as good as advertised and would appear to have the edge on the former Georgetown Hoya.
D12 is currently in the top 25 in scoring (18.8 points per game) and is fourth in rebounding (12.5 boards per game). He's also shooting 58 percent from the field. Defensively, Howard hasn't completely lost his knack for swatting shots, as he's ninth in the NBA with 1.8 blocks per game.
The only real thorn in Howard's side comes at the charity stripe, where the big man hits the Nae Nae more often than he hits his free throws (54.6 percent).
As for Hibbert, he's in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. He's averaging nearly 2.5 blocks per game, which is third best in the league. According to NBA.com, opponents are also converting just 41.3 percent of their shots at the rim against Hibbert. He's also shooting a higher free-throw percentage (75 percent) than Howard.
Those are Hibbert's only real advantages over Howard, though. Barring a drastically different second half, Howard should run away with his sixth All-NBA First Team appearance.
After winning NBA D-League All-Star Game MVP with a performance for the ages, rookie Robert Covington's time in the pros should be coming sooner rather than later. The undrafted rookie out of Tennessee State set a NBA D-League All-Star Game record by scoring 33 points to go along with his six rebounds and three steals.
The big night in New Orleans was the cherry on the top of what has been a stellar run in the D-League. In 23 games with the Rio Grande Vipers this season, Covington is averaging 21.4 points and nine rebounds per game. He's shooting 42 percent from the field and 35 percent from downtown.
He's also contributing 2.4 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. The timing for Covington's breakout couldn't be more perfect.
With veterans Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi slumping as of late, the Rockets could use someone on the wing that can provide a spark. As mentioned earlier, GM Daryl Morey might go shopping at the trade deadline for that jolt.
He may not have to, though.
Covington has shown he's ready for the next step. He's enjoyed a brief run at the end of the Rockets bench this season, but the time has come for his role to be expanded. The Rockets will never know what they have until they give the kid a shot.
With the team in need of someone with Covington's talents, there's no better time to start than right now.
There are 29 games left in the regular season. The Rockets are currently sitting at 36-17. A deeper look at the team's remaining schedule shows the road ahead isn't very tough. The hardest stretch Houston will face the rest of the year comes in early March.
- vs. Indiana Pacers (Mar. 7)
- vs. Portland Trail Blazers (Mar. 9)
- at Oklahoma City (Mar. 11)
- at Chicago Bulls (Mar. 13)
- at Miami Heat (Mar. 16)
That last game against Miami will be the second time Houston will have faced the defending champs in 12 days (the Rockets host the Heat on Mar. 4). Beyond that, there isn't much to make coach Kevin McHale break out into night sweats. In fact, the Rockets will make up for those early bumps with a cushy five-game stretch directly following their clash with LeBron James and company.
- vs. Utah Jazz (Mar. 17)
- vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (Mar. 20)
- at Cleveland Cavaliers (Mar. 22)
- at Charlotte Bobcats (Mar. 24)
- vs. Philadelphia 76ers (Mar. 27)
None of those teams currently have winning records, and only Charlotte is in playoff contention (thanks, Eastern Conference!). Assuming you factor in the occasional stumble on a back-to-back and some tough losses to elite competition, it's not unrealistic to think Houston can go 18-11 the rest of the way.
For the mathematicians out there, that would put the Rockets at 54-28 to close out the regular season. Where that puts them in the playoff picture is contingent on unknown factors, but the team would be wise to hang around the third seed if it can.
If the Houston Rockets are smart, they will do whatever they can to stay in the Western Conference's No. 3 spot. If the playoffs started today, Houston would draw the Dallas Mavericks in the first round (whom they split the season series with at 2-2).
Assuming they get past Dallas, they would face the winner of a classic old-school versus new-school battle between the San Antonio Spurs and the surprising Phoenix Suns. Barring a huge upset, the Spurs would more than likely advance to be Houston's second-round opponent.
The Rockets have handled the Spurs pretty well this season, as evidenced by their 3-0 record against them thus far (final showdown comes on Apr. 14). While it would be arrogant to write off the Spurs based on regular-season numbers, there's no disputing that this would be the easier playoff path for the Rockets.
By securing the third seed, Houston avoids the three teams that stand to cause the most trouble for them in the playoffs (if the standings stay the way they are, which isn't a definite). The Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder are a combined 4-0 against the Rockets this season.
Portland is 1-2 against Houston so far, but the Trail Blazers' talent at key positions still makes this a tough draw for the Rockets. Still, if the Rockets get lucky and the bracket stays the way it is, they have a good chance at making the Western Conference Finals.
It's tough to see the team going further than that given how it's struggled against Los Angeles and Oklahoma City so far this season.