LOOKING AHEAD

Del Olaleye: 3 biggest roster questions for the Rockets in the offseason

Del Olaleye: 3 biggest roster questions for the Rockets in the offseason
Should the Rockets pay Clint Capela? Jason Miller

After 99 games the Rockets season is done, leaving a number of people with a “where do we go from here” feeling. After nearly 100 games of meaningful basketball there are no more Rockets games on the schedule. Free Agency is over a month away so improving the roster outside of trades will take a little time. Despite being a championship contender and one win away from a Finals appearance the Rockets roster could go through plenty of upheaval. There are questions about the starters and bench players alike. Here are some of the roster questions the Rockets have to answer as they try to gear up for another title run.

What to do with Chris Paul?

The answer seems simple. The unrestricted free agent was the catalyst for a Rockets team that was one win away from the NBA Finals. Bringing back the 13-year veteran will be a priority. The debate should be about for how long as opposed to how much. At 33 years old Paul may have two years of elite point guard play left. Are the Rockets willing to guarantee Paul max money when he’s 36 and 37 to keep him from considering another destination this offseason?

Is Trevor Ariza a part of the Rockets Future?

The swingman certainly didn’t leave a great final impression if he moves on from the Rockets in the offseason. His poor shooting in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals was historically bad. Ariza is 32 years old and may be looking for one last relatively big deal. What does an older “3 and D” guy command in free agency? Take a look at what the Rockets gave PJ Tucker during the 2017 offseason. Tucker was the same age as Ariza is now at the time of his signing. He got four years and $31 million. Are the Rockets willing to give Ariza a salary that averages just less than $8 million per season and for multiple years as well? Those salaries are moderate by NBA standards but signing multiple 30+ year olds to multi-year deals in two consecutive offseasons doesn’t appear to be the Morey way.

Is Capela at Max Money the right way to go?

Clint Capela’s continued growth on both ends of the floor helped change this Rockets team. It also made him a target of teams with money to spend . Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has made it clear that Capela along with Paul are top priorities this offseason. Capela at 24 years old is the only Rockets starter besides James Harden that is under 30. He is not only part of the Rockets present but has the ability to be part of their future long after most of the current rotation has aged itself out of championship contention. Does a team obsessed with beating the current version of the Golden State Warriors pay a player max money when his offense is generated by others? The Warriors are elite on the perimeter. Is Capela’s presence in the paint a great equalizer or should the Rockets try to match the Warriors on the outside?

There will be multiple elite wing players on the open market. LeBron James and Paul George being chief among them. Would you take Paul George, James Harden and Chris Paul for the next four years over Capela, Harden and Paul? That could be a question the Rockets are faced with if the math and money gets a little tight.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*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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