We're now over a month into the NBA's coronavirus suspension, but teams throughout the league aren't slowing down in their preparation for a potential return to play. The playoffs could arrive within the next two months, and teams that aren't ready could suffer. Players are working out and shooting at their respective homes. Coaches are pouring through film in their makeshift offices.
As we wait for the 2019-20 season to resume, let's do some preparation of our own, ranking the seven potential opponents for the Rockets in the Western Conference playoffs.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
Starting with Memphis is more a testament to the strength of the Western Conference than a slight against Ja Morant and Co. The Grizzlies have been one of the league's most exciting teams this season, fueled by an explosive (likely) Rookie of the Year campaign from Morant. The Murray State product doesn't back down from anyone. He torched the Rockets in Memphis on Jan. 14, scoring 26 points on 10-11 shooting.
It's not out of the question for the Grizzlies to steal a game against the Rockets in a potential series. But unlike the other six teams on our list, there's no real path to Memphis taking down the Rockets.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
Chris Paul taking down his former team would rank high in his list of career accomplishments, and rightly so. Paul was discarded by most of the basketball intelligentsia after getting dealt to the Thunder. The trade machine started up even before Paul touched down in Oklahoma City, and many assumed he would fade from relevance if he wasn't sent to a new team. The skeptics were quickly proven wrong.
Houston would enter a series with the Thunder as considerable favorites. Oklahoma City is weak on the wing, and Steven Adams isn't some sort of matchup nightmare despite his size. The Thunder would likely ride their three-guard lineup with Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a unit that outscored teams by a whopping 28.6 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. Oklahoma City would give Houston a scare, and maybe even steal two games in a seven-game series. Still, Paul and Co. face an uphill challenge against the Rockets.
5. Utah Jazz
We're now closer to toss-up territory with a Utah team that has flamed out against the Rockets in each of the last two playoffs. Is this year's Jazz team better suited to take down James Harden and Co. in 2020? It's an interesting question.
Utah had the outline of a Finals contender after a busy offseason, one in which they added scoring wing Bojan Bogdanovic and playoff stalwart Mike Conley. Bogdanovic has held up his end of the deal. He's averaging 20.2 points per game, and he banged home a buzzer-beater three to beat the Rockets on Feb. 9. But something has felt amiss all season with the Jazz.
Conley was in the midst of a nightmarish shooting season before the NBA's coronavirus suspension, and Rudy Gobert saw a dip in his production. And the recent events can't help Utah by any stretch. Gobert and Donovan Mitchell appear to be on shaky ground, and the franchise could soon face a crossroads. It's unlikely Utah rallies for a deep playoff run, even after its 2019 offseason additions. The Rockets could knock the Jazz out for the third straight year if the 2019-20 season resumes.
4. Dallas Mavericks
It may be a bit of a surprise to see Dallas ranked ahead of Utah given their recent histories, but does anyone want to face Luka Doncic in a playoff series? The second-year phenom rocketed into the MVP conversation this season, slicing up defenses with the skill and smarts of a 10-year veteran. Doncic is nearly averaging a triple-double this season, and his play in 2019-20 is perhaps more impressive than his stat lines. Doncic is a nightmare to defend in isolation. He creates Harden-esque separation on his step-back, and he excels at contorting his body past oncoming defenders. Shooters are never missed in the corner. His two-man dance with Kristaps Porzingis is a serious weapon. Doubt Doncic at your peril.
Perhaps Dallas doesn't have the talent beyond its top two players to truly take down the Rockets, but Doncic and Porzingis do create legitimate matchup problems for Houston. Porzingis feasted as Doncic sat on Jan. 31, scoring 35 points while gobbling 12 rebounds. P.J. Tucker can battle even the toughest low-post player in the paint, but Porzingis doesn't seem to mind any defender down low. He simply rises over the top.
The Mavericks are more of a threat in a shorter series. If the NBA cut rounds to five games–as has been rumored–Dallas could have a shot. Both Doncic and Porzingis can take over a playoff game in an instant. But in a seven-game series, Houston still has a considerable edge. Perhaps the dynamic flips as we roll through the 2020s.
3. Denver Nuggets
Rockets vs. Nuggets would be a true style in contrasts, and this first-round matchup could potentially be a seven-game fight.
Houston had success against quality centers in the month after Clint Capela exited the lineup. The Rockets defeated Anthony Davis and the Lakers in Robert Covington's debut on Feb. 6, and they've held Gobert to just 12 points in each of their three matchups this season. Nikola Jokic is a different animal.
Denver's center is clearly the best passing big in basketball, and he adds more than enough scoring punch to work as an effective offensive fulcrum. Jokic controls the game from the block or the high post, examining the floor for whizzing cutters or open shooters. The Rockets could likely limit his scoring with a smattering of defenders, but with Jokic, the points are sometimes ancillary. It can be better to let him close in on 40 points than drop a 25-point triple-double. Houston will have to maintain a constant defensive intensity to keep up with Jokic's circus.
Perhaps Jokic can turn back the clock and win the series with some bully ball, though it would likely have to include a slate of shootouts. Denver doesn't have the personnel to slow both Harden and Westbrook. Jamal Murray would be hunted on a possession-by-possession basis. Houston would likely enter the series as a slight favorite despite the seeding, but the matchup is likely to go six-plus games.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Now this is the series everyone wants to see. And what else could you ask for? Rockets vs. Clippers would feature four top-15 players, a father-son battle and some legitimate bad blood. Patrick Beverley's feud with Westbrook alone is worth the price of admission. Add in Harden facing off against Kawhi Leonard, and maybe a 9-game series would be preferable. Why limit the animosity to just seven nights?
The Rockets may struggle to keep up in an extended series. Doc Rivers' squad is deeper than the Rockets, and better defensively. The Clippers are 39–14 when Leonard plays this season, and it seemed as though they were hitting their groove before the league's COVID-19 suspension. Los Angeles was arguably the title favorite entering 2019-20. It would take a heroic effort from Harden and Westbrook to take down the reigning Finals MVP.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
It's hard to make a case for the Rockets taking down LeBron and the Lakers, even after Houston's road win at the Staples Center two months ago. James remains at the peak of his powers, and he's a matchup nightmare for the Rockets. James bullies every non-Tucker defender in his path when he faces Houston, a problem only partially mitigated by Covington's arrival.
Los Angeles' sheer size is a major problem for the Rockets. From James and Davis to Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Kyle Kuzma, the large bodies don't stop. James ran roughshod over the Rockets at the Toyota Center on Jan. 18, dropping 32 points while corralling 12 rebounds. A similar script would probably follow in a playoff series. Perhaps the Rockets take it to six, but it's hard to see any non-Clippers team taking down the Lakers in the West.