THE PALLILOG

Here's what the Rockets-Lakers series could come down to

Composite photo by Brandon Strange

The late college basketball coach Jim Valvano coined the phrase "survive and advance" to characterize all that matters in the NCAA Tournament. The Rockets borrowed "survive and advance" in getting past Oklahoma City to earn their shot at the Lakers in round two of the NBA Playoffs starting Friday night. A first round elimination at the hands of Chris Paul and the Thunder would have been a disaster for the Rockets. Would have been.

It is no miracle if the Rockets take down the Lakers to reach the Western Conference Final for the second time in three years, but the Lakers are better. At 35 years old LeBron James remains an amazing force, but it's Anthony Davis for whom the Rockets have zero answers. If A.D. is on his A game he'll destroy the Rockets inside and out. The Rockets are a poor rebounding team, so is Oklahoma City. The Lakers are one of the better rebounding squads in the NBA.

There are beacons of hope for the Rockets' cause. The Lakers do not have a physical and quick guard a la OKC's Luguentz Dort to disrupt James Harden. Their best perimeter defender is Avery Bradley, who opted to skip the NBA bubble. Harden's tremendous block of Dort's shot that could have ended the Rockets' season saved Harden from being pilloried for another elimination game woeful offensive performance. Maybe that which did not kill him makes Harden stronger.

The Lakers are not a good three point shooting team. Neither are the Rockets, who bank on decent mega-volume three point shooting to swing the math in their direction. As always, in a short series of games the big picture stats can be rendered irrelevant.

Lakers in six, to set up an all L.A. in Orlando Western Conference Final vs. the Clippers who should make quick work of the Nuggets.

Astros hit the road

The Astros want to win their division but compared to normal seasons it just isn't a big deal. Getting and keeping Alex Bregman healthy is much more important. Jose Altuve has been horrible in this short season, but his leaving Thursday's game and needing an MRI of his surgically repaired right knee is not good news. After four games in Anaheim this weekend against the awful Angels over the Astros have a five game series with the A's in Oakland. Win three of five or better from the A's and the Astros could reclaim the division. If not, probably not. But the Astros are a virtual lock to make the eight team American League field and that's all that really matters.

NFL is right around the corner

With no preseason games (yay!) and the NBA and NHL playoffs ongoing, the NFL regular season seemingly sneaks up on us more than ever before. The Texans have the toughest opening threesome of games in the league starting at the Chiefs, home for the Ravens, then at the Steelers. At Kansas City probably means the Texans start 0-1. They did win at Arrowhead Stadium during the regular season last year. You may recall it worked out differently in the playoff game. The Chiefs are allowing 22 percent seat usage for their first three home games. Normally one of the loudest crowds in the NFL, fewer than 17-thousand on hand this time make one part of the Texans' task simpler.

I don't know if there's an over under for games played by J.J. Watt this season, but he better go over. Without him the Texans defense is simply weak. With the now 31-year-old Watt the Texan D won't be special, but he is still usually a difference maker. I doubt Watt needs fuel added to his fire for a season opener, but lest he or anyone else have forgotten, 99 was a zero in the playoff embarrassment at K.C. Zero sacks, zero quarterback hits, zero solo tackles, zero assisted tackles. He did tip one Patrick Mahomes pass.

As ever the Texans look no better than a B-list contender in the AFC. If Philip Rivers gives the Colts above average quarterback play I take them over the Texans in the AFC South. Who knows what level Ryan Tannehill settles in at after performing wildly over his head for Titans relative to the rest of his pro career. The Jaguars are a laughingstock. Reminder: over Bill O'Brien's six seasons as Texans' Head Coach, three AFC South franchises have reached the AFC Championship game. Then there are the Texans.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. What an annoyance that Rockets-Lakers game 4 will go head-to-head with the Texans-Chiefs opener.

2. My annual proselytizing for the NHL playoffs: pretty much every year the most intense second by second postseason in sports. Two decisive seventh games Friday, another Saturday!

3. Best Canadian cities (when they let us visit again) Bronze-Vancouver Silver-Montreal Gold-Toronto

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Here's what to make of the Rockets free agency moves. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No NBA team with title aspirations entered the offseason with more questions than the Houston Rockets. Ironically, Houston's situation got more precarious as the offseason went along. From head coach Mike D'Antoni walking away after the season to general manager Daryl Morey following suit shortly after that, the Rockets have been a sinking ship in desperate need of stability. They found some of that once new head coach Stephen Silas was hired, but the boat took on more water when star players James Harden and Russell Westbrook demanded to be traded a couple of weeks later.

It's been a giant roller coaster and it was unclear how Houston would approach their free agency. Would they double down on contending for a championship to try and convince their star players to stay or would they be forced to rebuild?

It looks like Houston tried to thread the needle and accomplish both: They appear ready to rebuild if they can't convince James Harden to stay, but also addressed roster needs and acquired better fitting pieces for their stars. It's hard to say whether or not they got better, but they're certainly a lot younger and look to play a lot different. Let's take a look at each player and how they fit into the framework.

Christian Wood

Contract:

3 years, $41 million

Grade:

B+

If there's a signing that embodies Houston's offseason, it's Christian Wood. For obvious reasons and some subtle ones, Wood is the exact kind of player Houston had to acquire this summer. Let's start with the obvious: Wood is the perfect player to have alongside both James Harden and Russell Westbrook because of his unique set of skills. Wood can hit threes at a high clip for someone his size (36.8% for his career) and stretches the floor for the moments you want Russell Westbrook barreling to the rim or James Harden trying to break a trap.

Lob threat

The Rockets didn't have a big man with that capability on the roster last year, so they had to resort to trading for Robert Covington and going small so they could properly space the floor. However, in doing that the Rockets lost their best lob threat and limited themselves on offense even further. This is where Wood solves the second problem: He may not be as good of a lob threat as Clint Capela, but he's damn close.

Over the past few years, the Rockets have slowly phased out pick and roll out of their offense and resorted to isolation. Part of it is because of how teams have defended the pick and roll, but part of it is also them not having the option anymore. James Harden is too good of a pick and roll ball handler for it to not be a part of the Rockets' attack. Adding more pick and roll to Houston's offense should be a priority next season, regardless of what else Silas decides to do.

Clint Capela was the perfect center for James Harden. P.J. Tucker was the perfect center for Russell Westbrook. Christian Wood is the perfect center for both.

Defensive rebounding

Another weakness Houston needed to address this offseason was their defensive rebounding (26th in NBA last season). It got to the point where it was a rarity that Houston would win the rebounding battle against good teams. This was partly by design and partly because of roster weakness. Houston was so porous at rebounding in the beginning of the season, they decided to emphasize turning over opponents to even the possession battle. If Houston were to even marginally improve in defensive rebounding, it could have a drastic positive impact on their defense.

Per 36 minutes:

22.0 PPG

10.6 RPG

1.5 BPG

65.9% True Shooting

Houston also replenished their coffers in the process of acquiring Wood. By flipping Robert Covington to the Blazers, the Rockets netted two draft picks back after losing two the prior offseason in the Westbrook trade. It may not matter in the grand scheme of next season, but these assets could be especially useful if Houston pivots to a rebuild. They could also be useful to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline if Houston gets Harden's buy-in. (As an aside, the series of transactions that led to Wood are impressive and reflect well on new GM Rafael Stone's ability to get deals done.)

The subtle reason Wood embodies their offseason is his age, 25 years old. Wood would immediately become the youngest starter on the team and be a building block piece on the next iteration of the Rockets. He's also old enough to make an immediate impact should Houston acquire a ready-made blue chip prospect in a James Harden trade. With the 76ers rumored to be a team interested in Harden's services, it probably isn't a coincidence that Ben Simmons (24 years old) falls neatly into Wood's age group. It also probably isn't a coincidence that the ideal team for Simmons has always been imagined to be a team that can spread the floor at the four other positions on the court. Having Wood is great start to try and accomplish that.

David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, and Jae'Sean Tate

Contracts:

Negligible

Grade:

B-

Nwaba, Brown, and Tate are all being placed in one category because it's quite clear what the Rockets are trying to accomplish: Take bets on young, cheap wings on the market and hope one pans out enough to make the final rotation for Stephen Silas.

While David Nwaba technically wasn't signed this offseason, he's essentially a free agency signing because the Rockets signed him up a few months ago with the knowledge he wouldn't be able to play in the first year of his deal. He's the oldest of this group (27 years old), has the largest wingspan (7'0"), and has logged the most NBA minutes (3295). Because of all this, he's probably the safest bet to make Houston's final rotation. However, just because he's the 'safest bet' doesn't mean he's a 'safe bet' per se.

Nwaba suffered a season-ending achilles injury on December 9th of last season and has spent the past year rehabbing. It's unclear how he will respond from this, but before the injury, Nwaba had found a nice role in Brooklyn as a combo forward who could shoot well enough from beyond the perimeter (34.4% for his career). The Rockets have desperately needed competent perimeter defenders off the bench since their 2017-18 campaign and a healthy Nwaba was just that.

Sterling Brown, 24, found his way on the fringes of the Bucks' rotation the past few seasons and gained the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer enough to play nearly 15 minutes a game. Brown is a pesky defender and average three-point shooter (34.5% for his career) and like the other wings in this category, he doesn't need the ball. He's probably the second most proven wing here and if he cracks the rotation, it's unlikely he will have to play more than he did in Milwaukee.

Jae'Sean Tate, 25, is probably the most intriguing prospect of this bunch as he's never played in the NBA before. Tate played under new Rockets assistant coach Will Weaver on the Sidney Kings and averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on 66.0% shooting from the field last season while earning first-team All-NBL honors. He's 6'4" with a 6'8" wingspan and was considered to be one of the top basketball prospects outside the NBA before signing with Houston. The Rockets appear to be quite high on him considering they used part of their mid-level exception to sign him to a three-year deal.

The Rockets already have much of their rotation locked in:

James Harden and Russell Westbrook will likely play at least 35 minutes a piece, P.J. Tucker will probably play around 32 minutes, and finally Danuel House and Christian Wood will likely play around 30 minutes each. That leaves 78 minutes for a bench that already has Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore. Also, Houston will probably sign another center before the season starts. Now, the Rockets may try to ease the load off of some of their older starters, in which case there might be more time available. However, whatever way you slice it, they really only need one of these wings to crack the rotation for regular season purposes.

It's unlikely all three signings end up backfiring for them, but we'll see. Stranger things have happened.

It's also convenient that all three of these players are 27 years or younger should the Rockets decide to trade Harden at the trade deadline. Like Wood, these signings give Houston the option to pivot in another direction. Because of Houston's lack of room under the apron, they didn't have the option to use their full mid-level or bi-annual exception. Ring-chaser types also weren't going to sign with the Rockets for the minimum given the uncertainty surrounding their stars. This was a nice way for Houston to hedge their bets while also filling out the roster with possible contributors.

The Rockets aren't done making moves yet, but they're close. Understanding the circumstances, it's hard to be too critical of what they did in free agency.

Overall Grade: B

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