Rockets' window may be closing faster after Tuesday's lottery
Divisions in basketball are seemingly pointless.
Just three years ago, winning your division would lock you into an automatic top four seed in the playoffs. Now there's an argument to be made about a concept like this being developed in times where near instantaneous cross country travel wasn't accessible or financially practical. I get it.
Those days are long gone, however, and so too is the necessity of divisions in basketball. Now the playoffs are rightfully seeded simply by record and conference, and the purpose of divisions seems only to benefit lazy schedulers.
That's right. The only aspect of a division in basketball these days that contains any shred of relevancy is the fact that divisional teams are guaranteed to face each other four times a season.
The southwest division consists of the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, and the New Orleans Pelicans. Outside of San Antonio, the divisional alignment has been a boon for the Rockets' recent championship ambitions. Since 2016-2017 Houston is 32-16 against the southwest division, due largely in part to their counterparts tanking (Dallas), rebuilding (Memphis), or simply mismanaging (New Orleans). The advantage Houston holds at the moment looks like it may become a significant roadblock in the not too distant future, however.
Tuesday night, the NBA conducted it's annual lottery designed to somewhat randomly assign picks for the upcoming NBA draft. Just one year removed from receiving the fourth overall pick, Memphis walked into their front office with task of deciding on the second overall pick. And as for the number one pick? New Orleans came away with the rights of first refusal in the Zion Williamson sweepstakes.
Zion Williamson. One of the most highly touted NBA prospects in the past decade is almost certainly headed to The Big Easy. He's a 6' 7", 275 pound defensive end of a forward that can jump out of the building. He's an 18 year old kid so highly anticipated that he affected Nike's stock price when one of their shoes blew out underneath him. He's the one singular player I've gone out of my way to tune into a non-tournament related college basketball game to watch in probably 9 years. That Zion Williamson. Assuming New Orleans doesn't Sam Bowie this pick, the Rockets will have maybe two years before this kid--along with whatever haul the Pelicans receive for Anthony Davis' all but imminent departure--becomes a real pain in their neck.
Meanwhile Memphis will wait and most likely select Mike Conley's heir apparent, Ja Morant. Capable of driving to the hoop and finding the open teammate, Morant had established himself a consensus top five pick before the perfect situation landed in front of him. Morant should slot in perfectly next to last year's home run of a pick in forward Jaren Jackson Jr. It didn't take long for the aging Conley and Marc Gasol tandem to be replaced with what could soon be an even more potent duo.
And while Memphis and New Orleans were the big winners Tuesday night, it was Dallas around this time a year ago that began to set a course for their own resurgence. In a draft day pick flip with Atlanta, the Mavericks cashed in all of their tanking chips and acquired Luka Doncic, a 6' 7" European forward that morphed into what should soon be a unanimously declared Rookie of the Year winner within the next few weeks. Doncic is already a star after a year in the league, and halfway through the season Dallas found him a running mate by trading for the 23 year old phenom Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis has yet to take the court with Doncic yet due to injury, but if the 7' 3" sharp shooting Latvian nicknamed "The Unicorn" can return and stay healthy, the Mavericks could cause a lot of teams problems as early as next year.
Houston, despite their recent playoff failings, remains the team to beat in the Southwest division. If you're wondering when the Rockets are picking in the draft, I'll save you some time. They aren't. Houston shipped their 2019 picks off with bad contracts to avoid the luxury tax and maintain an elite team. Houston isn't in "develop talent" mode. They're in "all-in championship," with an window of at best two more years as the team is currently constructed.
After that all bets are off. By then Houston's starting five outside of Harden and Capela will have aged into irrelevancy, as they stare down three young, talented-loaded rosters alongside the ever-unrelenting Spurs. Suddenly those obligatory 16 cakewalk divisional matchups no longer seem so surefire. This will be the upcoming landscape the Rockets will have to navigate, and it doesn't look easy.
The Houston Rockets are in win now mode for plenty of reasons, and Tuesday night gave them one more. Win now, because winning later could be much harder.