James Harden actually has help this season. Rockets.com
The Houston Rockets are currently two games in front of the Golden State Warriors for the number one seed in the Western Conference. They also hold the tiebreaker should the two teams end up with the same record. But do people really believe they can win an NBA title?
To do so, they’d have to get passed the Warriors. The Warriors have one of the most loaded rosters in NBA history. They won an NBA record 73 games before they added Kevin Durant. After Durant joined their team, they won another title. The Rockets, on the other hand, lost in the Western Conference Finals the year the Warriors won 73 games and failed miserably last year in the second round of the playoffs versus the San Antonio Spurs.
One of the things that makes this year different is the Rockets’ ability to play defense and have other guys score When James Harden or Chris Paul can’t get it going. No longer is Trevor Ariza the sole defensive stalwart on the team. Luc Mbah A Moute and P.J. Tucker provide the team with other “3 and D” guys, besides Ariza, who can defend multiple positions and hit the three. Eric Gordon has stepped up to the plate as the Vinnie “Microwave” Johnson of this team. He can light it up off the bench at any given moment and has improved his defense. Clint Capela has made leaps and bounds as not only a defender, but also as a pick and roll threat.
Another difference in this year versus previous years is the fact that the Spurs, notorious thorn in the Rockets’ side, are more vulnerable this year. Their best player, Kwahi Leonard, has been hurt most of the year. Their second best player, Lamarcus Aldridge, recently went down with an injury and hasn’t played well when he and Leonard are sharing the floor. They are still a dangerous team if both guys are healthy, but that hasn’t come to fruition this season.
Perhaps the best reason for the Rockets’ increased chances of a title run this season, is the fact that the guys surrounding Harden are leaders. Paul and Tucker are widely recognized as more vocal vets in the huddle and/or locker room. Ariza is a no-nonsense guy, but I think he wasn’t able to reign in the locker room as quickly as he’d like. By Harden being surrounded by so many guys that take the game so serious, it seems as if it’s rubbing off on him this season. Having another playmaker/ball handler like Paul eases the tension and load on Harden’s shoulders.
I personally believe this version of the Rockets is more well-equipped to make a run at a title than previous versions of this team with Harden at the helm. There are other teams that factor into the West being won than the Warriors. The Minnesota Timberwolves are a young and upcoming team that can be taken serious as a possible threat. Harden is in such a zone, it would be hard to envision him faltering in the playoffs this season. Paul hasn’t achieved the successes that other guys have, but it’s debatable as to why. Without a clear cut third superstar, Capela isn’t there yet, this team lacks the ammunition previous teams’ have had. Now he has guys he can trust to make plays and distribute. This Rockets team deserves our undivided attention and support. It’s high time we come together as a city and support them the way they’re playing their butts off.
Houston Astros skipper Joe Espada wasted no time this week at spring training by answering one of the most talked about questions of the offseason.
Espada revealed that newly-acquired free agent Josh Hader will be the team's closer and will pitch the ninth inning, with Ryan Pressly working as the setup man.
Bryan Abreu will be tapped to pitch the seventh inning, but it wouldn't shock anyone if he had the best season of the three. But after Abreu, things get interesting in the bullpen.
Who pitches the sixth inning?
Astros GM Dana Brown gave Rafael Montero a vote of confidence, saying he's “legit.”
While we have our concerns about Montero after he finished with an ERA over five last year, there's reason for hope. The nature of relief pitchers halving up and down seasons from year to year could work in Montero's favor.
And with the salary that's already committed to him, Brown will likely give him every opportunity to justify his contract. It will be fascinating to see how Espada deploys him early on. You have to think with the boss man backing Montero, Espada will be on board too.
But if he does struggle, will Espada quickly stop using him in critical situations? The good news is, the team won't often have to turn to him in high leverage situations with Abreu, Pressly, and Hader ready to handle those duties.
Be sure to watch the video above for the full discussion about the Astros 'pen, and much more!
Don't miss Stone Cold 'Stros (an Astros podcast) every week on SportsMapHouston's YouTube channel!