This has been a tough season for the Rockets, even accounting for their current five-game win streak. After finishing last season as the second seed in the Western Conference, they sit tied for sixth place with the Memphis Grizzlies, who have had their own share of struggles. And yet it's not so bad; they're only a game behind the Dallas Mavericks for the fifth seed.
The West doesn't look like the juggernaut of seasons past in terms of record, and the Rockets are finding their form. So the obvious question: Is it time to be hopeful? Maybe, especially as we've gotten a taste of Vintage Dwight Howard recently.
But there's a second, more unsettling question that needs to be asked: What can Rockets fans be hopeful for? Going into the season, this was a team with championship aspirations. Even with the head coach fired, those aspirations are still there among the organization. But distressingly, those hopes seem more unrealistic than ever, with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs not just competing for the top seed in the West, but for placement in "Greatest Team Ever" conversations.
Clearly, it's not even at the All-Star break yet, so talk of history is premature. But one thing's for damn sure: If the Rockets want to do anything in the Playoffs, they'd better stay above the seventh seed. But even making it out of the first round, while not a guarantee by any means, wouldn't be a sign of improvement. What if no one's around to knock off the San Antonio Spurs for Houston this time? Could they even make it to Golden State?
A team in Houston's position is never going to just throw up their hands and be comfortable with a lower seed. We know Daryl Morey wants to make moves, and we know that Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones are enticing assets with expiring contracts (thus depressing their trade value). Jones has been red-hot of late and Donuts has a ton of great low-post work on film even as he rehabs his injury, but it's doubtful that either of them could bring in a difference-making three-point shooter, which is Houston's most desperate need.
This recent run has proved how dangerous the Rockets can be when they're engaged on defense, but what wins games for Houston against the upper-echelon teams will always be their three-point shooting. Corey Brewer and Josh Smith catching fire is what knocked off the Clippers in last year's playoffs, and like a mid-major at the NCAA tournament, it's their best shot to hang with the big boys. So the fact that basically their entire roster is extraordinarily streaky from distance is distressing and goes a long way towards explaining their waxes and wanes.
Maybe the Suns could move Mirza Teletovic. Perhaps Morey can fleece the Kings for Marco Bellinelli (oh, what a wonderful pipe dream that would be). But three-point shooting is no longer a trade secret, so as long as the Rockets are going to rely on Corey Brewer to hit clutch shots, they're not going to be a reliable threat to truly crack the league's elite this year.
So is that good enough? What constitutes success in the 2015-16 NBA season, when the pinnacle seems so unreachable? It's an impossible question for a team whose true potential is as one of the very best teams in the league, tragically forced to contend with legends -- but one that might look a little less impossible if the Rockets show up to play on Friday night.
Oh, and we haven't even mentioned the Thunder. God help us all.