A NEW LOOK

How Rockets players are slowly adjusting to Russell Westbrook

Though opening night didn't go as planned for Houston, Rockets fans did get a taste as to what Russell Westbrook could provide to an already potent offense. The Rockets were noticeably faster (27 fast break points), more athletic (won the rebounding battle 57-53), and had someone who could take over the game with reckless abandon when James Harden had an off night. After a somewhat murky preseason where it wasn't quite clear if the Rockets had acquired a deteriorated version of the 2016-17 MVP, Westbrook put those worries to bed early on night one, finishing with 24 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block on decent efficiency.

"He's a gamer," said Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni at Friday's practice. "When the lights come on, that's when he's the best. He plays from athleticism, just a competitive, ferocious kind of nature."

Westbrook's chaotic mastery particularly came to form with the second unit, where Westbrook is slowly starting to get his timing down with his new teammates. For a while, it seemed Westbrook was moving a rate that was almost too fast for Rockets players who were used to the deliberate pace they played at last year. After a few games under their belt, their timing with Westbrook is slowly starting to come around.

"You don't average a triple double for no reason," said D'Antoni. D'Antoni believes Westbrook will feast off of opposing second units or tired first units with the way Houston staggers him with Harden.

"When you play fast, guys are going to be open at some point in time," said guard Eric Gordon. "Any defense is not going to be able to stop all of it. He's a threat by himself and whenever he's playing fast, he creates for everybody else."

It's a change of pace, but the Rockets view it as a welcome change of pace. D'Antoni particularly, has always wanted to play fast. Last season was a delineation from his core values, but believed it was the best way to go about things with the personal the Rockets had to work with. This year, he's getting back to those core values and he seems more enthusiastic about the possibilities with this newly-framed roster.

"It's important for who we are," said D'Antoni. "We were really good with Chris [Paul] and James [Harden] getting to half-court and figuring things out and going a little bit iso, especially the year before. And they were really good at it, so that's how you do it. I didn't think the pace was that important as long as we were efficient. Well, this is a whole different beast. With Russell, if you can play at that pace and that's a natural pace, I like it better. I think it's better for the team. But you don't just do it, it's got to come natural."

Rockets players, now better adjusted to Westbrook, also seem to prefer this pace as they believe it serves their skill sets better.

"I think we've always tried to play a faster play of pace, but his pace is a whole nother level and it helps our team a lot because it draws a lot of attention," said forward P.J. Tucker "Guys really like this way. It equals a lot of open shots on the perimeter and dunks at the rim. So I think it's something we'll continue to get better at, but right now, it was good last night."

It's only one game, but the Rockets closed last night with a pace of 109.8, over 13 possessions per game higher than any of Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns teams (the highest being 2007-08 which was 96.7).

"Six seconds or less, baby," Mike D'Antoni joked as he left the media scrum.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
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.

Can't get enough Astros coverage?

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:

Apple Podcasts

AudioBoom

Google Podcasts

iHeart

RSS

Spotify

Stitcher

YouTube

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome