The Houston Rockets and company (21 other NBA teams) are almost assured of their return to basketball this summer.
Approved by the NBA Board of Governors on Thursday — expected to be approved by players on Friday — the NBA will follow through on its 22-team return proposal. Under this proposal, each of the 22 teams that made the cut will face the next eight opponents on their original schedule, skipping any opponent no longer continuing their season.
For Houston, those eight opponents and their regular-season records against them are:
Los Angeles Lakers (1-1)
Portland Trail Blazers (1-2)
Sacramento Kings (1-1)
Dallas Mavericks (1-1)
Milwaukee Bucks (0-1)
Indiana Pacers (1-0)
Philadelphia 76ers (1-0)
Toronto Raptors (1-0)
If that schedule looks super tough, you’re right. Because the only teams that are left are teams vying for a playoff spot. It’s kind of the point.
But a few things should have drastically stood out to you. The first being that Houston has to face both of the No. 1 seeds from each conference. That’s tough. Secondly, they’re playing two teams not currently in the playoffs. That’s good. Lastly, and most importantly, Houston has zero chance of affecting their standings through their schedule alone. That’s bad.
As is, the only team that makes the slightest bit of difference for them is the Dallas Mavericks, who are 1.5 games back of them for the sixth spot and would give the victor the tie-breaker. The Lakers are currently 9.5 games ahead of them, technically un-catchable, and the other two Western Conference teams they face are nowhere near them.
The best that Houston can do is beat their opponents and hope other teams in the West lose. At least if Houston lost to other higher-seeded teams in the West, they were playing for a chance to move up.
There is a smidge — just a smidge — of optimism to be had for the Rockets’ Eastern Conference opponents, though.
Milwaukee needs only one win or a single Toronto loss to clinch the No. 1 seed in the East. With the Rockets being the fifth team on their schedule, the Bucks may play their starters far less minutes than usual. The Raptors currently hold the second spot in the East with a three-game lead over the Boston Celtics. With Houston as their sixth opponent, and no shot at the first seed, they could have a solid lead at that point and opt to play their starters less time. Lastly, and the longest shot of them all, Philadelphia plays Houston as their sixth opponent on their schedule. The 76ers, currently in the sixth seed, are in the thick of a battle for placement in the 4-6 spots in the East, but hold a commanding 8.5-game lead over the seventh-seeded Brooklyn Nets. If things go just bad enough (or good enough) they could also (you guessed it) have no interest in playing their starters against Houston.
Of course, this is merely speculation with a whole lot of assumption. Who’s to say how coaching staffs feel about getting real-time basketball reps in versus potentially injuring a player in a meaningless game? But also, it may be a key part of Houston’s remaining schedule.
As of now, just assume, like all the other teams remaining, the Rockets’ schedule will remain super tough.