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Amidst Melo Drama, Rockets find a groove with shortened rotation

Amidst Melo Drama, Rockets find a groove with shortened rotation
Mike D'Antoni has shortened the bench. Harry How/Getty Images

Amidst constant Carmelo Anthony chatter, the Houston Rockets have found themselves playing good basketball again for the first time since the 2017-18 season came to a close. Good is relative of course, as the Rockets aren’t nearly the same basketball team that stepped off the court in May. However, since their 1-5 start, they have won 5 out of their last 7 games (capped off by an impressive 109-99 win over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday) and have shown minor glimpses of last year’s team.

 

So, how are they doing this? A few reasons.

Defensive identity coming into shape

Since James Ennis returned from injury and was placed into the starting lineup, the Rockets saw huge dividends defensively almost immediately. It's not as if Ennis is a lockdown defender, but he's miles above Carmelo Anthony - who Houston had to start in Ennis’ absence. The Rockets were allowing a blistering 111.0 points per 100 possessions when Anthony was on the floor.

To put that into perspective, that's equivalent to the 26th ranked defense in the NBA. When Anthony is off the floor, the Rockets only allow 103.2 points per 100 possessions - which would be equivalent to the third best defense in the NBA. Now it's important to note that Anthony wasn't the source to all of Houston's problems. However, he certainly wasn't the solution to many of them either.

In addition to swapping Ennis for Anthony, rookie Gary Clark is seeing a huge surge in minutes. The 6'8” swingman has been a stud defensively and slowly gaining Houston's trust more and more, including coach D'Antoni.

Shots are starting to fall

As of November 10th, the Rockets had the worst field goal percentage in the league (41.3%) along with the 28th ranked 3-PT percentage (31.7%). It was unlikely they would shoot this poorly for very long.

On Sunday, GM Daryl Morey talked about how the Rockets liked the quality of the shots they were getting, but just weren't making them. After defeating the Indiana Pacers with an offensive explosion, James Harden echoed the same sentiment.

In Houston's last two games, they've shot 51.7% from the field and 39.3% from 3-PT range (2nd and 7th in that span respectively). James Harden and Chris Paul have started to round into form after slow starts and it's fueled good offensive performances. It'll be interesting to see how long this progression to the mean lasts, but I'm sure the Rockets welcome as much of it as they can.

Shrunken rotation

And finally, possibly the biggest reason for Houston's turnaround is the deliberate shrinking of the rotation. Most people view a short rotation in the regular season to be a bad thing, but for the Rockets, it's a very welcome change. Houston is a very thin team this season and after their first 8-9 guys, there is a noticeable drop-off in quality of production.

The Rockets viewed Anthony, Michael-Carter Williams, and Marquese Chriss as worthwhile gambles, but after 11 regular season games, it's clear why their former teams jettisoned them. Head coach Mike D'Antoni has effectively eliminated them from the rotation and it has since led to a leaner, more effective team. By cutting the fat in negative minutes out of the rotation, the Rockets are able to give themselves a higher percentage chance of winning games.

It's worth questioning the long-term effects of the shortened rotation (fatigue, injuries, etc…), but with the Rockets just a game below .500, they have to be thinking with a short-term perspective until they right the ship. D'Antoni has been a coach criticized for his use of short rotations in the past, but it's hard to question when you look at his alternative options.

The eventual returns of Gerald Green (illness - likely the first to return), Nene Hilario (calf strain), and Brandon Knight (knee) should help, but Houston will have to address it's depth issues at some point in the season. They have most of their taxpayer mid-level exception remaining to spend on players who get bought out or waived. Additionally, they have all of their first round picks moving forward if they decide to make a more significant move.

What matters is the Rockets are on the right track. Questions of minutes distribution and depth can be resolved when Houston has the luxury to think long-term.

 

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Have the Astros turned the corner? Photo by Jack Gorman/Getty Images.

One presumes the Chicken Littles have stopped clucking about the Astros’ season being a goner, or if not gone, on life support. It wasn’t when they were 7-19. It wasn’t when they were 12-24. It certainly isn’t now that they’ve won six straight games and eight of their last nine. Another three or four weeks of inept play could have doomed them, but the worm has turned. A 20-25 record is no cause for celebration, but it has the Astros within four games of first place. Yes, getting to play the A’s four times this week helped. And?

I detailed the schedule issue on our Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast this week. The Astros were flat lousy for the season’s first six weeks. But… Starting the week the Astros had played a whopping 32 of their 40 games against teams with a winning record as of Monday. The Seattle Mariners had played 23 such games, the Texas Rangers only 16. The Philadelphia Phillies have been sensational so far and are fully legit. But… The Phillies entered the weekend having played three games vs. teams now sporting a winning record. Three! Out of 45 games. Going into this weekend's series only the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels had played more games against winning teams than had the Astros. It’s not mere coincidence that the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels are the three last place teams in the American League. The Astros were not up to the challenge of their first quarter schedule, but by no means did it render them dead, particularly in the thus far Mild, Mild, American League West.

A good Brewers team visits Minute Maid Park for three games this weekend. The Astros beat their best starter Friday night. Next the Astros get the pathetic Angels here for three before a three-game series at Oakland. Meanwhile the West leading Mariners start a ten-game road trip this weekend: three at the excellent Orioles, four at the excellent Yankees, three at the respectable Nationals. The Astros stand a good chance of overtaking the M’s by the end of this month if they can win the four-game series they open Memorial Day in Seattle.

Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers snapped a five game losing streak Wednesday to eke back over .500 at 23-22. The reigning World Series champs hope to get somewhat well vs. the Angels in Arlington this weekend but dropped the series opener to drop back to .500. For their sake they better because the Rangers then hit the road for Philadelphia and Minnesota.

Naturally, many Astros fans are upset with Ronel Blanco serving a 10 game suspension for illegally using whatever substance on his glove and non-pitching hand. The suspension is basically automatic. The suspension is also not a big problem. Blanco has been fantastic since getting a starting rotation spot only because of Justin Verlander’s delayed start to his season. It’s said that all life owes us is opportunity. Man, did Blanco seize his. With just seven big league starts to his name before entering this season as a 30-year old, Blanco has made eight this season with a sparkling 2.09 earned run average. So, what’s that about the suspension is not a big problem?

Blanco will miss one start and have another pushed back a day or two. That’s just not a big deal. In fact it may be helpful in the bigger picture. With last year being the first time in his professional career that Blanco topped 100 innings pitched (125 1/3), the Astros need to be wary of Blanco’s workload which is on pace to blow past last year’s career-high innings total. J.P. France probably pitched over his head for a while last year, but went well past his prior career-high innings total and faded badly. Cristian Javier was tremendous in 2022 while pitching more than in any previous year, but he pitched even more in 2023 and faded badly.

Alex Bregman lives! After being nearly inconceivably inept through the first quarter of the season, the Alex awakening in the Oakland series was not shocking but most welcomed. Over his first 37 games Bregman had a paltry seven extra base hits. Even with a feeble .201 batting average and .534 OPS, that Bregman had scored just eight runs over those 37 games was hard to believe. Then Monday and Tuesday saw five extra base hits and four runs scored.

In a trade not commanding any headlines, Dana Brown Wednesday sent outfielder Corey Julks to the White Sox for 20-year-old low minor league pitcher Luis Rodriguez. There is now no reason to call it a great Astros trade but Brown made a smart deal. Julks had no future here, hence he would have been released if no deal was struck. Taking a flyer on a young arm can’t hurt. Frankly, the White Sox are dumb to trade a young arm of any promise whatsoever for a 28-year-old outfielder with limited value. Julks was a nice story for parts of last season. The Clear Brook High School grad and UH product had a couple windows of production, highlighted by a sizzling nine game 17 for 34 stretch straddling June and July. Alas, not two weeks later Julks began what would become an 0 for 36 nightmare. He was sent to the minors for good in late-August.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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