There's no getting around it, the Rockets must feed their future

Rockets Eric Gordon, Jalen Green, Christian Wood
Let's see what the young guys can do with more playing time. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The Rockets beat the Southwest division leading and second place Western Conference Memphis Grizzlies 123-112 right here in Houston on Sunday night. It gave Rockets' fans a sliver of hope and glimpse into the future in what has otherwise been a dismal season so far. The next night, they lost to Eastern Conference leading Miami Heat 123-106 in Miami. That game got away from them in the second and third quarters after they had a lead coming out of the first quarter. This is still a very young team in need of growth and development. They may not have all the right pieces in place, but they have enough of them in order to get started on building in the right direction.

When trying to grow and develop a young team, they need playing time, practice together, and as many reps as possible in live game action. Of course, health and work ethic are important, but being thrown in the fire and tested (hopefully passing said tests) is the best way to gain that necessary experience. When they selected Jalen Green with the number two overall pick, it was assumed everything would be built around him. So far, Christian Wood has remained the center point while Green and others have been reduced to second fiddles.

Green has recently seen a slight uptick in his shots, minutes, and production overall. The more he’s played, he’s played well and shot a much better percentage. In March, he’s averaged 21.8ppg, 4.0rpg, 3.8apg (1.4TOs), 51.2% FG, 34.2% 3pt, and a 59.9% true shooting percentage. Kevin Porter Jr has had a decent March as well: 19.0ppg, 3.8rpg, 5.3apg (2.8TOs), 1.0spg, 43.5% FG, 34.3% 3pt, 54.0% true shooting percentage. When I watch the Rockets, I often see Wood commanding the most touches and shots. Lately, Green and KPJ have been a bit more assertive.

Another guy who’s been seeing more action and proving himself has been Alperen Sengun. In February and March, he’s averaged more than 20 minutes a game, about 10ppg and 6rpg. The more he plays, the better I like his game. His footwork was decent, but you can tell he’s been working with Hakeem Olajuwon to tighten it up and fine tune some things. His basketball IQ and passing ability jumps off the screen, especially in pick & roll or post situations. If he develops his outside shot to be more consistent and stretches it out to the three-point line, he’ll be even more dangerous.

Initially, I wanted Wood to stay and grow with the other core members of the roster. I was wrong, changed course, and saw the light. All it took was for me to key in on Sengun’s ability to be a better fit with Green and KPJ over Wood. He’s more unselfish and seems to have a better attitude. Wood is too worried about getting his and making sure people know he’s never at fault. He whines and cries and points fingers and always has the most incredulous look when something goes wrong when he’s involved. Sengun on the other hand, is fun-loving, carefree, and seems like he really enjoys the game.

Coach Stephen Silas has been playing these youngsters more and trusting them in key situations. Josh Christopher is another youngster who’s been playing well at times and showing potential. The work he puts in before and after games is impressive for a rookie. Coach Silas has grown to trust these kids with handling key situations. Seeing them grow and realize their potential is something I hope he gets to see to the finish line. Former players he’s coached in the past have all credited him with helping them grow. Look no further than right up I-45 at Luka Dončić, who heaped praise on Silas when he took the Rockets’ job.

Ultimately, that decision will be up to owner Tilman Fertitta and general manager Rafael Stone. Fertitta will determine whether Stone keeps his job if he can buy the best groceries to allow Silas to cook a good meal. The way that meal turns out will determine who stays and goes. Here’s to hoping this is worthy of a Michelin Award and not a 1-star rating on Yelp.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*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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