To say the Houston Rockets look different heading into the second half of the 2020-21 campaign than they did in the stretch run of the 2019-20 season would be quite the understatement.
They parted ways with general manager Daryl Morey and head coach Mike D'Antoni, traded Russell Westbrook to the Washington Wizards and then traded James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets in a multiteam blockbuster.
The result is a mix of high-profile veterans in Victor Oladipo, John Wall and Eric Gordon playing alongside a young star in the making in Christian Wood under a first-year head coach in Stephen Silas.
There were moments of inconsistency throughout the first half of the season as the group grew accustomed to each other, including a six-game winning streak and a handful of losing runs. Things have taken a turn for the worst in February with a 2-9 record to date, which can partially be explained by Wood's ankle injury.
Houston is sitting at 11-18 through the first half of the schedule, which is 14th in the daunting Western Conference.
Here is a look at what is ahead as the Rockets look to make a late run at their ninth straight playoff appearance.
2020-21 Rockets Schedule Details
Second-Half Opener: Rockets at Kings; March 11
Championship Odds (FanDuel Sportsbook): +25000 (bet $100 to win $25,000)
Second-Half Schedule: NBA.com
Golden State Warriors (March 17)
That is no longer the case, although the current iterations of these teams could be battling for seeding near the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture. Curry is still leading the way with brilliant individual performances for eighth-place Golden State, but fellow Splash Brother Thompson is out for the season with a ruptured Achilles.
Thompson's injury has put more of the onus on a supporting cast that includes rookie James Wiseman, veteran Draymond Green and the pair of Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr.
It might not be a championship-level supporting cast, but it is good enough to reach the playoffs as long as Curry is draining threes as he always does.
This might be a team Houston has to eclipse if it is going to turn things around and make the playoffs, making the head-to-head matchups all the more important. These games will also pit the Rockets' talented backcourt against Curry and give fans the opportunity to see Wood and Wiseman go against each other on the blocks if they are both healthy.
Whether the Rockets can win this matchup could play a major role in their playoff fate.
New Orleans Pelicans (April 4)
Like the Warriors, the New Orleans Pelicans are a talented squad that figures to compete for a playoff spot in the West.
The pairing of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram alone is enough to compete on most given nights and will present quite the challenge for Houston's frontcourt even if Wood is on the floor.
There is also plenty of star power on the floor whenever these two teams match up, with Williamson, Ingram, Wall, Wood and Oladipo in the lineups, which makes this Western Conference showdown appointment viewing for the fans.
Throw in how important the head-to-head matchups could be for playoff seeding with the play-in tournament carrot dangling, and there will be plenty at stake for the Rockets in this one.
Houston doesn't have enough talent to realistically contend with the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers, L.A. Clippers and other top contenders throughout the season, but it does have enough to win these contests against fellow second-tier playoff contenders.
If it does, the postseason could be waiting.
There is plenty to like about this Rockets team, but the reality is the ceiling is lower than it has been in recent years.
Houston was often the biggest obstacle for the Warriors during the latter's recent dynasty and gave them plenty of trouble with Harden and Chris Paul in the backcourt together. That team had a championship window that this one doesn't as currently constructed, but there is enough talent to challenge for the postseason.
Wall and Oladipo have carried teams to the playoffs before, and Wood is a versatile big man who can create mismatches with opposing frontcourts.
The Rockets could also benefit from the expanded playoff opportunities with the play-in tournament featuring the Nos. 7-10 seeds in place this season. With many of the Western Conference's teams essentially locks to make the postseason field, Houston and other fringe contenders will need those additional spots.
Look for this group to challenge for the play-in opportunity with enough wins down the stretch once Wood is fully healthy.
There are enough go-to options to survive cold stretches from various players, and Wood should only improve as the season progresses. Still, the February struggles will prove too much to overcome.
Final Record Prediction: 29-43 (No. 12 in Western Conference)
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