No. 7 Seeds are weirdly coddled in playoff discussions. They’re often excluded from the “race for eighth” conversation despite usually holding records similar to those bubble teams. In fact, No. 7 seeds have won only one playoff series in the last 15 years, less than No. 8 seeds, and yet we still treat them significantly better. It’s as if their reputations are secured by winning one more game than another playoff team. But right now, there’s a pretty conspicuous No. 7 seed that’s not playing playoff-caliber basketball.
The Houston Rockets are sitting in seventh right now and, despite the disappointment of not actively competing for home-court advantage, haven’t really drawn any attention as a potential lottery team. Yet the following four facts are empirically true:
- Houston has as many losses (25) as No. 9 seeded Utah
- Houston’s point differential (-1.5) is 10th in the West, and translates to an expected record of 22-28. Only Memphis has a greater disparity between expected and actual record in their favor.
- No team has made the Western Conference playoffs with a negative point differential since 2006-07
- No team has made the Western Conference playoffs with Houston’s point differential this millennium.
And so are the following two things:
- Dwight Howard has played in 80% of Houston’s games this season after missing more than half of last year. Patrick Beverley has never played in more than 56 games in a season.
- James Harden has played the most minutes in the NBA. Only three players are within 100.
So basically, the Rockets have played well above their means and will likely regress to the means, and when that happens there’s a reasonable chance they’ll face significant injury and energy problems among some of their best players. So I’m just going to say what the numbers say: the Houston Rockets, defending Western Conference finalist, could actually miss the playoffs altogether.
This represents something of a disaster for a team that fancied itself an immediate title contender and built their roster as such. The flexibility they’d always maintained in hopes of landing that ever-elusive third star was thrown aside in favor of maintaining the core of a team that no longer seems viable. Corey Brewer is locked in for $15 million over the next two years as a three-and-D wing who can’t hit three’s and has lost several steps on D. They gave up a protected first round pick for an alcoholic who didn’t fit their roster anyway in Ty Lawson. If Dwight Howard picks up his player option or re-signs at a similar price the Rockets are looking at only around $10 million of cap space.
Normally that space is significant, but everyone is going to have cap space this summer and free agents worth spending it on are in short supply. They’d almost certainly have to lose Dwight Howard to create the space necessary to chase a star-caliber player, but Howard is huge part of what makes them appealing. Forget about Kevin Durant, why would someone like Al Horford want to play on a James Harden-led Houston team that topped out as first-round fodder before Howard came on board and may miss the playoffs this year even with him? Too many contenders can offer more money and more talent.
In that scenario the Rockets find themselves ironically trapped in the very late-lottery/low-seed purgatory Harden and Howard were supposed to break them out of. Missing the playoffs likely sets them on an irreversible course in that direction. Suddenly the rest of their season is less about winning a championship and more about saving face. How could the Rockets convince anyone of note to play for them if they can’t even make the playoffs with two stars in or near their prime?
Even making it is far from certain. Though they’ve played the league’s 10th hardest schedule so far, they’ve also played the second most home games in the league. They’re in the middle of a three-game losing streak right now and are staring down not only two matchups with playoff hopeful Portland in the next week, but a trip to Oakland to lose to the Warriors sandwiched between. They don’t have a permanent coach and the entire roster is uncertain. If you’re looking for a second-half collapse candidate, Houston seems like a decent bet.