With five games remaining in the regular season, the Houston Rockets are perched in ninth place, overlooking a landscape of three teams — Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, and Portland Trail Blazers — who hold the final three playoff spots.
Even though the Rockets are on the outside looking in, that may be a blessing in disguise.
They are in a classic spot many NBA teams have found themselves in: a low seed with a chance to make the playoffs and an equal shot at playing the lottery. They are currently one game behind the Mavericks and Jazz after the stunning victory over the Thunder.
Optimistic fans hoped the Rockets would flip the switch late in the season and play their best ball when it matters, but they have lost six of their last nine games. Don't let the Thunder game fool you. Their effort and overall execution in that game was close to maximum potential for this squad and is unsustainable. If they had played that way more consistently, I would buy in, but one game is not a big enough sample size.
The Rockets missed their shot. They could have strung together a strong finish to the end of the season and secured the fifth or sixth seed, which would give them a bigger chance at advancing into the second round. But this team's inconsistency and lack of effort have shined through even down the stretch of the season.
Sure, with their schedule, the eighth seed is theirs for the taking. But why would they even want it at this point? The Rockets would have virtually no shot at advancing past the Warriors or Spurs and a minuscule chance of extending a series with the Thunder past five games.
Ryan Dunsmore and Ethan Rothstein recently talked about this on the TDS Podcast, both agreeing the Rockets should go for the playoffs. Their premise was that the optics of making the playoffs and possibly luring free agents to Houston is more valuable than a draft pick in the teens. But I don't see why any star would want to come to the Rockets after seeing this season unfold.
As the current roster is constructed, a lottery pick could tremendously help reboot the franchise, pending the rookie actually getting on the floor. Daryl Morey and the Rockets can admit failure, despite the valiant effort to acquire talent for a run at the title, and commence a "rebuild on the fly" plan.
Note: If the Rockets want their pick, they can't make the playoffs. As part of the Ty Lawson trade with Denver, the Rockets would lose their first round selection if they make the playoffs since their outgoing pick is top-14 protected.
The Rockets' advantage is that they already have a superstar, which makes assembling complementary pieces easier.
Centered around a core of James Harden, Clint Capela, and a young supporting cast, the Rockets have somewhat of a bright future if they go forward without some of the perpetrators who caused this season to be a bust.
At this point, it seems unlikely center Dwight Howard will re-sign with the Rockets this offseason. The writing on the wall becomes more legible every day as Dwight Howard's frustrations with his presence in the offense (or lack thereof) increase, culminating in a four-shot performance against the Bulls on Thursday.
"It can get frustrating at times," Howard told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.
"I just try to find a way to take those frustrations out in the right way. Instead of taking them out by taking stupid fouls at times, I'm taking them out by getting another blocked shot, more rebounds, just do all the little things that make a big difference, might not show up on the scoreboard, might not look as sexy as somebody else scoring but are efficient. That's how we win games," he added with a relatively stock answer.
The 30 year old has a player option and could re-up with Houston for about $23 million or opt out and explore the free agent market. He has been rumored to be interested in a return to the Orlando Magic and he has been loosely connected to the New York Knicks.
Losing Howard would be a blow to the roster's talent, but it could help with its chemistry. Although he hasn't necessarily been the problem in the locker room, the apparent beef between Howard and Harden has hurt the team. Harden would be the clear-cut alpha dog on a Dwight Howard-less Houston Rockets.
This has been an absolute season from hell for the Rockets, and a quick first round exit at the hands of Golden State, San Antonio, or Oklahoma City would not change that. They should reboot the roster around James Harden while staying competitive, and rebrand the team as a desirable, young destination, not a dysfunctional one.