The Houston Rockets have all but locked up the top seed in the Western Conference. They lead the Golden State Warriors by four games, and own the tiebreaker. Even if the Warriors win their final 11 games, the Rockets would need to have their worst stretch of the season just to make things interesting.
So the question isn’t weather or not Houston will have a better regular season. That question has been answered. The question is instead: How good are the Rockets?
The statistically-minded folks at FiveThirtyEight sought to answer that question by comparing them to the team that began the current Golden State dynasty. The result: The Rockets are obscenely good.
Since 1983-84, this year’s Houston team ties for 20th among all teams in net rating (the difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions) through 71 games. That’s a bigger deal than it may seem, for a few reasons. First, the teams ahead of this season’s Rockets are immensely accomplished. They include four Michael Jordan teams, three Tim Duncan teams, two Laker teams — one Shaq and Kobe, another Magic and Kareem — one Kevin Garnett Celtics team and, of course, the past three versions of the Golden State Warriors. In general, teams at Houston’s level at least win the conference. The teams that didn’t make the finals tended to have extenuating circumstances. The 2012-13 Thunder, for instance, were the top seed in the West but lost Russell Westbrook in the first round and fell to Memphis in the second. The 2011-12 Chicago Bulls lost reigning MVP Derrick Rose in the first game of the first round. And the 2015-16 Spurs faced an exceptionally high level of competition, losing in the second round to a Thunder team that went up 3-1 on the Warriors.
What does this say about their ability to compete with the current iteration of the Warriors? For the most part, we’ll have to wait and find out, though the article rightfully notes that, “Nothing the Rockets could do this season would make them meaningful favorites to most NBA fans against a healthy Warriors team in the playoffs. Nothing the Warriors could do would do that, either.”
If not this year, what about next?
Despite what the models say, most people still have the Warriors as favorites to repeat as champions, assuming they are able to reach full health. But even if the Dubs do emerge from the pack for the third time in four years, what happens down the line?
Jason at Bballbreakdown decided to take a look at how a trade for Anthony Davis could be the key to other teams dethroning Golden State. He looked at potential trades for the Rockets, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, and Cleveland Cavaliers, to see if they could swing the superstar, and take over as NBA royalty.
But if the Rockets somehow do land Anthony Davis, they will have the power to thwart the Warriors. Chris Paul and James Harden alone have mind-boggling numbers, and once you add in Anthony Davis, who should fit in perfectly, and you got a trio that can realistically beat anyone in the playoffs. With a good set of role players, on paper that’s enough to beat Golden State.
Unfortunately, I doubt we’ll see any of those trades happen. Few teams have the assets to trade for him, and as fun as it would be to see Davis catch lobs from Chris Paul in Houston, New Orleans would be crazy to settle for that package. If he wants to win, he should go there; but if you want the ideal combination of trade assets with a team good enough to compete, dream of green in Boston.
Figuring out the first round opponent
Since the Warriors will have the second seed, they’ll face the seven seen in the first round of the playoffs. However, it’s impossible to know who that will be, given how tight the race is in the Western Conference.
Anthony Slater of The Athletic broke down the candidates, to try and determine who Golden State would most like to face (not that they have a say in the matter).
Slater seems to think the Denver Nuggets would make for an easy first round matchup, which I certainly agree with.
They’re terrible away from Denver. They just lost in Memphis to a Grizzlies team that entered having lost 19 straight. If they somehow squeak into that seventh seed, it’d be an accomplishment for the franchise, their first playoff appearance since the pre-title, Mark Jackson Warriors beat them five years back.
They’d probably be in celebratory, this-season-was-already-a-success mode when Game 1 tips off. Much more playoff experience and hunger exist on other rosters.
Entering Wednesday, the Nuggets’ had a defensive rating of 108.9, the fifth worst in basketball. Since Jan. 1, it’s 111.3, better than only the Suns and worse than the Knicks and Bulls. They’ve been a horrendous defense since the start of 2018. Horrendous defenses don’t exactly match up well with the Warriors in the playoffs.
He goes on to predict that the team will instead face the Utah Jazz which, not surprisingly, is pretty low on the list of teams they’d like to meet.
Behind JaVale’s improvement
JaVale McGee wasn’t supposed to have this kind of success with the Warriors. He was a training camp invite in 2016, who somewhat surprisingly made the team, and ended up being a factor in the Warriors run to the title.
This year he started deep on the bench and was on the trading block, before eventually shaping out an important role. So how did he do it? Justin at Nylon Calculus has a pretty simple answer:
Honestly, what’s helped his game the most is having great teammates. They can cover his screw-ups on defense, and his threat as a lob target is immensely valuable with the Warriors. Opponents are obviously so concerned about shooters like Kevin Durant, and the floor is spaced so well, that there are many plays like this where he can just dive straight to the rim for an easy dunk. He’s a great target too — it’s not just luck. But he’ll still have weird plays, like this driving hook shot (who does that?) he slings at the backboard awkwardly.
Defensively, his length, unparalleled outside of giants like Rudy Gobert, is a huge deterrent, and the dude can stuff LaMarcus Aldridge or a 3-pointer from Damian Lillard. But he is still not good defending in space, and he has poor footwork. I can understand why the team wants to limit his minutes, but he’s so useful on this team it would indeed be wise to reconsider how large of a role he has — and that’s a strange thing to admit about McGee.
Sounds about right.
Rainy day audio
Most Warriors fans are caught up in some serious storms right now. If you’re stuck inside and need some entertainment, a few great Warriors podcasts came out this week. There’s Marcus Thompson II talking to Kevon Looney about Looney’s emergence this season, and Tim Kawakami talking with Steve Kerr about facing the Rockets in the playoffs. Both are well worth the listen.