NBA Restart: Coaches Pick Rockets, James Harden as West Wild Card

James Harden, Rockets

Getty James Harden, Rockets

They have had winning streaks as long as eight games and losing streaks—two of them—as long as four games.  They have beaten both L.A. teams at Staples Center and are 6-2 against the Top 6 teams in the Eastern Conference. They also have losses to the Knicks, Pistons and Warriors, three of the league’s six worst teams.

Hard to figure out the Rockets this season. But according to coaches around the NBA, they could be best positioned to pull off a surprise in the league’s restarted format. That’s because their offense does not require much cohesion, relying more heavily than any other team on isolation plays and star production.

Star guard James Harden averaged 14.5 isolation possessions per game, first in the league by a long way. No. 2 is his teammate, Russell Westbrook, who averaged 7.4 iso possessions per game. It’s a drop-off to No. 3, Portland’s Damian Lillard at 4.7 isolation possessions per game.

“Give the ball to James and get out of the way,” one assistant coach said about the Rockets’ offense. “When you don’t have James out there, give it to Russ. There is not a whole lot to drill those guys on. Let James and Russ do their thing and hope your perimeter shooters can make 3s when they’re open. That is a huge advantage coming back into this mix.”

Another head coach agreed. “What is worrying all of us is getting some chemistry back,” the coach said. “If you’re Houston, you don’t have to worry about chemistry or feel or getting back that momentum. They have the same game plan no matter what and they’re going to hit their stride faster.”

Rockets had an Uneven Post-Trade Performance

Still, the Rockets are a team that was figuring itself out when the season was suspended. Houston was a key part of the four-team blockbuster trade at the deadline in February in which the Rockets sent away center Clint Capela and got back forward Robert Covington.

The deal made the Rockets fully committed to a small-ball style. The experiment has shown mixed results. Houston lost two of its first three games with Covington, followed by six straight wins and then four losses in five games ahead of the coronavirus shutdown.

After the team’s 20-point home loss to the Magic on March 8, coach Mike D’Antoni said the team hit, “rock bottom.”

They will be under intense pressure to pull themselves up quickly. D’Antoni has been on the hot seat all year and if he does not get the Rockets into the Finals this year, it could cost him his job.

That could actually be an advantage, a third coach told

“I think it is a team with nothing to lose and in this kind of scenario, with no crowds, no usual media contingent, the refs being in strange situations, all of that, it could all favor a team like Houston,” the coach said. “They’re as dangerous as anybody.”

Rockets Among 22 Teams Ready to Reboot

The NBA is now ramping up for a return to action after the season was suspended on March 11 following a positive coronavirus test from Jazz center Rudy Gobert. At the time, the country was just beginning to grapple with the effects of the novel coronavirus and drastic shutdown measures had not yet been implemented—the NBA was among the first major organizations to suspend operations in reaction to the pandemic.

The format calls for 22 teams to get back on the court in a restricted-access environment in Orlando, with the tipoff of the season coming on July 31. Eight teams, those which were not within 6.0 games of the final playoff spot in their respective conferences, were eliminated from further competition.

Current seeding has the Bucks at the top of the East, followed by No. 2 Toronto (6.5 games back), No. 3 Boston (9.5), No. 4 Miami (12), No. 5 Indiana (14) and No. 6 Philadelphia (14). The No. 7 and 8 seeds, currently Brooklyn and Orlando, are still being contested. The Nets are 30-34 and the Magic are 30-35.

Teams will play eight “regular season” games in Orlando.

Washington (24-40) could catch up to either team and would need to finish within 4.0 games of the No. 8 seed to force a play-in. It’s a longshot, though. The No. 9 seed will need to beat the No. 8 seed in two straight games to earn the No. 8 seed. If the Magic goes .500 in their eight games, the Wizards would need to go 6-2 to get to a play-in.

Western Conferece is Crowded

In the West, the Lakers are the top seed, at 49-14. The Clippers, at 44-20 (5.5 games back), are a longshot to catch them.

The Nuggets are the No. 3 seed (7 games back), followed by No. 4 Utah (8.5), No. 5 Oklahoma City (9.5), No. 6 Houston (9.5) and No. 7 Dallas (11). With the third-sixth seeds within 2.5 games of each other, the standings still could get scrambled.

At 32-33, Memphis has the No. 8 seed now. Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento are tied at 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies, but because the league will seed according to winning percentage, the Trail Blazers (.439) have a slight advantage over the others (.438) . The Spurs (4 games out of No. 8) and Suns (6 games out) have a longshot chance to break into the playoffs.

Assuming the Grizzlies don’t fold in the stretch, whichever team finishes ninth, if it is within 4.0 games of the Grizzlies, will have to beat Memphis twice to earn a spot in the playoffs.

The first round of the playoffs will begin on August 18. The Finals are projected to start September 30, with Game 7 scheduled for October 12.

READ MORE: With COVID, Asthma Concerns Should Lakers’ JaVale McGee Play? 

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