4TH AND A MILE WITH PAUL MUTH

Here are 3 big questions the Rockets must answer this season

This season will be tough to predict. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

Normally I'd say something like "if you blinked you would have missed the Rockets off-season," but it's difficult to ignore something that's been shoved in Rockets fans' faces for a month straight. Either way it was easily the NBA's shortest off-season ever, and as we take one last gulp of off-season air before diving into another year let's get everyone set with the layman's guide to the 2020-2021 Rockets.

First let's take a look at the roster from the team's last game and see where everyone is:

NamePosStatus
James HardenSGOn roster (for now)
P.J. TuckerPFOn roster
Robert CovingtonPFTraded to Portland
Russell WestbrookPGTraded to Washington
Eric GordonSGOn roster
Jeff GreenPFGone
Ben McLemoreSFOn roster
Bruno CabocloSFOn roster
Austin RiversPGGone
Chris ClemonsPGOn roster (season ending injury)
Michael FrazierGGone
Luc Mbah a MouteFGone
DeMarre CarrollFGone

Note: Danuel House Jr. was on the team and remains so. He was dismissed from the playoff roster for COVID-19 protocol violations.

As you can see there's been a ton of turnover, and not just from the player side. The Rockets also hired a new head coach in Stephen Silas, and promoted Rafael Stone to general manager, but we'll get to that.

The new guys worth knowing

John Wall, PG: Arrived as part of a trade with Washington in exchange for Russell Westbrook. After almost two seasons off the court due to injuries, Wall has shown traces of the explosiveness most believed would have faded by now. Has all-star potential when healthy. More of a drive to the basket guy versus a shooter, but possesses elite court vision and passing ability.

Christian Wood, PF/C: Arrived as part of a sign and trade with Detroit. Undrafted big man that has developed into an athletic floor runner that can also space the floor and drain shots from long range. Underrated signing, as this was the big man the Rockets have been looking for for years. Keep an eye on him

DeMarcus Cousins, C: Signed a veteran's minimum deal. Former all star whose career has also been sidetracked with injuries. If he can remain healthy, he could be huge in the playoffs. A true center by definition, Cousins also has range and solid passing skills. Expect him to contribute key minutes from the bench.

Jae'Sean Tate, Forward: Played overseas in Australia. He's 6'4" and clocks in at about 230 pounds, so good luck pushing him around. Powerful frame with a solid outside shot.

Opening day roster starters (projected)

PositionName
Point GuardJohn Wall
Shooting GuardJames Harden
Small ForwardDanuel House Jr.
Power ForwardP.J. Tucker
CenterChristian Wood

Eric Gordon looks to resume his role as the team's sixth man after a disappointing season last year. Cousins and Tate should provide solid minutes in the paint, while Ben McLemore and newcomer Sterling Brown will rotate in the backcourt.

This is a much younger, much bigger, and more versatile lineup than the one the Rockets used to whimper out of the playoffs last season. Expect a huge improvement on defense as well as rebounding.

Offseason storylines

No more Morey-ball: After 13 years, Daryl Morey stepped down from the Rockets general manager role to "spend more time with his family." About a month later he was introduced as the president of operations for the Philadelphia 76ers. The parting was reported as amicable between Morey and the Rocket, but the writing was on the wall after his now-infamous Hong Kong support tweet. Between being publicly chastised and financially constrained by Rockets owner Tilman Ferttita, the eventual separation came as hardly a surprise. The Rockets now move on with Rafael Stone, an in house promotion tasked with navigating the franchise's biggest turning point since trading Hakeem Olajuwon in 2001.

Harden wants out - Following the turnover at the head coach and general manager position, former MVP guard James Harden made the unexpected announcement that he wished to be traded in early November. Since then, it's pretty much the only thing anyone has heard about the Rockets. At this point it's not so much a matter of if Harden is traded, but when and where.


Three questions leading into the season

1. Can the Kentucky boys stay healthy? Wildcat alumns Wall and Cousins should contribute big minutes this season, but both are coming off pretty nasty injuries. How long will it take to get them back into game shape? How much of their prior all star abilities remain? As they say, the most important ability is availability, and the health of those two will be critical in the Rockets playing competitive basketball this season.

2. How much Morey-ball stays in place? The Rockets have, for years now, been known as a team that focuses on isolation ball and three point shooting. Coach Silas claims there will be more of the same philosophy implemented, but the dramatic reshaping of the roster suggests a more traditional and versatile strategy going forward. Harden-ball was ugly, but it worked. Rockets fans may be in store for a more exciting product if the coaching mindset has in fact shifted.

3. Where will James Harden land? Who knows. If I had my way, I'd go for a Denver trade with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in return.

Prediction

It's pretty much impossible to tell at this point. This is certainly not the roster that will end the season together. I'd say between all of the change that has already happened and has yet to, I don't see the Rockets higher than a 6th seed, if that.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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