Houston currently owns a 25-22 record and would be the 8th seed in the Western Conference if the playoffs started today. As previous years have shown, the West’s playoff race is often extremely tight, and the Rockets are far from certain to avoid a fourth consecutive trip to the lottery. The Rockets’ chances of making the playoffs are primarily a function of two factors: Houston’s own performance and that of its Western Conference peers. What follows is an analysis of these two factors and an attempt to provide a clearer picture of Houston’s playoff hopes.
The teams that the Rockets will likely have to fight for the 7th or 8th seed include the Jazz, Blazers, Mavericks, and Lakers. These teams currently rank 7th, 9th, 10th, and 11th respectively in the West. There are a number of ways (besides current record) to compare the current and projected future performances of different teams. I will look at four separate criteria: offensive/defensive efficiency, Pythagorean wins expectation, strength of schedule, and John Hollinger’s playoff odds.
According to Hoopdata, the Rockets rank 9th in offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) and 20th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions). Other than the Lakers (6th in offensive efficiency), the other teams competing with Houston for a playoff spot are all inferior offensively. On the defensive end, these five teams are quite similar, ranking in the range of 19th-24th in the league. By these metrics, the Rockets appear to be one of the better teams within this group.
Pythagorean wins uses a team’s point differential to project an expected win-loss record. Among these five teams, Houston has the highest point differential (+2.5 points per game) and consequently has the best expected record, at 49-32. In fact, the Lakers are the only other team in this group with a positive scoring margin and a projected record above 0.500. To date, Houston has underperformed its expected record: the Pythagorean wins formula expects Houston to have 28-19 record at this point in the season, whereas the Rockets’ actual record is 25-22. Part of this discrepancy is due to the fact that Houston’s many blowout wins inflate the Rockets’ scoring margin, making them seem better than they may actually be. For example, Houston’s most recent win against the Jazz (by a staggering 45 points) increased the Rockets’ average scoring margin from +1.6 to +2.5 points per game.
So far, Houston has played the 7th toughest schedule in the league, a schedule that will get easier the rest of the way—the winning percentage of its future opponents is 2% lower than that of its previous opponents. Among these five teams, only the Lakers have played a tougher schedule. The other three teams will all see their schedules increase in difficulty, making the road to the playoffs that much more tortuous.
In part reflecting some of the factors mentioned above, Hollinger’s Playoff Odds place Houston at a robust 86% probability to make the playoffs, far and away the highest number within this cohort. For curiosity’s sake, the Jazz are estimated to have a 45% chance of making the playoffs, the Lakers 30%, the Blazers 24%, and the Mavericks 17%. If these numbers are to be trusted, it seems more than likely that the Rockets will be making a postseason appearance come May.
Besides simply assessing the Rockets’ playoff chances, there are a few more points to consider. From a practical viewpoint, the Rockets’ making the playoffs has implications for next year’s draft since the Houston will forfeit their 2013 first round pick to Atlanta if it falls outside the lottery. On the other hand, does this roster really need another player chosen in the middle of the first round, especially given current difficulties in finding playing time for the likes of D-Mo, Terrence Jones, and Royce White?
From a normative perspective, should the Rockets be trying to make the playoffs? How valuable is playoff experience for young, unproven teams? Would a first round sweep against the Thunder or the Clippers really be all that useful of a learning experience? Then again, there is little downside (except maybe some minimal additional injury risk) and something to be gained for the franchise in terms of additional revenue in ticket/merchandise sales (the Rockets are guaranteed at least two home games). In any event, I’m excited to see how the rest of the season plays out and how Houston’s young core would respond if given the opportunity to pay a premature visit to the NBA postseason.