It's a battle between two teams fighting to stay in the playoff picture in their respective conferences, when the Houston Rockets visit the Chicago Bulls at the United Center (8:30 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN and Watch ESPN). Our Bulls and Rockets writers chop it up about two underachieving teams.
Calvin Watkins: The Bulls has lost four in a row. How would you sum up this losing streak?
Nick Friedell: Aside from a few bursts of spirit in a couple of these losses, they look like a team that is just going through the motions. The injuries are a big problem, but that doesn't explain why this group hasn't shown much desire to play defense the past few months. Or why the offense continues to struggle so much. The Bulls look like -- and are playing like -- a team that has had its will broken.
Friedell: Should the Rockets be considered the NBA's most disappointing team given the expectations coming into the season?
Watkins: Close, but not as disappointing as the New Orleans Pelicans. It's a shocking decline for the Rockets, however, considering this team played in the Western Conference finals last season, showed so much heart in rallying from a three-games-to-one deficit to beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the conference semis and basically kept the team together in the offseason. The defensive end has been so bad that the front office decides to bolster the bench and the offensive side to try to push the Rockets to a higher seed.
Watkins: Harden and Howard get along. Are they best friends? No. Different personalities? No doubt. But I do believe from talking to each man that there's respect for one another. However, the chemistry hasn't been there on the court. When J.B. Bickerstaff took over for Kevin McHale, he worked with Howard and Harden on their pick-and-roll plays. At times, Howard just doesn't drive to the basket on pick-and-rolls and seems out of place when setting a screen for Harden. Howard doesn't command the ball enough in the post and I think that hurts the Rockets, putting more pressure on Harden to make plays.
How much have the Bulls missed Jimmy Butler?
Friedell: A lot. He is the best two-way player they have. He is responsible for so many things offensively and defensively for a group that is already playing without Joakim Noah after season-ending shoulder surgery and Nikola Mirotic for more than a month because of an appendectomy and related complications. Offensively, the ball actually seems to move better without Butler on the floor, but the Bulls have missed his presence and ability to create when needed.
Friedell: The Rockets tried to make a few moves at the deadline. Were you surprised they didn't make more, especially with Dwight?
Watkins: I didn't believe they would trade Howard because GM Daryl Morey was asking for so much. He wanted to replace that first-round pick he gave up in the Ty Lawson deal. Morey was close to sending Dwight to Milwaukee, but the two sides just couldn't finalize the trade. So when Morey failed to deal Howard, he eventually got that lost first-round pick back when he traded Donatas Motiejunas to Detroit. Motiejunas' back issues forced the deal to be vacated. And just this week, the Rockets signed Michael Beasley and Andrew Goudelock to bolster the offense and the bench. But those signings come with risks.
Friedell: How would you assess the job Bickerstaff has done, and do you think he will be back next season?
Watkins: Bickerstaff has been pretty good. He has called the team out twice, he's not afraid to bench starters -- including Howard and Harden -- for poor play, and I think the team respects him. If he's going to keep the job long term, he has to push the Rockets into the second round of the postseason. One negative against Bickerstaff has been his inability to improve the team on the defensive end despite him being a defensive coach.
Does the schedule get any better for the Bulls?
Friedell: Not really. The Bulls have some difficult games coming up, including a road trip to San Antonio on Thursday. The bigger issue for the Bulls is that even when they do play weaker opponents, you aren't sure which group is going to show up and how tough they will play. They can't overlook anyone at this point with just 22 games left in the regular season and a playoff berth hanging in the balance.
Friedell: Will the Rockets hang on in the playoff race, and do they have any chance at an upset once they get there?
Watkins: At best, the Rockets are the eighth seed, although the Mavericks are falling and the Blazers have a difficult schedule ahead. So Houston is probably no better than a 6-seed. As far as moving past the first round, I doubt it.
Derrick Rose probably won't ever be the same, but is he playing better?
Friedell: He is. He played poorly for the first couple months of the season, but since Christmas, he has looked like a different player. He's more aggressive going to the rim and he is finishing better. He averaged 21.9 points, 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds a game in February. He missed a week because of hamstring tendinitis, but he has gotten back into rhythm the past couple of games.
Watkins: We have about 20-something games left. Will the Bulls get into the playoffs?
Friedell: I still think this team will find a way into the playoffs because I believe they have too much talent -- with a healthy Butler and Rose -- to fall all the way out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Either way, in a championship-or-bust season, this team does not have the mental toughness to compete for a title. There is a lot of frustration surrounding this team in Chicago, and it is deserved, given the expectations this group had before the season.