The Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks are in a league of their own. Ahead of the NBA’s restart in Orlando later this month, the focus is on those three teams when it comes to championship discussion.
It gets murkier beyond them. The Rockets, Celtics, Raptors, Sixers and several other teams will fancy their chances at an improbable run to the Finals in these most unique circumstances.
Russell Westbrook, following a positive test for COVID-19, is set to arrive in Orlando. Westbrook and James Harden are one of the NBA’s best backcourts and give the team a high ceiling.
In their first game at the Disney World Resort, Houston goes up against Dallas in a matchup where the Mavs are currently favourites with a one point spread, despite sitting in the seven spot right behind the Rockets. Seventh-place will most likely get the Clippers in the first round, meaning any drop in the standings for the Rockets will make their run to the Finals much tougher.
The Rockets’ star duo come face-to-face with a younger, albeit just as gifted, pair. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are not a direct comparison to Westbrook and Harden, but they are the core of this Mavericks team, they are what Dallas build around, and their performances will likely dictate how competitive Rick Carlisle’s team will be in Orlando.
Houston obviously need Westbrook and Harden at their best, but their success in the bubble is about more than how they play. It’s a philosophical question of the ultra-small-ball (which has been criticised by many and applauded just as generously). It’s a question of the durability of PJ Tucker and Robert Covington. It’s a need for Eric Gordon to find some shooting form.
The small ball has been taken to a new extreme. The oft-repeated line about no rotation players over 6’7” is nearing cliché, yet it is significant. Houston are doing something unprecedented.
The results have been mixed. Their defensive rating is solid since the All-Star break, but they are bottom in defensive rebounding rate. As one might expect, they are stealing the ball as well as anyone in the league. It asks a great deal physically of Covington and Tucker, and until we see it, no one really knows how playing so small will work against Nikola Jokic, Porzingis or Rudy Gobert, let alone Anthony Davis.
An optimistic outlook has Jokic and Gobert exposed by the pace of the Rockets. Such a scenario sees them become almost unplayable. A bleaker alternative sees Tucker and Covington over-matched in the paint, allowing Gobert to catch lobs and Jokic to bully them in the post.
The Rockets are going into this as an unknown in many ways. No one, perhaps including Mike D’Antoni, knows what to expect. They are as fascinating as any bubble-heading team as a result.
Such a wide range of potential outcomes makes it tricky to pin them with a prediction. Their upside is the best outside the top three plus Philly. Their downside, though, is the greatest of the chasing pack, too.
A heavy first-round defeat isn’t far-fetched, neither is a well-fought series with the Clippers.