The Pallilog

Jeff Luhnow and the Astros have some work to do

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Viewed as a snapshot of the last couple of weeks the Astros are horrible. Widen the view to the season to date and they're still the fourth best team in Major League Baseball and on pace to win 98 games. But they are staggering. It's now nine losses in the last 11 games. In four of them the pitching staff has given up at least 10 runs. The Pirates beating the snot out of the Astros 14-2 and 10-0 within 24 hours means the Astros start the weekend with their American League West lead over the surprising Texas Rangers down to four and a half games. That's the Astros' slimmest margin since they went to sleep the night of May 9.

The Astros can make no moves and quite likely win the division, but in pursuit of some homefield advantage in the postseason and then putting out the best team they can in the playoffs, it's increasingly clear that General Manager Jeff Luhnow is asleep at the wheel if he's not exploring trading for a starting pitcher. I would bet a good chunk of money that Luhnow is not asleep at the wheel. None of the Astros pitching prospects have given good reason to think a good answer for 2019 lies within.

Star struck

That George Springer is a deserving All Star Game starter despite missing a month tells you the kind of season he's having, and the kind of season American League outfielders as a group are not having. Michael Brantley is worthy too. Mike Trout, duh.

Alex Bregman gets voted in to start for the first time. He's having a season that overall is right in line with last year's monster breakout campaign. But I bet Bregman is ticked that his batting average is only .264. He's popping the ball up a lot this season, and also popping the ball out of the park with much greater frequency (the juiced balls help, but everyone else gets to swing at them too). Bregman is on pace for 43 home runs. As Astros only Jeff Bagwell (47). Lance Berkman (45) and Richard Hidalgo (44) have topped 43 in a season.

Making moves

The NBA free agency frenzy gets underway at 5:00 Central Time Sunday afternoon. The Rockets can only be bit players in the direct free agent market, but as usual General Manager Daryl Morey is thinking bigger. It is amusing that while Morey is saying the Rockets should be talked about as the favorites in the Western Conference, he's trying to break apart the team. With designs on making it better, but still trying to break it up. There was no trade market for Chris Paul, so relief from the 3 years 124 million dollars left on Paul's deal was not happening. Besides, while Paul's contract is absurd he is still a legit starting point guard. Who would the Rockets have replaced him with anyway?

So, the foremost object of Daryl's desires is Tomball native and current 76er Jimmy Butler. If Butler says he wants to be a Rocket for four seasons and approximately 140 million dollars (the Sixers can offer up to five years about 190 mil), the Sixers probably would be open to signing and trading him. To make it work under the salary cap the Rockets would have to unload Eric Gordon and Clint Capela. Or: Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and salary cap filler like Nene and Gary Clark.

Gordon would make sense for the Sixers (so would Tucker). Capela would be a 16 million dollar backup to the vastly superior Joel Embiid. Meaning Capela would have to rerouted elsewhere.

Would either trade make the Rockets better? No, at least not initially. Butler can be a pouter if he doesn't see the ball as much as he wants. How would standing around while James Harden dominates work out? Paul has the same issue. Or would Harden accept a downsizing of his role which made him MVP and MVP runner-up the past two seasons? Let's presume they could get past that. The Rockets other two starters would be…? Without Capela, who protects the rim and rebounds? Hope they're not thinking fallen over the hill DeAndre Jordan. JaVale McGee? And what about the bench, which stunk most of last season.

There are role players such as Seth Curry, Danny Green, and Al-Farouq Aminu to be had in free agency, but the Rockets can be outbid for many of them, and it's not as if all free agents dream of playing for the Rockets. Morey's offseason signings last summer stunk. It's critical that he's much better this year.

Buzzer Beaters

:1. Left knee discomfort for Yordan Alvarez. Oy. Hope it's nothing more. 2. If Kawhi Leonard picks the Clippers it's not insane to count seven Western Conference teams that could wind up better than the Rockets. 3. Best Beatles' Songs: Bronze-Yesterday Silver-Hey Jude Gold-Let It Be

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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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