The Houston Rockets have a disastrous schedule problem hurtling at them with the force of every inanimate object put in a Final Destination film.
They've faced the league's easiest schedule to date, and schedule retribution starts on Christmas Day with a month of opponents including the Spurs (twice), Warriors, Cavs, Clippers, Thunder, Mavericks, Grizzlies and Pacers.
The upcoming hike in difficulty will strike the Rockets during an ongoing period of defensive apathy and offensive breakdowns. The mix could be enough to drive the team farther below .500 creating a level of turbulence that ousts interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff during or immediately after the 2015-2016 NBA season.
Canning Kevin McHale came with immediate expectations: Improved defensive aptitude, an increased level of on-court effort and more effective player rotations. These changes haven't materialized yet. Leaving the Rockets with a limited "bounce" after firing the Celtic great and no hard evidence the shakeup has yielded the desired results.
J.B. Bickerstaff has to produce results. And he may not be able to do that because of the ghastly schedule which starts on Christmas Day.
The Games The Rockets Have Played
A little more than quarter way through the NBA season the Houston Rockets have compiled 12 victories. J.B. Bickerstaff is responsible for eight wins and seven losses.
The Bickerstaff wins are unfortunately not cause for celebration. They've come against some of the NBA's worst teams. During the interim head coach's eight wins, the Rockets have defeated teams with a cumulative record of 66-132, or a paltry win percentage of 33.3%, repeating of course.
Under Bickerstaff the Rockets have dropped contests to the Knicks, Nets, Nuggets and Kings. Not a murderers row, which is unfortunate as it reinforces this reality: The Houston Rockets have compiled a sub-.500 record with the league's easiest schedule.
TeamRankings.com rates the strength of schedule of all 30 teams and currently the Houston Rockets are dead last. And it's not close.
Don't believe that math? Power Rankings Guru rates the strength of schedule of each NBA team as the season progresses. The higher the "Opponent Average" the easier your schedule (second column of statistics in the chart below).
Bad news from "Guru." The Rockets had the league's third-least difficult schedule before dropping games against the Nuggets and Kings, but their record doesn't look much like the teams they share the bottom of the standings with.
Side note: If you're the Spurs or Warriors your schedule is naturally easier as you're the one laying the beat down on opposing teams. The 76ers have the second hardest schedule according to their measure, which makes sense as there's no one to beat up on if you're the 76ers.
The dog pile continues with the ESPN strength of schedule rating, which has the Rockets dead last (the ".465" in the fifth column).
The Games The Rockets Have Left
If you're the Golden State Warriors, you're a world-beater who is dishing out piping hot smackdowns on a nightly basis and playing nothing but "bad teams." It's a narrative pretty far from the Houston Rockets current season. The Warriors are so good they're breaking the standard dictum: If you've played the league's worst teams early in the season, then you're going to play the best teams later in the year.
The NBA.com strength of schedule statistic tells the Rockets story. NBA.com rates the remaining schedule of each team based on the home and road winning percentages of the remaining opponents and back-to-back games. The higher the number, the more difficult the remaining schedule.
The Rockets have the highest strength of schedule, 0.523.
Gulp. This isn't the highest strength of schedule for potential Western Conference playoff teams or for teams with upside. It's the most difficult strength of schedule rating for any team in the league.
Christmas Day Is Bickerstaff's Breaking Point
The games the Rockets have played and yet to play reach an unfortunate confluence on Christmas Day. The Rockets face the San Antonio Spurs to begin a five-week run of 20 games, 12 of which are against teams currently seeded in the playoffs.
It's difficult to see a Houston Rockets team that just dropped games to the Nuggets and Kings coming through those 20 games with a record above .500. That may still be enough to make the playoffs in the 2015-2016 bizarro version of the Western Conference, but it's impossible for the Rockets franchise to qualify for the NBA playoffs with a losing record and call the season a success.
Here's why Bickerstaff's fate could turn on Christmas Day:
- The Rockets play the Lakers, Clippers, Hornets and Magic before Christmas. Hitting the holiday without a .500 record could spell disaster for a team sailing into a late-December and January storm.
- Opponents for three weeks starting on Christmas: The Rockets play 11 games in three weeks. Those games include the Spurs, Hawks, Warriors, Spurs, Pacers, Grizzlies and Cavaliers.
- The NBA trade deadline is February 18th. If the Houston Rockets are going to try and motivate the current Rockets roster without making a trade it's got to happen in January. Making a move in January provides the team a window of time to institute a new system while keeping "emergency trade" in the back pocket.
First and foremost, piling wins on the table will change the corrosive dialogue currently surrounding the Houston Rockets. Getting above .500 and staying there is an easy way to end the "Dwight Howard is unhappy" chatter and the "underperforming" narrative. The primary problem to getting there is the schedule.
Read any story on the Rockets and you'll notice the "interim" tag in front of Bickerstaff's title. The circumstances surrounding his promotion were not entirely clear and the only thing we know about his standing with the front office is he's getting a chance to win the job.
That reality puts Bickerstaff in the crosshairs. Does he deserve to be in those crosshairs? Probably not. Can the team and fans blame Bickerstaff for the same sluggish on-court product McHale was blamed for? Absolutely. They shared a locker room for years.
If the on-court product and record don't improve in the next month, the Rockets are going to face a previously unthinkable decision: How to significantly shake up a team stuck in the mud without cutting bait on James Harden or Dwight Howard... again.