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How the Houston Rockets achieved the perfect balance for a rebuild

Jalen Green looks like the real deal. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Rockets' need to feed their future. They're obviously fans of my work because not only have they listened, but it's been working out nicely. And by nicely, I mean they're developing their future stars, but still losing games in order to improve their chances for a top pick in the upcoming draft. In March, rookie guard Jalen Green averaged 20.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game in 17 games played on 48% shooting from the field, which includes 39.6% from three. Diving a little further into his surge, he's at 21.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, on 47.6% shooting with 39.5% from three in 22 games since the All-Star break.

Green himself said the All-Star break gave him the confidence he needed to go into the second half with a renewed focus. Couple that with the extra film sessions with head coach Stephen Silas and shootarounds with John Lucas, and we're seeing this kid blossom right before our eyes. His continued growth, along with Alperen Sengun and Kevin Porter Jr, has the future looking brighter than what most of us initially thought.

Yesterday The Bench's John Granato and Lance Zierlein from ESPN Houston, talked about how Green has been the best rookie in the second half of the NBA season. They highlighted how his shooting has improved (along with his shot selection), his killer first step, finishing strong at the rim despite his slight frame, and how those flashes of brilliance have now become sustainable excellence. The Killer B's, Joel Blank and Jeremy Branham, also talked about the future of the Rockets a few weeks ago amid this surge. They too like how the team has handled their young stars while maintaining their positioning in the upcoming draft.

When James Harden was traded, most people thought this rebuild would take years. The team was devoid of talent, no room under the cap, and had very little draft desirable capital. They were going to be banking on being a flaming disaster in order to keep their lottery protected picks. Turns out, they've made some shrewd moves that seem to be paying off big time. The trade for KPJ, drafting Green (as well as Sengun and Josh Christopher), and signing Christian Wood to a very affordable deal given his production. However, with Sengun emerging as a better fit next to Green and the others, Wood is now a valuable trade piece the team should use to attract some assets back to help this young team truly realize its potential.

I'll be the first to eat my words when it comes to Wood. I wanted him to be a part of the long-term plans here. I even wrote about how I felt he would be worth keeping. Joel has been adamant about the team needing to trade him. He was so right, and now I'm on the bus. I can see why he's not good for this young nucleus (attitude and inflated sense of self-worth), plus he's taking valuable minutes Sengun needs to develop. What if they could flip Wood into another pick or maybe even a veteran who can come in and truly mentor these young guys? Think about the Suns. They were one of the worst teams in the league not too long ago. Now they're the best team in the league this season and appeared in the Finals last season. All because they added Chris Paul to a young nucleus that included superstar guard Devin Booker and promising big Deandre Ayton.

I'm not saying the Rockets will be the Suns in a couple of years, but it's not out of the realm of possibility anymore. They must continue to grow and develop their young core, identify free agents to bring into the fold that'll help the long-term goal (even if they're here short term), and continue to draft well. If things keep falling in place at the rate they have the second half of this season, we may be looking at a potential play-in spot within a couple of years. Beyond that, it's anybody's guess where this team could end up.

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Willson Contreras could give the Astros some extra pop in the lineup. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

“The Hot Stove League” is the nickname given to Major League Baseball's offseason. In particular, the free agent signing period in late November/early December. Trades are also made during this period. Now that Astros' owner Jim Crane has ousted all opposition to his idea of how things should be run, he's free to do things the way he sees fit.

He opened it by not hiring a general manager to replace James Click. Instead, he opted for a committee of assistant GMs. Those guys are assisted by some special advisors, like former Astros great Jeff Bagwell. Crane likes and wants to take a big swing at things. He'd probably hit about .250 with 30-plus home runs every season. Can't leave out his guaranteed 80-100 strikeouts. Typical power hitter. It's all or nothing, except Crane has been making great contact and knocking some things out of the park.

Signing Jose Abreu was an example. Yuli Gurriel looked as if he was losing the battle with “Father Time” during the regular season. This was an insurance policy at first, and designated hitter. Another prime example is their reported interest in C/DH/LF Willson Contreras. His bat would be a major upgrade over past Astro catchers. Although Martin Maldonado may not be going anywhere, having a quality bat to relieve him is key. Add the fact that he plays some outfield, and he's almost a “two birds with one stone” type of signing.

Abreu may be 35 years old, but he's coming off a year hitting .304 with 15 home runs. Contreras may be the younger of the two at 30, but his .243 average hurts the fact that he hit 22 home runs. Both sport an OPS above .800 for their careers. Bagwell said he wants Yordan Alvarez to play left field 45% of the time. The other 55% can be Contreras, Chas McCormick (assuming Jake Meyers is still in the mix for center field), and whoever else they sign or bring up from Sugar Land. When Contreras isn't in left, he needs to be behind the plate or hitting DH. I'd really love the idea of him sitting under Maldonado's learning tree for a year and taking over catcher long-term. Not many can be the catcher "Machete" is, but hitting 50 points better than him has its advantages.

Then there's the reported interest other teams have in Justin Verlander. Supposedly, the Mets have met with him via Zoom. The Dodgers are interested and are seemingly the leaders in the clubhouse to sign him. However, I wouldn't count Crane and crew out. He may come to JV last minute and offer him something comparable in order to keep him around. He strikes me as the type of guy who'll keep his plays close to the vest, then make a Godfather type of offer. He negotiated Verlander's last deal with the team himself. Coming off a World Series win, Cy Young win, and opting out of said deal, Verlander is most likely looking to get one final payday that'll also land him on a contender.

Having a winner is one thing. Having a winner committed to winning long-term is another. Crane wants to strike while the iron is hot. Sure, he wants his franchise to be sustainable. But he also wants to keep the World Series window open as long as possible. Kyle Tucker's next deal will be one to watch. Having an embarrassment of riches on the pitching staff means you have trade bait. Keep an eye on old Jimmy Crane. I think he might be the best thing to hit Houston sports in quite some time.

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