Rockets Mailbag: Ideal playoff brackets, adjustments against micro-ball, and more
Before the NBA suspended league-play, I received a bunch of Rockets-related questions on Twitter and never got around to answering them. Assuming the NBA does plan to wrap their season up in three months, here are the answers to some of those questions (mostly about Houston's closing stretch).
This is an awesome question because if you just flip it to "What would an ideal first round matchup for the Rockets be?", you'd get an entirely different answer. Generally, I think it's more important to prioritize seeding and first round matchups and then worry about the rest later. However, I'll put that aside to answer this question.
Even if the NBA didn't shorten the rest of the season once it returned, it was already unlikely that the Rockets could get the 2nd seed. So, you're looking at falling anywhere from 3-6 (currently 6th). No ideal matchup for the Rockets involves playing the first round at home, so I'll eliminate any scenario in which they fall to the 5th or 6th seed.
This leaves the 3rd and the 4th seed and between those two, I actually believe it's better for the Rockets to get the fourth seed. The reason is, I think the Rockets stand a better chance at beating the Lakers in round two than the Clippers. Fundamentally I believe the Clippers have a higher playoff ceiling than the Lakers and have the defensive versatility to counter everything Houston wants to do.
I also think the Rockets put the Lakers in really uncomfortable situations with their micro-ball lineups. Even if you disagree with this thesis, it doesn't really matter because the Rockets would probably have to face both teams anyways to make the Finals. They don't care when they get eliminated because the goal isn't to get eliminated at all. The difference between a second round out and a Western Conference Finals appearance is purely optics for an organization like Houston.
This leaves the obvious question: what about round one? Between the Nuggets and the Jazz, I think Houston would much rather play Utah. They have a history of making Rudy Gobert really uncomfortable defending in space and I think Denver is just better. The Rockets also lost the athletic advantage they had over Denver for years in the Clint Capela trade.
So the ideal bracket would be Rockets face the Jazz in the 4-5 matchup, then the Lakers in the 1-4, then presumably the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals, and then the Bucks in the Finals.
Ideally, the Rockets avoid the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals and play the Nuggets. Houston would also rather play any Eastern Conference team other than the Bucks. However, you have to keep the bracket somewhat realistic.
Yes, but it's really subtle. You're starting to see teams pack the paint against Houston and dare their average three-point shooters to hit shots. Houston doesn't mind this adjustment as long as these shooters actually hit shots - which they haven't been of late. I understand the logic behind leaving guys like P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington open for three, but over the course of a seven-game series, it could come back to bite these teams. They're banking on Houston having historically bad shooting efforts in the playoffs.
Which, in their defense, has happened before.
Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic wrote a more in-depth breakdown of these adjustments if you want to go see if yourself.
After the Clint Capela trade, it's pretty clear that Eric Gordon has become the third most important player on this basketball team. It's true salary-wise and on the court, Houston isn't making a deep run without a healthy and fully functioning Gordon. The problem is - he hasn't been healthy and functioning this year.
For starters, Gordon has already missed 30 out of Houston's 64 games this season due to his right knee injuries. Gordon originally started the season off really poorly, got surgery, returned and looked good, and then re-injured the knee in late February. The games he has played in have been some of the worst of his career. This, of course, is completely out of his control. However, with the nearly three months off he's about to receive, Gordon will have time to train and fully recuperate that knee.
The answer is Eric Gordon and it's a no brainer.
Their styles of play definitely conflict in that they are both high-usage ball handlers that were meant to be the hubs of their team's offense. However, Westbrook has never been efficient enough to lead an elite offense on his own and thus, it makes sense for him to adapt to being a secondary ball handler. That was never where the fit issues came from, however.
It's always been about floor spacing and Russell Westbrook's shooting. Teams didn't just start doubling and trapping James Harden because it was a new idea. They did it because it was now possible with two non-shooters on the floor in Westbrook and Clint Capela. The Clint Capela trade opened things up, however, and I think the fit has looked a lot better since.
They've had several games since where both have been very good (Minnesota, Memphis, Utah, etc…). Harden and Westbrook can succeed together. Now if the question is, "Are the pieces around them good enough to win a championship this year?", that's still up in the air. However, I do tend to lean "no" due to the current powerhouses in the Western Conference.
That has nothing to do with fit though. It has to do with team strength.
I think you were on the right track about taking that win with a grain of salt. There were, however, some things Houston could build upon. For starters, James Harden was very good and tallied 37 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block on 11 of 19 shooting from the field and 5 of 10 shooting from three-point range. This was after two weeks of Harden struggling to make three-pointers fall.
The team as a whole also shot much better from behind the arc (15 of 38 or 40%). They looked flustered and without confidence in the past couple games and started to pass up on open looks. Defensively, the Rockets were mediocre - which is better than awful.
I guess the best term to describe that game for Houston is "baby steps".
I'll be doing more of these mailbags throughout this period without games. Be sure to follow me on Twitter for when we do another of these (@SalmanAliNBA).
Stay safe everyone!