Who is the Rockets' Ideal First Round Opponent?

Michael Shapiro

The NBA is moving forward with its return-to-play plan for the 2019-20 season, with the regular season slated to resume on July 30. And the final eight games of the season could be truly consequential for the Rockets.

Houston has already secured a spot in the 2020 playoffs, but the rest of the regular season may have significant impact on its postseason seeding. The Rockets currently sit No. 6 in the West at 40–24, 1.5 games ahead of Dallas for the No. 7 spot. And there are plenty of opportunities to climb the standings. Houston is tied with Oklahoma City and one game behind Utah, with Denver in sight for the No. 3 seed. A strong finish to the regular season could be crucial to James Harden and Co.'s Finals hopes. 

We can assume the Rockets won't see LeBron James and the Lakers in round one, and they won't face any of the teams currently jockeying for the No. 8 seed. So who should Houston hope to face in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs? Let's sift through the candidates. 

Avoid at All Costs 

Los Angeles Clippers – Houston could potentially pull off the upset in the unfortunate event of a first-round matchup with the Clippers, though the Rockets would certainly face an uphill battle against a legitimate title contender. 

The Rockets have held their own against Los Angeles in 2019-20, splitting the season series 2–2. Russell Westbrook has turned in some of his best performances of the season when squaring off against rival point guard Patrick Beverley, and the Clippers frontcourt doesn’t provide a disastrous matchup for the small-ball Rockets. On its face, a competitive series awaits.

Yet perhaps we’re underrating the Clippers to a degree ahead of the 2020 playoffs. They have the Finals MVP and another top-12 player, sporting a plus-11.6 net rating this season when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George share the floor. Add in plenty of depth and a Hall-of-Fame head coach, and the outlook for Houston isn’t exactly rosy. An upset isn’t completely impossible, though it remains improbable against the second Los Angeles juggernaut.

Fearful Matchup 

Denver Nuggets –
The Rockets are currently slated to face the Nuggets in round one of the playoffs, and a potential series could very well go seven games. And while both teams are a notch below the Los Angeles teams in the league power rankings, they each stand as fringe Finals contenders.

Denver's best hope at defeating Houston lies in the frontcourt, led by superstar center Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets big man remains a dynamic low-post scorer (despite his sudden weight loss), and more importantly, he's the game's best passer. Jokic finds sprinting cutters and perimeter shooters from every spot on the floor, dropping dimes with interior fastballs and looping cross-court passes. Westbrook and Harden will need to stay alert for a slew of backdoor cuts against perhaps the greatest passing big man in NBA history.

The Nuggets have a marked advantage in the paint against Houston, but the Rockets' MVPs should be able to thrive against Mike Malone's squad. Point guard Jamal Murray will consistently be hunted for isolation possessions–similar to how Houston attacks Stephen Curry–and there's no true stopper in Denver's backcourt. Gary Harris potentially fits the mold, though his abysmal offensive season could limit his minutes. Denver will provide a serious challenge, yet the current seeding obscures the likely odds in a potential series. Houston is in no way underdogs against Jokic and the Nuggets.

Dallas Mavericks – Dallas may not look like a true contender against the Rockets given its current seed in the Western Conference, though a Lone Star State battle could quickly give Houston fans plenty to be nervous about. The Mavericks have played better than their record suggests in 2019-20, sporting the NBA's top offensive rating and No. 6 net rating. Dallas is likely to be one of the West's best teams in the 2020s. Its ascent could begin in Orlando. 

Why the optimism in Dallas? Look no further than the Mavericks' dynamic duo. Luka Doncic has ascended to superstardom in his second season, averaging 28.7 points and 8.7 assists per game in 2019-20. The Slovenian sensation thrives in the big moments, and he'll have little trouble going toe-to-toe against Harden in a seven-game series. Look for Robert Covington to spend plenty of time hounding Doncic in Orlando. 

It's been an uneven 2019-20 for Dallas' other star, though Kristaps Porzingis remains a tantalizing talent entering the playoffs. The former Knicks big man torched the Rockets for 35 points at the Toyota Center on Jan. 31, using his 7'3" frame allows him to simply rise over the top when guarded by Covington or P.J. Tucker. Porzingis is a true unicorn in every sense of the word.

Dallas spent much of the season slotting Porzingis at power forward, though they could shift him to center after Dwight Powell's season-ending injury. Perhaps Rick Carlisle will still retain his twin towers look by inserting Maxi Kleber into the starting lineup, though the German forward doesn't bring nearly the same threat as a rim-runner and pick-and-roll partner. Powell's injury eliminates Dallas' best lineup, one that could have proved to be a major headache for the Rockets. Houston would still be favored over Dallas in a series, though advancing is no guarantee. The Mavericks' pair of young stars could have their coming out party in 2020.  

Favorable Opponent

Oklahoma City Thunder – There would be no doubting Chris Paul's motivation entering a series with the Rockets, with the 15-year veteran in prime position to knock off his former team in dramatic fashion. But despite Paul's brilliance and competitiveness, the Thunder would still enter a series with the Rockets as significant underdogs. Oklahoma City is more of a nice story than a Finals contender, and a round-one exit is the most likely scenario.

The Thunder would be smart to ride their three-guard lineup in the playoffs, with the trio of Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander outscoring teams by 26.6 points per 100 possessions in 2019-20. Unfortunately, Houston is well equipped to handle a three-guard attack. Westbrook and Robert Covington are likely to clamp down on two of the guards, and one of Harden, Eric Gordon or Austin Rivers could defend the third guard. Previous iterations of the Thunder relied on their size and athleticism to pound the offensive glass, a strategy that often flummoxed the undersized Rockets. This year is different. Houston should be able to break even on the boards en route to a round one victory. 

Top Option 

Utah Jazz –
This is more a testament to the strength of the Western Conference than a criticism of the Jazz, but it's hard to see Houston fearing Utah in a first-round matchup. The Rockets have knocked the Jazz out of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, and neither matchup was necessarily all that competitive. We could be in for some déjà vu in 2020.

Utah was the focus of legitimate title conversation at the outset of 2019-20, entering the season after adding forward Bojan Bogdanovic and point guard Mike Conley in the summer. Bogdanovic lived up to his billing, shining for Utah with 20.2 points per game before a wrist injury ended his season. Conley is healthy and will play in Orlando, but his impact is likely to be muted compared to expectations entering 2019-20. The former Grizzlies point guard has struggled mightily this season, shooting just a hair over 40% from the field. Conley's production has fallen off a relative cliff in Utah, and it's unclear whether he can revert to form after nearly five months off.

We shouldn't completely write off Utah despite the results of the 2018 and 2019 playoffs. Quin Snyder is an elite coach, and Rudy Gobert remains the best defensive big in basketball. But there still appears to be a marked ceiling for the Jazz. Donovan Mitchell can't be expected to go toe-to-toe with Harden, and there isn't another impact scorer currently healthy on the roster. The Rockets should feel comfortable if they face Utah in round one.