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Should We Reconsider the Rockets’ Ceiling? And the NBA’s Other Biggest Questions of the Week

Houston is starting to make some noise—and it doesn’t sound like it’s coming from a trash can. Plus, Zion’s chances of stealing Rookie of the Year, Steph Curry’s return, and examining the scraps in the free-agent market.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA news cycle moves faster than the Giannis-Harden beef escalated. So every Monday this season, we’ll be looking at the most important story lines, trends, and talking points for the week ahead. Welcome to the NBA’s Biggest Questions of the Week.

Is It Time to Reconsider the Rockets’ Ceiling?

The morning after Saturday’s Rockets-Celtics thriller, I watched a supercut of Russell Westbrook’s highlights from his 41-point, eight-rebound, five-assist masterpiece, and found myself grinning. There was no triple-double to throw up on a graphic, and most importantly, no bad shooting night from Westbrook to wince at. He took two 3s, made one, and shot nearly 60 percent from the field, while relentlessly annihilating the rim:

In this modern basketball nirvana Houston has created on the fly, vintage Russ has been combined with a new, efficient Russ to provide one of the better stories of the season. Since doubling down and going hyper-small with Westbrook as their de facto center, the Rockets are 7-2 and have won six straight. They are 39-20 and now only 1.5 games out of the 2-seed in the West. Every time they face a new opponent, they become a riddle for the other team to try to solve. Houston has always been a tough out; now it’s a tough team to figure out. How do you match up with a supercharged point guard masquerading as a center? The change has undeniably raised the Rockets’ ceiling, but just how much is the big question.

With the Lakers and Clippers hovering up top in the West, it seems like Houston belongs in a tier right below with Denver. Both squads are pining to beat the L.A. teams through their own vastly different methods, and it’s a shame that we won’t get to see them face off again this season. Eventually, teams will adjust to the new style of play the Rockets have unleashed, but can they stop it? Right now, that answer is no. This week, the Clippers will travel to Houston to see whether Kawhi Leonard and Co. can slow the Rockets down.

In some ways, Houston’s recent success still seems like a gimmick that won’t stick in the playoffs, but for the Rockets, it’s their last course of action with this roster, and the fact that it’s worked so well already is a success story on its own. And even if the Rockets still top out in the second round this postseason, at least we got to see a version of Russ that made us smile, not wince, again.

When Will Steph Actually Come Back?

As great as this season has been, the overall tone has felt different without Steph, who has been out since October with a hand injury. That’s why it was thrilling to see the news this past week that he would finally make his return on Sunday. Then, the Warriors announced that he wouldn’t be playing Sunday after all and that his return would be sometime later this month. It could still come as soon as this week—the Warriors play in Denver on Tuesday, where altitude may be reason enough to hold Steph out, and host the Raptors on Thursday—but it’s worth inspecting why the Warriors are being extra cautious about all of this.

On the one hand (no pun intended), the Warriors have the worst record in basketball and there’s little immediate upside in trotting out their franchise player during a lost season. What if the notoriously injury-prone star gets hurt again? What if he plays so well that they start winning games and hurt their lottery chances? Curry clearly wants to play and his cachet as the team’s superstar should allow him some decision-making power in this situation. But listening to Steve Kerr address reporters on Saturday, you could tell Curry wasn’t pleased about having to wait longer.

The Warriors have had a season from hell—beginning with Curry’s injury just four games in—and Steph’s possible return has been what amounts to the light at the end of the tunnel. Golden State is also five games up (down?) on the fourth-worst team in the league, so even if the team somehow start to win games, they’ll likely stay in the bottom three, given that they’re still missing Klay Thompson and incorporating recent addition Andrew Wiggins. Sure, there may be no tangible upside to bringing Curry back other than appeasing him and your fan base, but giving your franchise player what he wants, not to mention his ardent supporters, isn’t a bad business strategy either.

Can Zion Steal Rookie of the Year?

Another week, another set of games for Zion Williamson to Kool-Aid Man his way through teams and rack up 20-point nights. After his first two appearances, in which he played fewer than 25 minutes, Zion has scored fewer than 20 points just once in 12 games. It’s the kind of stretch where the eye test matches perfectly with the numbers: His game is captivating, and his numbers don’t just look impressive, they have been meaningful.

In the process, Zion has helped jolt the Pelicans to a 9-6 stretch since he debuted, making them 20-11 since the team’s ghastly 13-game losing streak, and within striking distance of the West’s 8-seed (just 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies). Zion’s per-36 stats over that stretch: 29.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and a steal, while shooting 58 percent from the floor.

Zion’s numbers and the Pelicans’ performance are also intertwined for another reason. If Zion plays all 23 games left in New Orleans’ season, somehow maintains this level of production, and the Pelicans steal the 8-seed, the whispers about Zion’s case for Rookie of the Year may turn into actual votes.

The situation slightly resembles the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year race when Malcolm Brogdon won the award over Joel Embiid, who put up better numbers, but was healthy for only 31 games. Zion will likely end up playing more games than Embiid did, but Ja Morant—who is averaging 17.7 points and seven assists per game—will be much harder to topple than Brogdon. Morant has been a phenom all season, a live wire of constant highlight plays and winning basketball that’s led the Grizzlies to a surprising campaign. Zion would have to go above and beyond what he’s already doing to truly change the narrative. In fact, his singular performance may not even be enough if Ja and the Grizzlies hold on to the 8-seed. Then again, I wouldn’t put anything past him at this point.

Will the Free Agents Left on the Market Offer Any Final Twists?

The buyout market is dead, but the free-agent market is still alive. A few more players trickled out of their respective situations over the weekend before the playoff eligibility deadline, while a few others weren’t so lucky. Both Allen Crabbe and Anthony Tolliver got buyouts from their respective teams and are now free to be signed and play in the postseason. Nothing about either of them screams (or even whispers) intriguing stretch addition, but they might end up on teams that simply need depth or, like the Rockets, think they can unlock a different version of them. Jordan McRae was also bought out over the weekend, but his priority seems to be minutes, which is why he is reportedly leaving a playoff team in Denver to go to a lottery squad in Phoenix.

The most interesting buyout-market players might be the ones who didn’t end up getting bought out before the deadline. Moe Harkless, for example, went from a core member of the playoff-bound Clippers to getting stuck on the Knicks despite the fact that multiple contenders could use him. There’s also Tristan Thompson, who is not only staying put on a tanking team, but now has to share a frontcourt with both Kevin Love and Andre Drummond. (No, I have no idea what Cleveland is doing.)

In semirelated news, the Lakers waived Troy Daniels to create a free roster spot Sunday, and it sounds like they’re looking to fill the spot with another guard. On Monday, the Lakers (who play the Sixers, Bucks, and Clippers this week) will reportedly work out free agent Dion Waiters. Yes, 100 percent yes, make this happen please. In fact, while we’re at it, I need both Waiters and J.R. Smith, who LeBron has posted about (arguably more important than a report), in purple and gold.