The Houston Rockets have been performing a pretty familiar song and dance this season, essentially mirroring last season's march toward mediocrity. Houston was able to acquire Kevin Martin at the trading deadline last season, and he boosted their offense for moribund to solid. But the bigger problem has been replacing Yao Ming, as his injuries have left a combination of the scrappy non-scoring Chuck Hayes, the enigmatic Jordan Hill, and the heady Brad Miller to roam center this season. While each player brings something to the table, the Rockets desperately need a big man who can be the sum of those parts rather than just having a lone specialty. The defense has struggled mightily, and it isn't from a lack of effort so much as it is a lack of talent in the post.
So on one hand, it's easy to dismiss this team from playoff contention. They're currently the 11th seed in the West, 4.5 games out of the last playoff spot. Statistically though, the Rockets have outperformed their record to some extent. By John Hollinger's power rankings, the Rockets are the 12th best team in the league. They're outscoring their opponents (albeit narrowly) by 0.1 points per game. They've also dealt with their share of injuries. The Yao fallout forced the Rockets to essentially build a new rotation from scratch, and Aaron Brooks being out was a big problem for a team that doesn't have many good scorers to begin with.
Lets assume that the top 6 in the West are safe, as per Hollinger's latest playoff odds, all six of them are 90%+ favorites to make the playoffs. That leaves the Rockets with these teams in front of them to jump:
The Jazz have had tremendous problems with depth this year, and past Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko, their main rotation players aren't much on the defensive end. The Jazz are actually very statistically similar to Houston: they've outscored their opponents by 0.1 PPG and are a much better offensive team than a defensive team. The Jazz have a true star in Williams though, while the Rockets rely much more on their depth.
The Blazers have dealt with so many injuries this year that it's a miracle they're even in the playoff hunt right now. Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, and Marcus Camby are all down right now. A remarkable number of their minutes are going to guys like Patty Mills and Dante Cunningham; gems in the rough. LaMarcus Aldridge has dragged them to total mediocrity: they have scored and allowed roughly the same number of points, and the team is 15th out of 30 teams in both offensive rating and defensive rating. They've been hot recently, but a look at their roster would have you concluding that they're not really a threat to make the playoffs. Which isn't to say they couldn't do it, it just seems the scout's opinion of them would be down at this point.
Memphis probably has the most talent of any of the teams in this chase. Other than possibly Mike Conley, they start players that every team would be lucky to have, and a lot of them have well-defined roles under Lionel Hollins. It's a little surprising that their offense is the weak point of their game, but they make up for it with a pretty solid defense. Marc Gasol is tough down low and they have a stable of solid perimeter defenders like OJ Mayo and Xavier Henry. I'd say that they're probably the favorite to take one of these spots on talent and statistical makeup, but it's not exactly a runaway.
Finally, the Suns are Steve Nash and a pile of sadness right now. Vince Carter has always played with sand in his shorts, but now he finally seems to be washed up. Grant Hill has played admirably for a player of his age, and Josh Childress and Marcin Gortat are decent role players, but it's clear Nash has no real second banana at this stage. The Suns also are allergic to defense, and that's why they give up 106.4 PPG, which would be the worst in the league if not for the sadness that is the Cleveland Cavaliers. I don't regard the Suns as a true threat to the playoffs, even if they are ahead of the Rockets right now.
Do the Rockets have any edges left? Well, Daryl Morey is certainly one of the most creative GM's in the league. If anyone could find a way to get that big man the Rockets so desperately need, it's him. They also will get a boost from the schedule: the Rockets play only four more games against the Top Six west teams all season, and only two games against the best of the East: Miami and Boston. To put that in perspective: they have five games left against the Cavs, 76ers, and Nets. And it doesn't get much harder after those teams.
However, if we're giving a spot to Memphis, then the Rockets have a lot of ground to make up on the Jazz: six games back with just 30 to play. The Jazz will have a much rougher schedule than the Rockets do, including an April stretch with five games against the West's Top Six, but that's a lot of ground to catch up on. If the Jazz play .500 ball, they'd finish 45-37. The Rockets would have to go 22-8 to catch them. That's just about .750 ball, and though the schedule is easy, it's not THAT easy.
Catching the No. 8 seed would be a little easier mathematically, but the Rockets would have to outperform a team that is better than them statistically and ahead of them in the standings. That probably won't happen without a trade.
Does 30% sound about right to you? The Rockets have a 32.9% chance to make the playoffs in the Hollinger Playoff Odds. I don't think even that number holds up without a trade, as the Rockets are clearly missing a lot down low. 15-20% sounds a little closer to reality. Could they do it? Sure. Will they do it? Unless they swindle away a lot of help at the deadline and keep playing well until the reinforcements arrive, it's not likely.