Joel Blank: What is missing from the Rockets? Another big man to add depth

Clint Capela has been really good, but he needs help on the interior. Houston Rockets/Facebook

What's missing?

Is the glass half-full, or is the glass half empty? Depending on your answer to that question, we can judge your level of optimism or pessimism as the Rockets get closer to the postseason. If the glass is half-full, then you are ecstatic about the additions of Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute and the fact that your Rockets team has the second best record in the entire league. On top of that, they’ve taken the season series from the defending champion Warriors, winning two out of three meetings. If you answered the glass is half empty, then you are worried about what happens when the Rockets stop making threes, you have a bit of discomfort in thinking about a seven game series against a Gregg Popovich-coached team that will try and take away the three and force you to play a half court game. Then there's the team you are obsessed with, the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who seem to do everything well. Regardless of how you answered the question, what's the answer? What's missing from this year's Houston Rockets?

We all know the Rockets have plenty of star power, and can score with anyone in the NBA. We know with the additions of Tucker and Mbah a Moute, the Rockets have improved their defense immensely and taken steps to improve the end of the floor that was mostly scrutinized at the end of last season. Chris Paul has helped to solidify both ends of the floor and give the team a second "go-to guy", while bolstering the defense as one of the league leaders in steals year after year. The most glaring weakness that this team has heading towards the trade deadline is a lack of depth on the front line and a lack of quality low post defenders that can stack up with the size and style of play that teams have implemented against Houston in the past that has sent the Rockets squad packing prematurely in the playoffs. Clint Capela has been great and is a perfect fit for what the Rockets try to do on both ends of the floor. He is a leading candidate for the Most Improved Player award and is the best rim protector the team has. The fact is, he can't do it alone. Nene has been a nice addition to the squad, but over the past season and a half, no matter how hard they have tried to keep him fresh and ready for the playoffs, he has been dinged up, injured and can't be counted on to play major minutes. Tarik Black is a good, young big man, but he has shown that he isn't quite ready for the big time when he has gotten opportunities to play and makes too many mistakes to be put on the floor when the lights are their brightest. Given the Rockets past problems in the playoffs when facing big front lines, they need to be looking for solutions now, rather than searching for answers in a panic later. Need I remind you of how the Blazers eliminated Houston from the post season with Robin Lopez and a steady dose of LaMarcus Aldridge, or when Aldridge and Gasol and company beat a more talented and athletic Rockets team and sent them home without even suiting up Kawhi Leonard in the deciding game? Daryl Morey and his staff have long memories and a short window, so you know they are already crunching the numbers and making calls to try and eliminate the last glaring weakness this team may have.

In the last three games the Rockets have played, they have gone against different variations of size up front that could give them problems if they faced a team with a similar style in the playoffs. Miami ran out an athletic center in Hassan Whiteside, and a combination of very athletic and very long position players around him that gave the Rockets fits as they were able to easily contest shots on the perimeter, defend passing lanes and alter shots all over the floor while still crashing the boards. Whiteside was virtually unstoppable in the first quarter where he had his way with any and all Rockets defenders and finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds. Against the Pelicans in New Orleans on Friday, the Rockets ran up against the biggest front line in the NBA and it gave them problems. DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis combined for 42 points and 24 rebounds while they dominated in the paint on both ends of the floor. Yesterday against the Phoenix Suns, a game that should have been an easy victory was made more difficult by Tyson Chandler in the middle grabbing 15 rebounds, altering shots and adding 11 points. The fact is, the Rockets are a good team that is getting better, but in order to help solidify their chances to get to the NBA finals and achieve all of their team goals, they need to add depth to the front line.

With the trade deadline looming Feb. 8, the question is can Daryl Morey do it again? Every year since he has become the Rockets general manager he has made at least one trade and I don't expect this year to be any different. Last year he was able to add a prolific scorer off the bench in Lou Williams. In other years he has just looked to add depth for the future. This year, with the team on the cusp of competing for a championship, it may be the most important year he dabbles in to the art of making a deal. What makes it more difficult this year is that the Rockets have a very solid rotation and can't afford to give up too much to get an extra big man for the stretch run. You have seen what this team looks like when it is missing one or more of their key players, and sometimes it's not very pretty. So while I expect Morey to explore any and all trade possibilities and probably pull the trigger on a minor deal before the deadline, the True Value may be lurking after Feb. 8.

Once the trade deadline has passed, it is common practice for teams that will not be going to the playoffs to buy out veteran players and try to save some overall money from their bottom line. This is a win-win for the veteran players released, because for whatever money they give up, they are given a chance to play for a team that is most likely going to the playoffs and competing for the opportunity to win a title. The Rockets are a team any veteran released or bought out would love to play for. Not only would the player recoup a portion of whatever money he gave up in a buyout by getting a playoff share from a squad virtually guaranteed to go deep in the Western Conference, but most guys want a shot to compete for a ring and the Rockets definitely give them a chance to do just that. So, with all that being said, who might be available and on the open market when the Rockets start looking for potential upgrades on the front line? here are three names to keep an eye on in the next few months, as possible big men the Rockets could add to their roster before they embark on their playoff push and quest to bring a title to H-Town:

Tyson Chandler

Chandler is an experienced, veteran big man who lives around the rim on both ends of the floor. On offense, he is the master of the pick-and-roll and lob or alley-oop. On the other end of the floor, Chandler is a smart defender that still can alter and block shots while cleaning the glass and playing solid low post defense. The fact that he played with Chris Paul in New Orleans is an added plus as the two of them already have great chemistry and he would be an easy fit and addition to the team. The one draw back is that he has one more year on his contract after this season at 13.5 million dollars and he may not be willing to walk away from that in a buyout? That also limits his value in a trade as no team is going to want to absorb the addition to their salary cap in 2018-19.

Greg Monroe

Monroe is another experienced big man that knows how to score down low when his number is called, but more importantly he has always been an above-average rebounder and solid defender in the paint. Monroe has played on some below-average teams like the Suns, Bucks and Pistons, but has always found a way to get his numbers and impress opposing players, coaches and scouts. He recently has been asked to come off the bench which is a plus for any team that adds him, as they don't have to worry about ego or demands to be in the starting lineup. The bottom line is that when asked, he has stepped up and performed at a high level and he has a desire to get to the postseason and win as he gets older and into the twilight years of his career. He is a free agent at the end of the year, so there would be no long-term drawbacks to a buyout from the Suns and potentially adding him to the Rockets roster.

Andrew Bogut

Here is an experienced big man that has won at the highest level, and has played for the Rockets biggest rival. As a member of the Golden State Warriors, Bogut not only proved to be a big man that can play in an up-tempo style, but he played effectively by altering and blocking shots, rebounding, and staying active on the defensive end. The fact that he played in Golden state only helps in the argument of why the Rockets should add him to their roster as he may not know the plays and terminology, but he definitely knows the strategy and tendencies of the team, coaching staff and players. The Lakers released Bogut a few weeks ago at the start of January, so he is out there and available and trying to decide what team he wants to play for. There are already rumors that the Rockets are in the mix and that he and Daryl Morey have spoken about the possibilities. Look for the Rockets to see what they can do at the deadline and then explore the possibility of adding Bogut over the final two and a half months of the regular season, The one draw back is that Bogut has turned the Rockets down in the past as he chose the Cavs over Houston in a similar situation 2 years ago, and that might not sit well with players and management.

The fact of the matter is, there are about 26 other teams that would love to be in the situation the Rockets are in. They would love to be title contenders looking to tweak their roster and give them a better shot of beating the Warriors and putting them over the top. Even if the red and white aren't able to add anybody up front and they finish out the year with the 15 guys that got them this far, they still have a legitimate shot to dethrone the champs and beat Golden State. At the end of the day, that's all you can ask for. Regardless, it should be fun to watch and interesting to keep an eye on as we head towards the trade deadline.

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The Astros are utilizing a 6-man rotation. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros should schedule an Old-Timers Game, if not annually maybe every other year. Only the Yankees have regularly played Old Timers Games and it’s a highlight in the Bronx every season. The Astros have plenty enough history to welcome back an ample number of guys to make for a fabulous event. Maybe they could tie it into their now annual Hall of Fame Weekend. Anyway, don’t you feel that if Jose Altuve took part in an Old Timers Game in 2050 he’d bang out a couple of hits, and then if the Astros played him in the regular game he’d line one more hit somehow, at age 60?

After missing the first 43 games of the season while recovering from his broken thumb, Altuve went 0 for four in his first game back, but has since been generally fantastic with his OPS through nine games played at 1.013. It won’t stay that high, but Altuve is a direly needed upgrade to the Astros’ offense which has been utterly mediocre. Offense is the reason the Astros continue to look up at the Texas Rangers in the American League West. The Rangers’ offense has been fantastic, outscoring the Astros by a whopping 100 runs through the first third of the season.

As the regular season entered its middle third this week, the Astros are in the middle of playing a game in 17 consecutive days. It’s their longest stretch of the season without an off day. They are inserting Ronel Blanco as a sixth starting pitcher in the rotation for a couple of turns. The point of mixing in a sixth starter isn’t that the Astros are teeming with guys who belong in a big league rotation. The 29-year-old Blanco is not a notable prospect. This is about lightening the load a little on two guys: Cristian Javier and Hunter Brown.

In becoming a rotation mainstay last season, Javier blew past his previous biggest season workload by nearly 50 innings. He’s on pace to go another 25 innings beyond that this year without even accounting for the playoffs. Hunter Brown last year set his professional high with 130 innings pitched encompassing work with the Space Cowboys and Astros. Brown is on pace for about 170 innings this regular season. That’s a significant jump, and of course the Astros are hoping for another postseason of multiple rounds. Javier, Brown, and Framber Valdez are the three most critical pitchers on the staff, and the Astros hope they remain healthily so for several more years.

Lance McCullers’s latest recovery setback makes his plight increasingly sad. Well, except for him on payday. The odds now lopsidedly favor McCullers never again pitching a near fully healthy and effective season. His only one to date was 2021 (until he broke down in the playoffs), the year before his five year 85 million dollar contract kicked in. McCullers pulls down 17 mil this year (And again next year. And in 2025. And 2026), exactly two and a half times what Framber Valdez makes. I reckon Framber’s representation is aware of this, as it is of the five year 63 million dollar deal the Astros struck with Cristian Javier. Framber is more than three years older than Javier, but has been better, and can hit free agency after the 2025 season, the same time Javier could have gone to market.

Timing isn’t everything but it darn sure can matter. The Astros’ two best relief pitchers through May were Hector Neris and Phil Maton. Neris enters June with a 1.19 earned run average, Maton even better with a teeny-weeny 0.68 ERA. Maton has been especially amazing, given that last year while not pitching very well he posted his career best ERA at 3.84. His 2022 ended ignominiously when after giving up a hit to his brother Nick in the regular season finale, Phil took the ding-a-ling of the week award by breaking his pitching hand punching his locker, sidelining him for the postseason. The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2010. Now Maton is up for Best Pitcher (per inning worked). Both Neris and Maton were James Click acquisitions. Both become free agents after this season.

Up next

Four games with the Angels at Minute Maid Park through the weekend mean the amazing Shohei Ohtani is in town. It’s “Sho-time” on the mound Friday night in a doozy of a pitching matchup with Framber, with Ohtani batting in at least three of the four games. In one player the Angels have a pitcher as good as Cristian Javier and a hitter better than Kyle Tucker. And the Angels will probably miss the playoffs again anyway. And then lose Ohtani in free agency. After the Angels series the Astros are on the road next week. They start with four games at Toronto against the Blue Jays’ very potent lineup, then it’s three at Cleveland vs. the Guardians whose offense has been pathetic so far this season.

Walk this way

Geek Astro factoid of the week: Jeremy Pena drew two walks in Tuesday’s win over the Twins. In his rookie season, Pena had only one two walk game, also in May, also against the Twins. Tuesday’s bases on balls finally got Pena into double digits for the season. He has just 11 walks drawn (largely explaining his weak .307 on-base percentage) vs. 50 strikeouts.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it goes up 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:

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