Rockets offseason outlook

Improving this team won't be easy, but they'll still be hard to beat

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Last Friday the Rockets had their chance.

There was blood in the water, and Houston whiffed.

The Golden State Warriors were up 3 games to 2 on the Rockets, but lost their star forward Kevin Durant in the process. Seemingly wounded, the Warriors arrived on the Rockets home court as 7.5 point dogs. Houston was healthy, Houston was motivated.

Houston was eliminated.

Now, instead of forcing a game seven and potentially discussing matchups and strategy for a Western Conference Final round against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers, we're left discussing one topic:

What now?

As heartbreaking as last season's game 7 loss was, Rockets fans could at least console themselves with the fact that they had gone down swinging with their second best player sidelined with a hamstring injury. They weren't healthy. They had a historically fluky shooting slump. Rockets fans had valid excuses.

This year they don't. This year everyone was healthy. This year they shot 17-39 from 3-point range. No James Harden slump, no Chris Paul clunker. This year they just weren't good enough.

Houston now finds itself in an unenviable predicament. Paul still has three years left on his deal roughly $40M/yr deal and, while still good, his game play took a drastic step back this season compared to 2017-2018. Between Paul, Harden, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon the Rockets have zero cap space to work with.

Once again the Rockets will watch difference makers leave. It will be hard to imagine guys like Austin Rivers, and Kenneth Faried returning. They were signed after they were bought out midseason, so playing with the Rockets was essentially a showcase for their next team. Bench guys like Gerald Green, Iman Shumpert, and Danuel House could likely be headed out as well.

Chris Paul is 34. Defensive star P.J. Tucker is 34. Nene is 36, with no guarantee of returning. Eric Gordon is 31, and Harden will be 30 when next season tips off. There is an understandable sense of urgency, but there are no clear ways to improve.

Trading will be difficult. Houston has no draft picks this off-season and the only tradable assets are Gordon, Capela, and Tucker. Tucker and Capela are most likely untouchable, but without any draft picks to dangle next to Gordon, you won't see him being traded for an upgrade.

In short, Houston's chances at improvement this offseason don't look great. But with their starting 5 locked up, their chances of being worse are fairly small.

General Manager Daryl Morey has made a habit the past few years of keeping his core guys and slapping the bondo equivalent of journeyman players on the bench to soak up regular season minutes. They're usually redemption projects that fit Houston's unique system, signed for veteran minimum contracts or scooped midseason like this past one off the buyout market. It's a very hit or miss tactic though. Sometimes you get a Luc Mbah A Moute, and sometimes you get a Michael Carter-Williams.

As it stands, if the Rockets go that route and simply fill in the inevitable bench holes, they will still be a great team. Will they be better than this year's? It's difficult to think so, but they will still be competitive.

In order to improve beyond being this generation's Knicks to Bulls-esque Warriors, the Rockets have shown that they need to improve. That task seems incredibly difficult to pull off given the Rockets' financial constraints and lack movable assets, but if there's a GM out there that can find a way, Morey is certainly among them. Until then, Houston fans will have to be something they've become frustratingly accustomed to:

Patient.

Astros Red Sox rematch, Verlander on a roll and more

Harden is first team All-NBA, but is there a problem with Paul?

Composite photo by Brandon Strange

James Harden was named first team All-NBA Thursday. The vote for him was unanimous as it was for Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will likely wrest the NBA MVP Award from Harden. It's Harden's fifth first team selection. Hakeem Olajuwon was named first team six times. LeBron James is the all-time leader with 12 first team selections, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant each made it 11.

Sounds as though Chris Paul may not have sent Harden congratulatory flowers or candy. It seemed weak of the Rockets to not hold customary exit interviews and media availability soon after their season ended. Some light may have been shed on that if the report is accurate that Paul had done some chafing over the extent of Harden's ball dominance (maybe more so after Harden's four fourth quarter turnovers in the game six capitulation vs. the Warriors?) and stand around nature of Harden iso-ball. That style coupled with the relentless heaving of three point shots generally served the Rockets well, but has its flaws. For years Paul was a brilliant and low turnover orchestrator of offense so some frustration for him is understandable. But with that, Paul needs to understand that he's not the player he used to be. It's the Rockets' problem that over the next three seasons they'll be paying Paul as if he's better than ever.

On the Astros

The Astros are a loaded team but certainly not perfect. General Manager Jeff Luhnow has no need to act now but things may be moving in the direction of him looking hard for a starting pitcher addition between now and July 31. Collin McHugh failed and is now injured. Josh James has been wild and shaky, Corbin Martin the same two starts in a row. Framber Valdez isn't very highly regarded, and Forrest Whitley has been awful in four straight starts at AAA. Any one of those guys could wind up stabilizing the fifth spot in the rotation. Or maybe it's an acquisition like the Blue Jays' Marcus Stroman.

After a disappointing series split with the White Sox the Astros spend a second consecutive weekend with the Boston Red Sox. Last weekend they took two of three at Fenway Park, without Justin Verlander pitching. If Tal's Hill still existed at Minute Maid Park, Tuesday night against the White Sox Verlander might have pitched his third career no-hitter. Verlander goes Sunday in pursuit of his ninth win already this season. He's 8-1 with a sparkling 2.24 earned run average. Verlander's career season to date is 2011 when as a Detroit Tiger he won 24 games (with just five losses) and posted a 2.40 ERA enroute to winning both the American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. The Yankees Domingo German has come out of nowhere to be 9-1 with a sub-three ERA, but Verlander is well out front to win his second "Cy." That would go with his three second place finishes and one third place finish.

Verlander is now basically a surefire Hall of Famer on top of his game at age 36. Among the seven pitchers to win a "Cy" after turning 36, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is the "Wait. What is he is doing with these other names?" guy. The others are all 300 game winners, and except for Roger Clemens, all Hall of Famers. The Rocket won three Cy Young awards after turning 36, the last as an Astro when he was 43. Randy Johnson won four in a row STARTing when he was 36. The other golden relative oldies: Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, and Early Wynn.

Home run derby

The juiced baseballs are flying out of big league ballparks at a record rate this season. The Astros have certainly done their part, hitting 90 home runs in their 51 games. Their season homer pace is at 285. The 2017 World Series winning offensive juggernaut hit 238. The Yankees set the team season record last year with 267. The surprising Minnesota Twins belted eight homers Thursday in improving the best record in MLB to 33-16. The Twins have 98 dingers in 49 games. That's exactly two per game on average, meaning a season pace toward 324. The record for most homers allowed in a season is 258, by the Reds three years ago.The Orioles' atrocious pitching staff has already given up 107 home runs. That's on pace to give up 339. 339!

Boston common

The Stanley Cup Final starts Monday night with Boston against St. Louis. The Red Sox won the most recent World Series. The Patriots won the most recent Super Bowl. Go Blues! Um, that's St. Louis. Thank goodness the Celtics flamed out in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

Buzzer beaters

1. Only a boob wouldn't have voted Harden first team All-NBA. 2.The two who voted Harden first All-Defensive team are no Rocket scientists. 3. Greatest scientists not named Einstein: Bronze-Pasteur Silver-Galileo Gold-Newton

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