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Here’s why the Rockets should play this differently

Disgruntled employees aren't good employees. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets open training camp for the 2020-21 season in exactly one week. So soon? Here's how things stand, and it's a wobbly picture:

James Harden, their best player, wants out of Houston so bad that he turned down the richest contract in NBA history to stay here. Harden reportedly doesn't think the Rockets are headed in the right direction and wants to play for a winner.

Russell Westbrook wants to be traded, too, but his eroding skills and crazy high salary, more than $40 million a year with three years left on his deal, make him a tough sell. A few years ago, Westbrook was MVP of the league, the first player to average a triple-double in half a century and first team All-NBA. Now he's (deep breath) a lousy shooter, not a team leader, a 3-point bricklayer, ball hog, bad in the clutch and slowing down. There are rumors that the Knicks, Clippers, Wizards and Hornets are possible trade partners for Westbrook. Yeah, we'll believe it when they announce it. And even then nothing's official until Woj tweets it.

The Rockets have a new head coach and new general manager, both of them first-timers in their new roles.

Rotation players are going, going, gone. Austin Rivers to the Knicks, Robert Covington to Portland and Jeff Green to the Nets. If Harden and Westbrook get traded, that would leave Eric Gordon, with his $16.8 million contract and declining talent, as the Rockets biggest star. Gordon reportedly was not happy with his playing time during the playoffs last season. Insiders say he's available in a trade, too.

Now Boogie Cousins enters the scene. Over/under on his next season-ending injury is Christmas Day.

To top it off, or bottom it out, there are reports that Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta's feelings are hurt by Harden and Westbrook's desire to leave. You know, after all Fertitta has done for them.

Fertitta saying his feelings are hurt is like someone murdering his parents and then asking for sympathy because he's an orphan. He is the one who created this whole mess. It would be difficult to get equal value in return for Harden, one of the most unstoppable scorers in NBA history. After years of successfully courting superstars to Houston, big-name players are not interested, thank you.

As for Fertitta's hurt feelings, he's a billionaire – at least he plays one on TV (Billionaire Buyer on CNBC). Billionaires hire people to feel sad for them.

It's said that Fertitta really wanted to hire Jeff Van Gundy as the Rockets next coach, while Harden preferred Ty Lue. After Lue agreed to coach the Clippers, Fertitta settled on longtime assistant coach Stephen Silas as a peace offering to Harden.

That's not exactly rolling out the welcome wagon for Silas, who knows he wasn't his boss' first choice. That's like asking Cinnamon to the prom, and she later finds out that you asked Jade first. Besides, you're in high school, you're too young to be dating strippers.

We also hear that Harden is angry because Fertitta made a big-money donation to President Trump's re-election campaign. We don't know if Harden really feels that way, he's not a chatty fellow. But if it's true, it's understandable for Harden, and pretty stupid of Fertitta, especially doing it publicly. Most of Fertitta's players are African-American, not exactly Trump's base of support.

At the height of Andrew Dice Clay's popularity, a reporter asked Jay Leno why he didn't do misogynistic material like the Diceman. Leno said, women don't like that brand of humor, why would he want to alienate half of his potential audience? America is bitterly divided over politics in 2020. Donating to a polarizing candidate, on either side, doesn't make good business sense. In Houston, you risk alienating half of your ticket-buyers and 100 percent of your team's leading scorer.

According to ESPN, the Rockets are willing to play a waiting game with Harden, "prepared for it to get uncomfortable" – another horrible idea. While Harden is a baller who loves the game of basketball, and nobody doubts his desire, when someone wants to leave a team or a job or a relationship, it's best to let them go. Some players, not Harden, might go half-speed to avoid an injury that would wreck a trade opportunity. Or they become a distraction. Disgruntled employees aren't good employees. Right now, there doesn't seem to be many gruntled Rockets.

The NBA season starts in less than a month. The way it looks now, good seats will be available at Toyota Center – and not because of social distancing.

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Good news for Jose Altuve. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

One never knows how things will play out but of the known General Manager candidates, Jim Crane nailed it in hiring Dana Brown out of the Atlanta Braves' organization where he was Vice President of Scouting. The 55-year-old Brown's scouting and development pedigree is stellar. The Braves have been a talent-producing machine in recent years. Obviously all the credit isn't Brown's but his four years with the Braves preceded by a productive pipeline he was part of in Toronto speak highly of him. Not that it was or should have been the guiding principle to Crane's decision-making, but the Astros now have the only African-American General Manager in Major League Baseball (Ken Williams is Executive Vice President of the Chicago White Sox).

Brad Ausmus is a super-smart guy, but if had he gotten the GM gig it would have been in large part because he was teammate besties with Jeff Bagwell. While “It's not what you know it's who you know” plays a role in many, many hires, it would have been a poor rationale for tabbing Ausmus. Maybe Ausmus would have done a great job. Maybe Brown does a lousy job. Brown was the much more strongly credentialed candidate. While Bagwell has moved way up Crane's confidante list, Brown played college baseball with Craig Biggio at Seton Hall.

Speaking of Halls…

If I could tell you as absolute fact that exactly two members of the 2023 Houston Astros will someday make the Baseball Hall of Fame, who are you picking? Jose Altuve isn’t a lock just yet but he is obvious pick number one. So for the second spot are you going with Alex Bregman or Yordan Alvarez? We’ll get back to this a couple of paragraphs down.

As was basically a given, former Astro (and Phillie, Met, Red Sox, and Brave) Billy Wagner was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, but as I suggested last week the voting returns were very favorable toward Wagner making the Hall next year, or if not next year in his final year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association ballot for the Class of 2025. “Wags” in the Class of ’24 is looking good. Wagner jumped from 51 percent to 68 percent “put him in” votes. The only guy this year to get the necessary 75 percent for election is worthy third baseman Scott Rolen. Two years ago Rolen got 53 percent of the votes needed, last year 63 percent, before getting the call to Cooperstown with 76.5 percent this year. Wagner going from 51 to 68 to 75-plus looks likely. Of course it’s not as if Wagner can pad his case with a good 2023 season, but this is how the process works. The other ballot returnee well positioned to make it next year is former Colorado first baseman Todd Helton. Unlike this year there’s a sure-fire first time ballot guy going in next year. Third baseman Adrian Beltre will undoubtedly wear a Texas Rangers cap on his plaque.

As expected Carlos Beltran didn’t come close to election in his first year of eligibility, but drawing 46 percent of the votes sets him up well to eventually get the Cooperstown call. Beltran was a fabulous player and his Hall credentials are solid. However, no one reasonable would argue that Carlos Beltran was as good or better than Barry Bonds. In his first year of eligibility back in 2013 Bonds garnered 36 percent of the vote. There has been some turnover in the voter pool over the last decade, but it's clear that Beltran’s central role in the Astros’ sign stealing scheme was not held against him to the extent that PED use (actual and/or suspected) was held against Bonds and Roger Clemens. And Alex Rodriguez. And Sammy Sosa. And Manny Ramirez. And others. Foremost right now that’s encouraging for Beltran, but it’s also encouraging down the line for fellow Astros of 2017-18.

What does this mean for Jose Altuve?

If Jose Altuve retired today (perish the thought!) he’d have a good case for the Hall. He had superstar seasons in 2016, 2017, and 2022, and has five other seasons that while not in the realm of his three best certainly rate as excellent. If you judge a player by his five best seasons, there aren’t 10 second basemen in the history of the sport who’d rank ahead of Altuve. Among those who clearly would: Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Nap Lajoie. Among those four only Morgan played more recently than 1937. Then there’s a group of arguable guys like Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, and yes Craig Biggio. Altuve has had the prime of a Hall of Famer. What sort of final numbers will he accrue? In late May or early June he should reach the 2000 hit plateau. How many more prime years does Altuve have left before inevitable decline? His career batting average is .307. Four years ago it was .316. Will Altuve retire a .300 hitter?

Bregman or Alvarez? Bregman gets extra points for being an everyday third baseman as opposed to a left fielder-designated hitter, but by age alone Yordan is the better play. Bregman turns 29 on opening day this year. Yordan doesn’t turn 26 until late June. When Bregman was 25 (2019 season) he put up a season more valuable than Alvarez’s tremendous 2022. In the three years since Bregman hasn’t approached that level, though his big second half last season could be a springboard back to that stratosphere. Yordan is in that stratosphere and figures to stay there for a while if his health holds up.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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