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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Tucker looks like the real deal. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker finally had his breakout season in 2020. The 23-year-old flashed potential to be a legitimate five-tool threat. He slashed .268/.325/.512, swiped eight bags, and played above average defense. Is Tucker's performance sustainable? Not only that, but is there room for growth?

Hard Hit % - 44.5%

Barrel % - 9.1%

K % - 20.2%

BB % - 7.9%
Chase % - 26.2%

The first thing to realize with Kyle Tucker is the small sample size at the MLB level. Despite appearing in three separate seasons, he's played in a total of 108 games, which is obviously quite a bit shy of even one full season. He also has an extremely unique swing that you wouldn't teach to anybody, but it "works" for him. This makes him a tough hitter to judge, as it's uncomfortable judging mechanics that work for him, and it's uncomfortable judging numbers that haven't had time to develop trends.

Hard Hit, Barrel, and Chase numbers are unavailable for the minors, but walk and strikeouts percentages are. This creates the ability to at least look at one trend.

Tucker broke onto the scene in 2018 with a monstrous season for AAA Fresno, the Astros affiliate at the time. In 2018, Tucker slashed .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 20 steals. He had an 18.1% K% and a 10.3% BB% that season. In 2019, Tucker struck out a little bit more (21.6%) but also walked a little bit more (11.2%). Tucker's 20.2% K% in 2020 is more in line with his minor league K%, indicating he's adjusted to major league pitching.

Tucker essentially put the pieces of contact ability and quality of contact from his previous MLB stints together in 2020. In 2018, Tucker didn't strike out very much (18.1% K%), but his 3.9% Barrel % didn't strike fear in any opponent.

In 2019, Tucker had a 12.8% Barrel %, and his 92 MPH average exit velocity is the best of his three seasons in MLB, but he struck out 27.8% of the time and walked just 5.6% of the time.

In 2020, there's a marriage between the two. His K% and BB% aren't as good as his 2018 marks, but they're better than his 2019 marks. His exit velocity and Barrel % aren't as good as his 2019 marks, but they're better than his 2018 marks. Tucker became a hitter that was able to do more damage without sacrificing consistency.

Tucker had a xBA of .267, which is right in line with his .268 average. His .459 xSLG lags behind his .512 actual SLG, but it isn't a catastrophic drop. The version of Tucker Astros fans saw is essentially who he is, but how does he improve?

What really unlocked Tucker in 2020 was a change in his setup.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here he is on August 2nd against the Angels. As you can see, he's standing pretty straight up, and he has a "neutral" stance. Following the game on Aug. 2, Tucker was batting .200/.250/.300 with no homers.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here's Tucker on August 6th, just a few days later. He's started to close off his stance just a bit, but he's still pretty neutral, and he has a little more forward body lean with his torso. Following the game on Aug. 6, he was batting .214/.267/.357 with a homer.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Now, here's Tucker on August 10th. His stance is considerably closed off, and he's maintaining the forward body lean he adopted on August 6th. Following the game on Aug. 10, Tucker was batting .190/.230/.328. It would be the last time any of those numbers would be that low the rest of the year. He maintained that stance for the rest of the season, and he finished the month of August hitting .272/.333/.588.

The swing change allowed him to be a factor on the outside pitch. Tucker would pull off on his front side, which made it tough for him to keep balls fair on the pull side. He'd often yank inside fastballs into the stands down the right field line. It also made him uncompetitive on outside strikes, as he'd either swing-and-miss, or roll them over into the shift.

After he made the change, Tucker started steering inside pitches fair, and he was able to do something with pitches on the outer third.

The next step is finding a way to continue to diversify his batted ball profile. Tucker's pull percentage in 2020 was 47%. That's a higher pull % than guys like Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. It was only 1% lower than Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo.

The one dimensional batted ball profile allows teams to shift Tucker aggressively. Teams shifted Tucker in 74% of his at-bats. His wOBA against the shift is .304. In AB's where teams didn't shift him, Tucker had a .455 wOBA. The shift hurts Tucker more than most as well, because he hits the ball on the ground 39% of the time. Gallo and Olson hit it on the ground 32% and 35% of the time respectively.

Lastly, Tucker's performance on breaking balls leaves a lot to be desired. He crushes fastballs, as he batted .303 with a .574 SLG against fastballs in 2020, with a .292 xBA and .528 xSLG. His .208 AVG and .396 SLG against breaking balls aren't very good, and his .209 xBA and .340 xSLG don't tell a prettier story. His 32% whiff % against breaking balls is nearly double his whiff % on fastballs.

If Tucker can learn to be more competitive against breaking balls and learn to use the whole field, then he'll be a really scary hitter. If he doesn't, teams will be able to gameplan for him, and he'll see streaky production similar to other one dimensional hitters like Matt Carpenter and the aforementioned Gallo and Olson.

While the bat may be streaky, Tucker brings it with the glove and on the bases. He had 5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in the outfield in 2020, a 0.6 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and he was plus-4 in Outs Above Average. His well above average speed and instincts give him the ability to be a rangy outfielder and dangerous baserunner.

Tucker had a breakout season in 2020, but there's still changes left to be made if he wants to be a breakout star and not a one hit wonder.

This is part four of an offseason series covering the 2020 Houston Astros. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 on SportsMap.

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