An Inside Look at the Rockets

3 ways the Rockets can salvage their season

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.

  1. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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After the Mariners came alive late in Monday's series opener to hand the Houston the loss and keep their playoff picture hanging in the balance, the Astros returned to T-Mobile Park on Tuesday to try and decrease their magic number. Here's how the middle game went:

Final Score: Astros 6, Mariners 1.

Record: 28-27, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Framber Valdez (5-3, 3.57 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Casey Sadler (1-2, 5.40 ERA).

Both teams trade first-inning runs

The Astros struck first in Tuesday's game, not waiting around until the ninth inning to get on the board. Instead, they jumped out to an immediate 1-0 lead after a two-out RBI-single by Kyle Tucker in the top of the first. The Mariners responded quickly, though, getting a leadoff single in the bottom of the inning before a two-out RBI-double of their own to tie it 1-1.

Astros score five in the sixth

The 1-1 score held all the way until the top of the sixth when the Astros would flip the script from the night prior, taking advantage of some mistakes by Seattle to put up a big inning. First, Michael Brantley started the inning with a solo go-ahead homer to make it 2-1. Then, Kyle Tucker would get his third hit of the night with one out before eventually scoring after a walk and two wild pitches, making it 3-2. With two walks to keep the inning alive and put some insurance runs on base, Martin Maldonado took advantage with a big three-run home run to extend the lead to 6-1.

Valdez finishes seven strong, Astros even series

After allowing the one run in the bottom of the first, Framber Valdez recovered and put together a solid outing on the mound. He allowed just five hits total, two of which came in the first, then back-to-back singles in the fourth and a single in the fifth, while otherwise keeping the Mariners at bay. He would end up completing seven innings of one-run baseball while striking out eight. His final line: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 8 K, 0 HR, 108 P.

After Valdez, Enoli Paredes would take over in the bottom of the eighth, working around a leadoff single to get a scoreless inning to keep it 6-1. In the non-save situation, Josh James would come in for the bottom of the ninth and finish off the win for Houston.

Up Next: The finale and rubber game of this three-game set will start a bit earlier on Wednesday, with first pitch scheduled for 5:40 PM Central. The pitching matchup will be Nick Margevicius (1-3, 5.35 ERA) for the Mariners going against Zack Greinke (3-2, 3.90 ERA) for the Astros.

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