Rockets focusing on phase two after addressing elephant in the room

The Houston Rockets are on to phase two, and no they are not about to release a handful of movies like Marvel’s The Avengers, but instead have a new goal in mind — returning to the playoffs.

Houston officially introduced Ime Udoka as its 15th head coach in franchise history on Wednesday. Before Udoka uttered a single word, Rockets governor Tilman Fertitta made it clear they feel like they have a great pool of young talent that is ready to take the next step.

When combined with the plethora of cap space available to use in the offseason, the goal is to get back to the postseason, he said.

“There is nothing like cap space, which we have approximately $60 million available,” Fertitta said. “When you mix these new stars, new young stars with the free agents, I’m expecting a lot from these guys here [pointing at Udoka and general manager Rafael Stone]. That’s exciting and it is time to get on the right path.”

The Rockets have missed the NBA Playoffs for three straight seasons, and have won less than 22 games each year. Fertitta said when Houston lost James Harden in 2021, the organization made the decision to go young and stockpile talent instead of hovering in the middle of the pack of the league.

Now three years later, Fertitta and Stone believe the Rockets are ready to make a jump to competitiveness again, and Udoka is the right coach to lead the team.

Udoka, who led the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals in his first and only season with the franchise in 2022, comes from Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio coaching staff. He spent seven seasons on the Spurs’ staff, the 2019-20 year with Brett Brown’s Philadelphia 76ers staff and 2020-21 with Steve Nash’s staff in Brooklyn.

Udoka’s coaching style will revolve around being upfront and honest with his players, he said. While Houston is one of the youngest teams in the NBA, he does not want that to be used as an excuse for bad habits and poor play, he added. His job is to expedite Houston’s development.

“Whether it is making the same mistakes, not making the right defensive assignments, poor shot selections, all that stuff has to be addressed, but also improved on,” Udoka said. “Understanding that we are going to take some lumps with our age and our youth, but my message to them is that is not an excuse.”

The elephant in the room on Wednesday was Udoka’s tumultuous exit from Boston. He was ultimately ousted from the Celtics organization for having an improper, intimate and consensual relationship with a female member of the team’s staff, which was a violation of the franchise’s code of conduct.

Udoka, Stone and Fertitta all addressed the situation.

Fertitta said Houston did its due diligence when deciding to hire Udoka. It was important for him to feel good about Udoka, and the NBA told him they saw no issues that would arise if the Rockets indeed hired him, Fertitta stated.

While on hiatus from the NBA, Udoka said he spent time taking leadership and sensitivity training, and he also went to therapy with his son to address the trust issues stemming from the improper relationship in Boston.

Ultimately, Fertitta, Stone and Udoka felt strongly about committing to each other.

The biggest message coming out of Udoka’s eventful news conference, which included Fertitta accidentally revealing the Rockets are working on opening a new $70 million practice facility in the Galleria area in the near future, was that all three parties are aligned with the vision of what needs to be done to turn the Rockets around.

For Udoka, alignment is essential for long-term success.

“I think it is the most crucial piece honestly,” Udoka said. “I came up for most of my NBA career as a player, and then obviously as a coach in the San Antonio system. I saw the symmetry between front office, ownership, and coaching staff down to the players. I think that is the only way it can truly work.”

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The Astros are back in action Friday night against the A's. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Astros need to whip up on the Oakland A’s this weekend in California as they did in sweeping four from them last week at Minute Maid Park. That was the start of a homestand which ended up with seven wins in 10 games. That goes down as a successful homestand, especially since it felt like the Astros’ prior winning homestand came while Donald Trump was President (it actually started in late July). Still, 7-3 doesn’t feel like a smashing success with it ending by dropping two of three games to the lowly Los Angeles Angels.

It is not exactly with bated breath that anyone should be waiting on Jose Abreu’s return to the lineup, but it’s coming. It should not be on this road trip. After the three games with the A’s the Astros move up the coast for a big four game set with American League West leading Seattle. The M's start all right-handed pitchers. That is no time to sit Jon Singleton to see if Abreu has managed to pump a few drops of gas into his tank while spending the better part of this month at the Astros’ minor league complex. It’s not as if Singleton has been stellar since Abreu’s departure, but by comparison, he’s been Lou Gehrig-esque. The series with the Mariners isn’t make or break but the Astros are strongly advised to get at least a split. That it should be Framber Valdez starting the opener Monday night doesn’t breed tremendous confidence, coming off his meltdown outing against the Angels. Another start, another opportunity.

The Mariners are at the Nationals this weekend, starting it a mere four and a half games ahead of the Astros. In four of the five other divisions the Astros' 22-28 record would have them at least 10 games off the lead.

One step forward, two steps back

Speaking of washed-up first basemen, Joey Votto should be a future Hall of Famer. The 40-year-old Canadian is trying to make it back to the big leagues via the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays. Votto was an absolutely tremendous player with the Cincinnati Reds. As the Beastie Boys said, “Ch-check it out.” Over Jeff Bagwell’s first ten seasons with the Astros he hit .305 with a .417 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage, yielding a phenomenal .970 OPS. Over Votto’s first ten full seasons with the Reds: .313/.429/.540 for an exactly phenomenal .970 OPS. Where am I going with this? Read on!

Votto had phenomenal strike zone and bat control. He turned 30 during the 2013 season. That year Votto had 581 at bats. He popped out to an infielder once the entire season. Alex Bregman turned 30 the third day of this season. Bregman popped out to the shortstop four times in the Angels series. So much for Bregman’s “knob past the ball” epiphany that saw him hit three home runs over two games last week. Going into the weekend Bregman has one hit in his last 23 at bats. His season stats continue to be pitiful: a .209 batting average and .607 OPS. Bregman has only struck out once in the 23 at bats of his latest deep freeze. It’s that so much of his contract is feeble. There is a lot of season left for Bregman to build up to decent numbers, but one-third of the regular season will be complete after the Astros play the Mariners Monday night.

While Bregman’s season to date has basically been one long slump, Jose Altuve is in a funk of his own. Since blasting a homer Monday, Altuve is hitless in 12 at bats. Mini-slumps happen to everybody but Altuve’s woes trace back farther. Over his last 15 games, Altuve is batting .175. He last had more than one hit in a game May 5. He’s also drawn just two walks over those 15 games. It’s tough to ever sit Altuve, but he’s probably playing a little too much. Altuve turned 34 earlier this month. He has started 48 of the Astros 50 games at second base. Mauricio Dubon should be getting a start per week at second (and probably another at third given Bregman’s level of play). Over a full season not playing the field once per week still means 135 starts. Altuve should mix in some more at designated hitter (he has just one DH game so far this season). Wear and tear is a real thing, players don’t grow less susceptible to it as they get to their mid-30s.

King Tuck

On the flip side, Kyle Tucker! So far this season, he’s making himself as much money as Bregman is costing himself. Only Shohei Ohtani (1.069) starts the weekend action with an OPS higher than Tucker’s 1.060. The law of averages dictates that Tucker won’t finish as high as 1.060, but if he does, it would be the greatest full-length season offensive performance in Astros’ history. Jeff Bagwell posted an absurd 1.201 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Yordan Alvarez came in at 1.067 in his 87 games played rookie season of 2019. Lance Berkman’s 2001 was a monster. Enron Field was more hitter-friendly then than Minute Maid Park is now, but Berkman’s numbers were “Oh My Gosh!” spectacular. .331 batting average, 55 doubles (second in franchise history to Craig Biggio's 56 in 1999), 34 homers, .430 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and 1.051 OPS. And that was just Berkman’s second full season in the majors. Lance finished fifth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Giant-headed Barry Bonds won MVP with his 73 home runs among other sicko stats.

* Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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