CHARLIE PALLILO

It's a Houston-Boston weekend, and the pressure should be on Bill O'Brien

Bill O'Brien was rewarded for...what? Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Fun weekend of Houston-Boston action with the Astros at Fenway for three games plus the Texans opening their season at the Patriots. The Astros are closing in on their second straight division title but the headliner is Texans-Pats.

Head Coach Bill O’Brien did not merit the fat four year contract extension the Texans gifted him in the offseason. O’Brien did credible but far from spectacular work in going 9-7, 9-7, 9-7 his first three seasons before last year’s 4-12 debacle. O’Brien now has five more years of big salary coming. That matches the contract length of the extension Doug Pederson got in Philadelphia. Pederson was rewarded for winning the Super Bowl.

O’Brien is an offense guy. Well, in four seasons the only time his offense hasn’t been regularly offensive (to the senses) was when Deshaun Watson flashed brilliance for a month and a half last season. The Texans’ hopes ride overwhelmingly on Watson’s arm, and legs, especially his each once torn ACLs. J.J. Watt’s return is rightfully heralded, but A: it’s unlikely Watt gets back to Defensive Player of the Year level, and B: the last two times Watt was Defensive Player of the Year, the Texans went 9-7. Without Watson the Texans’ offense would again be garbage, and another season would go into the dumpster.

The most logical guess at the Texans record is probably…9 and 7. Taking that off the table, given that after their season opening road games at the Patriots and Titans, the Texans have on paper the easiest schedule in the NFL, I’ll take over 9 wins…if Deshaun Watson plays at least 14 games.

Bregman killing it

Alex Bregman just continues to go off for the Astros, and man have they needed it.  Oakland charged magnificently to create a surprising American League West race, but after being tied for the lead twice,  the Astros re-forging a four game lead in the loss column going into the weekend means they would have to falter to not wind up winning it.

The Astros are back on pace to make it 100 wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history. Last season they won 101 with Jose Altuve the American League Most Valuable Player, Carlos Correa having his own MVP level season before missing a third of the season injured, and George Springer having the best season of his career. This season Altuve has been very good but nowhere close to what he was last year. Correa and Springer are both having the worst seasons of their careers.

Bregman meanwhile has exploded to bonafide superstar stature, and is the only Astro core four guy not to spend time on the disabled list this season. Bregman isn’t the American League’s best or most valuable player this season, that’s Mookie Betts of the Red Sox. But Bregman is now arguably top three, certainly top six.

Bregman is playing at such a spectacular level that Kate Upton’s friends are probably now asking her to set THEM up with HIM.

Pitching in

A.J. Hinch has interesting pitching decisions to sort through ahead of the postseason. There is no good reason to carry more than 11 pitchers for a best of five series (or best of seven) that would have two off days should it go the distance. There is zero chance of needing five starters, so that’s a seven man bullpen. Five definites are Roberto Osuna, Hector Rondon, Collin McHugh, Ryan Pressly, and Tony Sipp. Brad Peacock would seem pretty certain as number six. That leaves one spot. Chris Devenski? Better show something the next three weeks. If Devo is a no-no maybe Framber Valdez as a second lefty? Whither Lance McCullers? No spot for Will Harris. Even if the Astros unnecessarily go with 12 pitchers, a couple of familiar names must be left off.

Over the last couple months Dallas Keuchel is the Astros best starter, but Justin Verlander certainly will get the ace call for game one. Keuchel or Gerrit Cole in game two? Is Charlie Morton a game four starter? Should the Astros be down 2-1, Verlander on short rest in game four with the game two starter then on full rest if there’s a game five?

Bad Bevo

It would be ironic if Tom Herman’s tenure at Texas turned out to be all hat, no cattle. He coaches Longhorns after all. It’s one mediocre season plus one game, so any “Fire him now!” ranting is absurd. But losing to Maryland in the opener for the second year in a row? Lame if not necessarily ominous. UT should have it easy with Tulsa but a four game gantlet follows: #17 USC, #16 TCU, at Kansas State, #6 Oklahoma. 1-5 is certainly possible.

Buzzer Beaters

 1. A&M-Clemson is roughly a billion times more interesting than UT-Tulsa  2. Burt Reynolds and the original The Longest Yard, excellent. The Adam Sandler remake, awful.   3. Best live college mascots: Bronze-Ralphie (Colorado) Silver-Traveler (USC) Gold-UGA (Georgia)

 

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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