Chris Paul and the Rockets have 3 options. Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
How can the Rockets salvage their season?
The 15-14 Houston Rockets enter Wednesday night's game in precarious territory. On one hand, it is true that the Houston Rockets have developed a strong offensive identity as of late that has led to a four game winning streak. On the other, the Rockets are still a flawed, inconsistent basketball team that has gone through winning streaks like this before this season. The minute you think you've figured Houston out, they morph into something completely different.
So how do you salvage a mediocre season that started with title aspirations? Is there even enough time left to salvage it? These are the tough questions that face Daryl Morey and the rest of Houston's front office as they try to navigate out of somewhat familiar waters.
The major difference between the 2015-16 Rockets and the 2018-19 Rockets is that Houston had much greater financial flexibility in 2016 considering Dwight Howard was expected to opt out of his contract. The Rockets operated knowing they would have the capital to retool and chase free agents like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. This season, Houston is a team that's deep into the luxury tax - making it really difficult to operate as there isn't a pending life raft on the way.
By trading for Chris Paul last summer and giving him a four-year max contract, Houston effectively capped their title window at the next 2-3 years. Both of these moves were reasonable and defensible at the time, but it's put the Rockets in a bind that they didn't think they would have to worry about until the latter years of Paul's contract. Houston effectively has three ways they can salvage the season.
- Win yourself back into the title contention conversation
While this is obviously the most preferred path, it's also the most difficult. The Houston Rockets currently sit at the 10th seed in a brutally tough Western Conference. It's true that they've been on somewhat of a roll as of late, but they have not shown they can be trusted to be consistent this season. They take four steps forward only to take three steps back.
The main ingredients to succeed are still present (James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela), but their supporting cast has been incredibly shaky this season. Relying on contributions from rookies like Gary Clark and Danuel House Jr., the Rockets will have to make some serious roster moves to catapult themselves back to the top. They need defensive contributors, shooting, and perhaps some extra size to help with their rebounding woes. While difficult and unlikely, this path is possible because Houston is only 2.5 games back from home-court advantage.
2) Stay competitive while maintaining flexibility to retool this summer
This is the most likely outcome and also what the Rockets did in 2015-16. Houston made a late push for the playoffs that year and took a game off of a 73 win Warriors squad and didn't sacrifice any flexibility to do so.
It's in Houston's best interest to keep this summer in mind while they make all their moves and also stay competitive. In path one, the Rockets can afford to trade for bad contracts as they'd be a contender looking to win it all this season. In path two, the Rockets can only trade for good contracts/assets that they could easily flip this summer in trades.
Prudence is key here. While trading multiple first round picks might make you better in the short term, it won't help in the long-run if the Rockets want to properly re-tool for contention next year.
3) Take the season off, retool around James Harden, grab a high draft pick, and live to fight another day
This is basically your "break in case of emergency" path. The Rockets are unlikely to entertain wasting a year of Harden's prime unless it gets truly dire for Houston. However, the Memphis Grizzlies have shown that taking a year off and acquiring a high-ceiling player like Jarren Jackson Jr. in the draft can be greatly improve your long-term prospects.
This path may also involve cutting ties to a player like Chris Paul and Eric Gordon in favor of better contracts, assets, and draft picks. Again, this path is meant to be drastic as it means the Rockets were in a worse situation than we thought they were. While it may not be attractive to keep your powder dry, make long term trades, and shut down players, it's been done before and can rejuvenate a franchise if done correctly.
I would like the reiterate that it's highly unlikely Houston goes down this path. It's just worth discussing as an option if things get dark for the Rockets.
While the Rockets have a lot of things going against them, including age and salary cap, they also couple of saving graces for the long-term:
- James Harden and Clint Capela are locked in under contract until the 2022-23 season. When your best player is under contract is bought into team culture for the long-term, it's much easier to make decisions. Clint Capela, in addition to being a burgeoning star center, is also possibly Houston's best trade chip. His contract is very team friendly and valuable.
- Daryl Morey is one of the best general managers in the league and he has been in this situation before. The Rockets have had a steady hand guide them under Morey's tenure and while the front office didn't have the greatest summer, there's five other summers you can point to that more than make up for it. Few other general managers have the kind of rope with the basketball media that Morey has and he's earned it.
It should be interesting to see how the Rockets intend to go about this season.
Ronald Acuña Jr. and Corbin Carroll just got a little more dangerous. Same for Bobby Witt Jr., Elly De La Cruz and the rest of baseball's fastest players.
Major League Baseball wants umpires to crack down on obstruction, and the commissioner's office outlined plans during a call with managers this week. MLB staff also will meet managers in person during spring training to go over enforcement.
The increased emphasis is only on the bases and not at home plate. The focus is on infielders who drop a knee or leg down in front of a bag while receiving a throw, acting as a deterrence for aggressive baserunning and creating an increased risk of injuries.
“I think with everything, they’re trying to make the game a little safer to avoid some unnecessary injuries," Phillies shortstop Trea Turner said Friday at the team's facility in Florida. “The intentions are always good. It comes down to how it affects the players and the games. I’m sure there will be plays where one team doesn’t like it or one team does.”
With more position players arriving at spring training every day, the topic likely will come up more and more as teams ramp up for the season.
“We'll touch on that. We'll show them some video of what’s good and what’s not,” Texas Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “You know, it’s going to be a little adjustment.”
Making obstruction a point of emphasis fits in with an ongoing effort by MLB to create more action. Obstruction calls are not reviewable, which could lead to some disgruntled players and managers as enforcement is stepped up, but it also means it won't create long replay deliberations.
A package of rule changes last season — including pitch clocks, bigger bases and limits on defensive shifts and pickoff attempts — had a dramatic effect. There were 3,503 stolen bases in the regular season, up from 2,486 in 2022 and the most since 1987.
MLB changed a different baserunning rule this offseason, widening the runner’s lane approaching first base to include a portion of fair territory. MLB also shortened the pitch clock with runners on base by two seconds to 18 and further reducing mound visits in an effort to speed games.
“Last year, you know, a lot of our preparation was around like, especially just the unknown of the clock and making sure like we’re really buttoned up on that," New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "These guys are so used to it in so many ways that sometimes I even forget.”
Increased enforcement could lead to more action on the basepaths. But a significant element of MLB's motivation is injury prevention.
Top players have hurt hands or wrists on headfirst slides into bases blocked by a fielder. White Sox slugger Luis Robert Jr. sprained his left wrist when he slid into Jonathan Schoop's lower left leg on a steal attempt during an August 2022 game against Detroit.
“It’s been happening for a while. It’s been getting out of control," Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “I know some of the players complained about it the last two years.”
While acknowledging his reputation as a significant offender, Phillies second baseman Bryson Stott didn't sound too worried about his play.
“We like to fight for outs at second base,” he said. "It’s never on purpose, blocking the base. For me, or someone covering second to the shortstop side, it’s a natural move for your knee to go down to reach the ball. It’s never intentional. I guess we’ll figure out how to maneuver around that.”