GIVE HARDEN A BREAK

Before making your mind up about James Harden, consider this

Before making your mind up about James Harden, consider this
Rockets fans were not happy with Harden. Photo by Getty Images

There was something different about the Houston Rockets first practice of the 2020-21 NBA season. For the first time in nearly a decade, serial scoring champ James Harden wasn't there. And the first pre-season game is Friday, with the official season tipping off in less than two weeks.

If not in camp, then where was Harden? He spent last Thursday in Atlanta celebrating the birthday of his best friend and famed trap rapper, Lil Baby. After the party, he flew to Las Vegas for more weekend partying before returning home – at least for now – Houston.

Rockets fans were not happy with Harden skipping class, especially after a video surfaced on Twitter showing the Beard presenting Lil Baby a Prada duffle bag stuffed with $100,000 cash, a $300,000 Richard Mille watch and a bunch of honeybuns.

Because he was out-of-town last week, Harden must test negative three more times for COVID-19 before he is allowed to team practices. Not helping matters, in all the photographs published from Harden's weekend fiesta, there wasn't a single soul wearing a mask.

Since appearing in Atlanta and Las Vegas, Harden has quickly bolted up the list of Houston athletes that fans want out of the Bayou City. Harden reportedly has told Rockets management that while he'd prefer to be traded to the Brooklyn Nets, he'd accept a swap to the Philadelphia 76'ers. It was announced overnight that Harden added the Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks to his list. While breaking up is hard to do, deep down can you really blame Harden for wanting to leave the Rockets? Former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who either resigned or was fired by team owner Tilman Fertitta, is now the boss man in Philadelphia. Harden and Morey were soulmates trying to capture an NBA title for Houston. Although the tandem failed to reach the promised land, it's obvious they wouldn't mind chasing the goal in Philadelphia.

Many longtime Rockets fans have turned on the reigning 3-time NBA scoring champ. But have they considered that maybe Harden would benefit from an occasional day off like, you know, LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard or equivalent superstars? Harden is hardly the first sports veteran to find any excuse to miss the opening few days of training camp.

Bear in mind, because of COVID-19, this was the briefest NBA off-season. Doesn't it feel like we watched the Los Angeles Lakers win the bubble title only a couple of months ago? Actually, the Lakers brushed aside the Heat on Oct. 11 – less than two months ago. Harden, the ultimate gym rat and workhorse, was third in the league in minutes played last season. OK, maybe partying in Atlanta and Vegas wasn't the best form of R&R, but Harden was entitled to some extra time off. Give Harden a break.

NBA off-seasons typically last more than four months. The upcoming season will not be played in a bubble, but the league is asking players to avoid bars and other risky places and situations. That's not exactly the lifestyle Harden is known for – not by a longshot.

"While in their team's home market, team personnel will be prohibited from going to bars, lounges or clubs, from attending live entertainment or sports events, from using gyms, spas or pools, or from participating in social gatherings with more than 15 people," stated the NBA outline for the 2020-2021.

And it doesn't get much better on the road.

"On the road, players, coaches and staff will be permitted to dine outside their hotels if the restaurants provide outdoor dining, have fully privatized indoor rooms, or have met requirements to be formally approved by the league and the players' union. The NBA and NBAPA will work to provide a list of at least three approved restaurants in each market."

Say what you want about Harden, but once he tests negative three more times, he will return to the unstoppable offensive force we have come to know and once loved. Harden is entering a new chapter in his career. There is a new GM, a new coach, new teammates, and a new style of play. Before fans trash him, they need to walk a mile in his basketball shoes - $94 on sale this week at adidas.com.

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The Astros are back in action Friday night against Seattle. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros were a season low 12 games under .500 (12-24) on May 8th but were able to turn things around and entered the All-Star break with a respectable 50-46 record.

The turnaround can be attributed to better performances on the field by a multitude of players, but there are still things that could be improved to ensure a successful second half of the season.

As it currently stands, Houston is only one game behind the Seattle Mariners in the American League West division race, and the Astros should have key players returning from injury to further bolster their playoff ambitions.

The return of the King

Kyle Tucker has been on the injured list with a shin contusion for six weeks now, and looks to return in the near future.

The Astros have done surprisingly well without their three-time All-Star outfielder thanks to contributions from guys like Joey Loperfido, Jake Meyers and Marcio Dubon in the outfield. Plus, Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman, Yanier Diaz and Jeremy Pena carrying the offense while King Tuck is away.

Before getting hurt, the 27-year-old was hitting .266/.395/.584 through 60 games. Houston already has one of the best offenses in baseball, and adding Tucker back would give the Astros another high-quality bat to further bolster their lineup.

The latest update is Tucker has been playing catch and could start a rehab assignment soon if all goes well.

Fix the rotation

Starting pitching has been a major issue this season due to a multitude of injuries.

Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and J.P. France have all been lost for the year with various surgeries and guys like Justin Verlander and Luis Garcia are trying to work their way back from their injured list stints.

Garcia was recently pulled from his rehab assignment and won’t pitch again until he is ready. Meanwhile, Verlander could be closer to his return and is throwing bullpen sessions as of July 14. Getting both of these pitchers back at some point this season will be a huge boost to this roster.

The current Astros’ rotation consists of Framber Valdez, Ronel Blanco, Hunter Brown, Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss. Although not a bad rotation by any means, the starting pitching depth is getting pretty thin and Houston can ill afford another injury to their staff.

Astros general manager Dana Brown has been vocal about his desire to add starting pitching, and could have some options heading into the trade deadline. Players like Jack Flaherty, Garrett Crochet or Yusei Kikuchi, just to name a few, could be low risk high reward pitchers the Astros could acquire to add depth to their rotation.

Another option would be to call up A.J. Blubaugh from Sugar Land. The 24-year-old has a 6-2 record with a 3.46 ERA in 71.1 innings pitched this season for the Space Cowboys and could be a necessary depth piece to add to the rotation.

Play Astros baseball

The Astros have been playing better baseball as of late and have won 18 of their last 23 games. With players like Kyle Tucker and Justin Verlander potentially returning soon, there is reason to believe Houston can make the playoffs for the 8th consecutive season.

The 'Stros will try to take sole possession of first place in their division from the Mariners when the two teams meet for three games at T-Mobile Park starting on Friday night.

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