The NBA playoffs are less than a week away. We know that one of the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, and Heat will probably win the title. The Pacers have clearly lost their early season form. We currently have no idea if a sense of postseason urgency will kick in and solve their issues, but it shouldn’t take long to tell.
But what about the Rockets? Sometimes they look like they can hang with the big dogs (3-0 against the Spurs). Other times, they give up 51 points to Corey Brewer and lose to a depleted Timberwolves squad. How do we make sense of this? Are the Rockets a contender?
I think the answer is yes, but you have to look through a slightly optimistic lens. And even then, they’re only a weak contender.
The Rockets’ biggest problem has nothing to do with their perimeter defense or Dwight Howard’s free throw shooting or Patrick Beverley’s knee. It’s their conference.
The Western Conference’s superiority this season has been well documented. The Phoenix Suns–currently tied for eighth in the West–would be the third best team in the East. On paper, the West has three teams better than the East-leading Heat and five better than the second-place Pacers.
Although they’re probably the fifth-best team in the NBA right now, the Rockets are only the fourth-best in the West according to both record and net rating1. Since the 1999-2000 season, only two teams from outside the top-three of their conference have made it to NBA Finals2. Out of 28 Finals spots, 26 went to conference top-three teams. Already, things aren’t looking good for Houston.
However, there’s good news for Rockets fans. You can make a strong case that the Rockets have improved substantially over the course of the season, and the numbers bear that out. For games played during the first two months of the season, the Rockets’ net rating was +3.2 points. Since then, it has increased to +6.8 points. Although that isn’t enough to catch the West’s top-three teams, it suggests that the Rockets can at least compete with them.
This statistical improvement is backed by what I observe watching the Rockets play. During those first two months, the Rockets struggled to integrate Dwight Howard into their offense and rotation. First, they tried and failed to succeed with lineups featuring both Howard and Omer Asik. Then, their ball-handlers had to learn when and how to get Howard the ball. Since these problems have been solved, the Rockets have clearly played better. In this case, the numbers and eye-test agree.
One factor inflating the Rockets’ performance has been their good injury luck. So far, James Harden, Dwight Howard, and Chandler Parsons have made 208 of a possible 231 appearances–right at 90%. Meanwhile, the Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers have played through significant injuries to players named Parker, Leonard, Westbrook, and Paul. The fact that these teams outperformed the Rockets despite these injuries doesn’t bode well for Houston’s title chances.
Because I care way too much about this stuff, I have a program that lets me run thousands of playoff simulations in order to estimate the likelihoods of different outcomes (e.g. winning the Finals, winning one series, etc.). Because of the difference between the Rockets’ season-long rating and those since the first two months, I conducted separate experiments for both sets of ratings3.
First, I define a contender as a team that has at least a 5% chance of winning the championship. This number is partially influenced by the belief held by many NBA executives and media members that if a team has a 5% chance to win, they’re a few lucky breaks away from finding themselves in the Finals and should do whatever they can to improve their odds4.
Using the current standings and ratings, the Rockets have only a 4.1% chance of winning the NBA Finals–not enough to be a contender. This number struck me as low, but it makes sense when you look at what they’ll have to accomplish.
The Rockets will almost certainly play the Trail Blazers in the first round. Houston currently has home court advantage, although there’s a chance they’ll lose it. Either way, the Rockets are clearly the better team and the Blazers have been trending downward lately. However, the teams are close enough that Portland is at least a threat to the Rockets. My simulation gives Houston a 70% chance to win the series if they keep home court and a 63% chance to win if they lose it.
After this, things get a lot tougher. The Rockets’ most likely opponents would be the Spurs, the winner of Thunder vs. Clippers, and the Heat. That would require them to beat three of the four best teams in the NBA. Even if each series were 50-50, Houston would have just a 12.5% chance to win all three. When you consider that all of these teams rate better than the Rockets and would have home court, Houston’s chances start to look bleak.
However, when we only look at games played in 2014, the Rockets look like a legitimate contender. In this simulation, their title chances increase to 8.8%, more than double what they were before. Although it might be a bit optimistic, I think this is a more accurate representation of the Rockets’ actual chances at making a run.
For Rockets fans, the worst part is how different their outlook would be if they were in the Eastern Conference. With their current record, Houston would be the third seed in the East. When I simply switch them with the Raptors (the East’s current third-seed) and use the later-season ratings, the Rockets’ title chances increase to 19.3%. They would be the favorites in the East and the third most likely champion5.
So in conclusion, the Rockets’ season-long improvements have turned them into a contender, but the West is so tough that they still aren’t likely to bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Houston.
1. Net rating gives a team’s average performance per 100 possessions relative to their opponent.
2. Those teams were the 2003-04 Lakers and the 2009-10 Celtics. Both lost in the Finals.
3. As fate would have it, these simulations use a method that current Rockets GM Daryl Morey adapted for basketball (it was originally created for baseball by Bill James). To read more about it, see The Origins of Log5 and Pythagorean expectation.
4. Morey: “If you’ve got even a 5 percent chance to win the title — and that group includes a very small number of teams every year — you’ve gotta be focused all on winning the title.” For more, see The 5 Percent Theory.
5. First and second were the Spurs and Clippers. The Heat and Pacers have played relatively poorly during the second half of the season, although the Heat have a history of coasting some during the regular season and turning it up for the playoffs. Still, using the later-season ratings, the simulation gives the Rockets a 49.5% chance to win the East. Sigh…