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Great result for Rockets, but Harden-Paul pairing will be a work in progress

Off the court, James Harden and Chris Paul have been great. They still have work to do on it. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Last night the Houston Rockets upset the Golden State Warriors 122-121 in a thrilling shootout to kick off the regular season. Free agent signings Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker provided a great spark off the bench with 14 and 20 points respectively, to compliment reigning sixth man of the year Eric Gordon and his 24-point effort. It was a great win, and more importantly it was at least the beginning of the answer to the biggest question surrounding the Rockets all offseason:

How will Chris Paul and James Harden look on the floor together?

Well, the short answer is – at the moment – not great. Not terrible, but not great. Paul and Harden seemed to stick to what they know best, which is a lot of iso ball. If one had the ball, the other seemed to sit off in the corner and let them do their thing. Paul went 2-9 from the field (0-4 from 3-point range) for 4 points to go with 11 assists and 8 rebounds, but left the game near the end of the fourth quarter with knee soreness. Harden, meanwhile, dazzled in his debut, turning in a 27 point, 6 rebound, and 10 assist effort.

They ended the game with a combined 21 assists, but the growing pains were fairly evident. Paul found himself in rather unfamiliar territory by playing off ball the majority of the time the two shared the court.

At the moment it’s very obvious that Paul realizes that this is Harden’s team and seemed fine acquiescing the ball handling duties for the time being while he adjusts. Paul was eventually pulled out of the lineup in favor of Gordon near the end of the fourth quarter because of the knee, and when questioned by reporters in the locker room about the benching showed zero frustration. That was a good sign, because it shows that he realizes how talented the Rockets’ lineup is.

At the moment it’s simply too early to grade the Harden/Paul experiment, especially with Paul playing hurt. Injuries are going to be part of the norm with Paul, as they have been throughout his career, but when he’s healthy, he’s still one of the most dangerous point guards in the league.

I personally don’t expect there to be much of an issue. Harden and Paul are far too talented and basketball smart to not make this work.

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Framber Valdez injured his ring finger on Tuesday. Composite image by Jack Brame.

That sure escalated quickly. The news on Framber Valdez went from bad to vastly worse for the Astros with the fractured ring finger on his pitching hand concerning enough that season ending surgery is on the radar. Valdez is/was no sure thing to have been a first time quality full season starting pitcher, but seemed a decent bet after his maturity-driven albeit short season breakout 2020.

37-year-old Zack Greinke is the only member of the Astros' starting rotation to have thrown even 130 innings in a big league season. Greinke showed notable slippage in 2020. A by-product of the funky short season, or Father Time making a move? If Greinke further erodes, uh oh. It's all question marks behind him.

Lance McCullers got to the big leagues in 2015. Six years later McCullers has zero seasons under his belt in which he both pitched well and stayed healthy. If he hits that exacta in 2021 it's great for the Astros of course, greater for McCullers with free agency arriving at season's end. Particularly confounding with McCullers is that over his career he's been outstanding at Minute Maid Park, and basically sucked on the road. Career earned run average at MMP: 2.51. Career ERA everywhere else: 4.99. That's absurd. It's certainly not as if MMP is some great pitchers' park.

"Crafty" is typically applied to left-handed pitchers. Jose Urquidy seems a crafty right-hander. But since missing the 2017 season recovering from Tommy John surgery Urquidy has topped 100 innings worked once. Cristian Javier has some electric stuff and showed very well as a rookie. Javier has never thrown 115 innings in a professional season.

The odds are long against McCullers, Urquidy, and Javier all pitching well and staying healthy all season. Valdez didn't come close to making it to Opening Day. The best internal candidates to replace Framber (or anyone else) are Luis Garcia and the extremely-hyped thus far dud but still just 23 years old Forrest Whitley.

Woeful Rockets

It certainly isn't paying homage to James Harden that has the Rockets on a 13 game losing streak as they mercifully take their All-Star break. They're just that bad. Watching them is like watching a helpless fly tossed into a spider web game after game. Out of the break the Rockets play at Sacramento Thursday. The Kings are no good, but the Rockets are worse. A loss there all but guarantees matching the Houston Rockets' longest ever losing streak of 15 since the following night they play at Utah. If you care about them the Rockets are painful to watch. Hapless, helpless, hopeless. Their best shot at accelerating what might be a years long path back to relevance is to keep on stinking. The Rockets have the third worst record in the NBA. The three worst teams have equal chances at getting picks one through four in the draft. It's a 14 percent shot at number one, a 52 percent shot of being in the top four. The fourth worst team has a 48 percent chance of picking in the top four. If the Rockets are not in the top four, they lose their pick to Oklahoma City as a payoff of the awful Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade.

Watt signs with Cardinals

J.J. Watt could have least acknowledged "Of course the money the Cardinals offered had plenty to do with me picking them!" Off an 8-8 season in which they faded down the stretch the Cards have an interesting squad with some serious upside, especially if Kyler Murray makes a leap in his third season at quarterback. But no way are the Cardinals presently a first tier Super Bowl contender. We don't know for certain who Watt's other "finalists" were and what they offered. Seems a lock that none of them offered 23 million dollars guaranteed or two years 31 million total. Money is another scoreboard and J.J. is a huge winner on it. No one should ever blame a player for going for every dollar he can get. But Watt can't honestly say the best shot at a Super Bowl was his top priority then sign with a team which last had a winning season in 2015 and in Kliff Kingsbury has a guy who has accomplished nothing meaningful as a Head Coach at either Texas Tech or Arizona. Doesn't mean it can't happen in the desert, but there had to be better teams interested if a ring shot was of paramount importance.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Les Miles, what a slimeball. LSU, what a slimy institution in its handling of serial sexual misconduct in its football program

2. NBA All-Star Game Sunday. In 1993 more than 22 million people watched. Last year, 6.8 million. Not sure 5 mil watch Sunday.

3. Greatest ever NFL free agent signings: Bronze-Packers, Reggie White Silver-Buccaneers, Tom Brady Gold-Saints, Drew Brees

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