THE Z REPORT

Lance Zierlein: Rockets are forced into an "all-in" scenario

Lance Zierlein: Rockets are forced into an "all-in" scenario
Bringing back Chris Paul means the window is now. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

So now what? Is it time to make wide-ranging changes or is it time to sit tight? Figuring out where the Rockets go from here can be tricky unless you really think things through. Well hang on… Daryl Morey is responsible for building this team, not us. Morey crafts team building plans two years in advance so I guess you and I trying to figure things out is irrelevant.

But I’m still going to get my two cents in.

Before we talk about Lebron James or any other “solutions” to the Golden State problem, we have to figure out where the Rockets stand in the grand scheme of winning a title. The “Clutch City” Rockets obviously had great success, but they believed a changing of the roster was necessary to beat Seattle. They added Charles Barkley to the mix, but sprung a leak against the Utah Jazz and the Rockets run ended in quick death thanks, in part, due to Barkley’s inability to get in shape and stay healthy. Plus they just got hella old.

Before you make any moves at all, you have to have an honest accounting of where you stand as an organization. Let’s delve.

Window shopping

The Philadelphia 76’ers and Boston Celtics are built for long-term runs since their teams are built through the draft. All their best players are still young and they have roster flexibility where they can deal talented, young players for quality veterans whenever they need.

The Rockets don’t have that same luxury. The Rockets “window” is very fluid. If we acknowledge there was a better than average chance that Chris Paul may have helped right the ship in the third and/or fourth quarters of games 6 or 7, then the Rockets would have found themselves in the Finals.

But do you just hang your hat on that knowledge and keep rolling? Yes and no.

Re-signing Chris Paul is a must thanks to his ability to control the offense when needed, find points with mid-range jumpers when the 3-pointers are clanking, and provide the leadership and mental toughness this team needed.

But once you lock in with Paul, you better realize that your window for a title is very small. For as much as we love Paul, he played in just 58 games, which is the second lowest of his career. He began the season with a soft-tissue injury and ended the season with a soft-tissue injury. He’s talented but older players don’t get more healthy, only less healthy.

Once Paul is re-signed, Morey must realize that the window for winning is much tighter and will require a roster being built around the understanding that Paul is likely going to miss several games. Some of the games Paul misses could be in the playoffs. Because of this, the pursuit and recruitment of another high-end talent like Lebron James will go into overdrive.

Re-signing Paul and Clint Capela along with allowing guys like Gerald Green and Trevor Ariza to walk will still creates a status-quo situation unless the Rockets find a significantly better scorer and creator. Finding better point guard depth is a must now as well. I’m not big into small windows for success, but as long as you are going to rely on Chris Paul in 2018-2019, the Rockets have to go all-in.

 

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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