The NBA has yet to set an official return date for the 2019-20 season, though all signs are pointing to the league returning in late July. And the conclusion of the 2019-20 season will be different than any in league history.
Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando will be the likely host of the NBA's quarantined playoffs, though it isn't solely the location that could separate the 2020 postseason. The NBA is reportedly considering a slew of playoff formats, including a potential "playoffs-plus" with a play-in tournament for the final two seeds in each conference. For the Rockets, another plan would be the most impactful.
The NBA is considering eschewing conferences for the 2020 playoffs–and potentially beyond–opting to instead seed the playoffs 1-16. Currently, the Rockets are slated to face the Nuggets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. In a 1-16 scenario, Houston would square off against Utah.
Which path is preferable for the Rockets? Let's examine the two potential matchups.
The Case For Facing Utah
We know the Rockets won't be lacking confidence if they face Utah in a first-round matchup. Houston has eliminated the Jazz from the playoffs in each of the last two years, and Russell Westbrook believes he can do whatever he wants on the floor when guarded by Rudy Gobert. Would a battle with Utah serve as an easy runway for a second-round series against the Clippers or Lakers? Let's not get ahead of ourselves too quickly.
It hasn't exactly been a smooth ride in Salt Lake City in 2019-20. Mike Conley has struggled mightily after 12 seasons in Memphis, and the Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert relationship was on the fritz after Gobert's crass handling of the COVID-19 crisis. But the Jazz shouldn't be buried before the postseason begins. Utah ranks in the top 11 in offensive and defensive rating, and Mitchell is a rising leading man. Quin Snyder remains one of the game's top coaches, and this core does have significant experience together. The Jazz won't roll over regardless of opponent.
Utah and Houston have played a trio of tight contests this season, yet it's hard to imagine the Rockets entering the series as underdogs. Mitchell has yet to ascend to the level of a true elite talent a la Harden, and his supporting cast is lacking in scoring punch.
Gobert needs to be fed his points via dump-offs and lobs. We noted Conley's regression, and Jordan Clarkson is more of an occasional instant offense piece than a reliable point guard. Bojan Bogdanovic was a key addition for Utah in the offseason, and he was in the midst of an impressive 2019-20. But he'll be out for the rest of the season after undergoing wrist surgery on May 18. Barring an extended hot streak from Joe Ingles, the Jazz will be searching for additional perimeter scoring. They don't quite have the firepower to keep up with Houston's superstar duo.
The Case For Facing Denver
The Nuggets won 54 games last season to snap a five-year playoff drought, and their success continued with a 43–22 record in 2019-20 before the league's coronavirus suspension. They have a certain Serbian center to thank.
Nikola Jokic has emerged as one of the NBA's premier big men over the last two seasons, and he provides a legitimate matchup nightmare for the Rockets. Houston has been fairly successful against the league's top centers since trading Clint Capela, snagging wins over the Jazz and Lakers after the trade deadline. But Jokic is a completely different animal than Gobert and Anthony Davis. Denver's center is a true offensive fulcrum, dishing dimes to whizzing cutters and open shooters at will. Jokic should feast if he faces the Rockets.
Houston will have trouble containing Denver's man in the middle, but the Rockets should have an advantage throughout the rest of the roster. And the edge is greatest in the backcourt.
The Nuggets will likely have trouble keeping up with James Harden and Russell Westbrook, sporting a collection of guards that could suffer in an extended series. Point guard Jamal Murray is a strong complimentary scorer alongside Jokic, though he is a serious liability on the defensive end. Expect Harden to hunt for a switch early and often in a potential series. Monte Morris is too small to truly check either Harden or Westbrook, and while Gary Harris is a plus-defender, his offensive production has fallen off a cliff in 2019-20. It's hard to see Mike Malone giving him a long leash if he continues to struggle from the field.
Perhaps Denver can upsize and play a trio of forwards–perhaps Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr. and one of Jerami Grant or Paul Millsap–to counter Houston's MVP guards, though the matchup problem won't magically go away. Both Harden and Westbrook could have a dominant series, sending Denver home early despite Jokic's brilliance.