THE PALLILOG

Let's discuss the most intriguing subplots of Rockets vs. Thunder

Composite image by Jack Brame.

Last week in this space I wrote that if planning on winning the short season American League West title the Astros were strongly advised to not get swept in Oakland. They then proceeded to get swept in Oakland. Now after taking two out of three from a bad Giants' team the Astros enter the weekend at 8-10, four and a half games behind the Athletics and presently not even in a Wild Card position. The Astros remain a pretty solid pick to make the eight team AL tournament, but it has been jarring to see them reduced from their superpower status of the last three years to a mediocre squad. Hey, no team would simply roll on after losing its two dominant starting pitchers as the Astros did with Gerrit Cole leaving for the Yankees and then Justin Verlander lasting one start. Add in a decimated bullpen, a thus far awful Jose Altuve, George Springer having missed time to injury and not hitting his weight, and with this season's playoff format 8-10 is nowhere near the end of the world.

The Astros get the lousy Mariners for a three game series this weekend at Minute Maid Park. While it's a tough standard to say anything short of a sweep would be a disappointment, anything short of a sweep would be a disappointment. Certainly with regard to hopes of winning the West. The Astros have seven head-to-head matchups remaining with the A's.

Countdown to liftoff for Rockets vs. Thunder

Speaking of disappointing, what a buzzkill that thanks to a quad strain Russell Westbrook seemingly won't answer the bell for the Rockets to start the playoffs Tuesday. The hope is Westbrook misses no more than one game, and with basically round the clock treatment through the weekend maybe not that. It's simple: with Westbrook the Rockets are slight favorites over Chris Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder, without him they are underdogs.

The Thunder may also be down a starting guard to start the series after rookie Luguentz Dort sprained a knee Wednesday. That's a vastly lesser loss than Westbrook for the Rockets, but it's a loss. Until his injury Dort started 28 straight games for OKC. He's a well-built tough defender who would take some of the defensive minutes trying to make James Harden's life more difficult. The Thunder backcourt is still strong. Paul had a terrific season and the four and a half month layoff wasn't a bad thing for his now 35-year-old legs which have betrayed CP3 at the end of full uninterrupted seasons in the past. Second year man 22-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is closing in on all-star level and is the Thunder's leading scorer. Dennis Schroeder is deserving of the Sixth Man of the Year Award.

In the frontcourt Danilo Galinari is very good and very key. We may look back and say whoever had the better series between Gallinari and Robert Covington is on the team headed to the second round. Getting Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari, and multiple first round picks in the Paul George to the Clippers trade was magnificent work by Thunder General Manager Sam Presti who is one of the best in the business. Coming into the season exactly no one would have predicted the Thunder to be as good as the Rockets. They have been, including taking the season series 2-1.

Weakness vs. weakness is one of the many subplots of Rockets vs. Thunder. The downsized Rockets are a lousy rebounding team. Giving up second chance opportunities and baskets has been a real problem. The Thunder has a legit big in center Steven Adams, but nonetheless ranks dead last in offensive rebounding percentage.

Another subplot: is Mike D'Antoni coaching for his job in this series? D'Antoni's contract is up at season's end. If the Rockets postseason graph reads 2018 Western Conference Final, 2019 Western Conference Semifinal, 2020 Western Conference out in the first round, how enthused would Tilman Fertitta be about re-upping D'Antoni at an upper tier salary? Despite the unusual circumstances under which this season is playing out, if the Rockets get bounced in the first round the season is an epic failure, the Westbrook for Paul trade looks bad, and the future would not look very bright. Flip the coin with a Rockets' series win, and we have a very interesting presumptive second round Rockets-Lakers matchup to savor.

With only a couple of arenas being used in the Orlando "bubble" there will be weekday matinee games through the first round. No way the Lakers or Clippers would be slotted in those. Rockets-Thunder play game one at 5:30 (Central time) Tuesday, game two 2:30 Thursday, game four 3:00 the following Monday.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. The Texans put on the pads for the first time Friday, inside four weeks to the September 10 season opener at Kansas City.

2. Of course most college football players want to play. They don't (and shouldn't) get to make the decision for institutions. And enough from coaches disingenuously spewing "it's all about the kids."

3. Best sherbet flavors on a blistering hot day: Bronze-lime Silver-orange Gold-watermelon

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5 questions on the John Wall trade

The Rockets made a big move. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets point guard carousel continued to spin Wednesday night, as the Woj bomb-iest of Houston-related Woj bombs erupted in the Space City:

For the third year in a row, the Rockets will begin the season with a new point guard, in an attempt to finally find someone that can play alongside James Harden. Let's take a look at how the Rockets got to this point, and what it means moving forward.

What led to the trade?

Russell Westbrook simply wanted out. Westbrook is the type of player that needs to be the number one ball handler and that simply wasn't ever going to happen on a James Harden led team. Other reports cited Westbrook's frustration with the lack of accountability and casual atmosphere within the locker room. Ultimately if anyone was going to be moved between Harden and Westbrook, it was always going to be Westbrook.

Why John Wall?

This one is another fairly straightforward answer: they both have relatively similar contracts. Each is making an absurdly overpriced $40 million this season, and both were disgruntled with their current team. Rockets General Manager Rafael Stone and Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard tossed the idea around a few weeks ago, but couldn't find a deal they liked. It was reported that discussions resumed Wednesday afternoon and within a few hours the deal was done in an almost one-for-one swap.

How does Wall fit?

This is a little more complicated because it's not exactly known what head coach Stephen Silas' game plan is. It's also difficult to predict whether or not Harden will still be on the roster when the season starts. But let's assume that Harden takes the court for the Rockets and that Silas' system resembles something similar to what we've seen in Houston for the past few years. In that case, Wall would be a slight upgrade to Westbrook. Westbrook is more athletic than Wall, but when healthy Wall was no slouch. In addition he's a much better defensive player and has much better court vision than Westbrook. Westbrook's assists were usually a bailout after attacking the lane with his head down, while Wall is more likely to set up a teammate.

This isn't to say that Wall doesn't need the ball though. He's fairly ball dominant, but not nearly as much as Westbrook. Harden proved last season that he's capable of effectively playing off the ball if necessary, so it seems like a better fit from a distribution rate alone. If they can find that sweet spot like they did with Chris Paul and stagger the lineups so that each star gets their own time to create, there's potential for an improved Rockets team more reminiscent of their 2018 run than the past two years.

What are the best and worst case scenarios?

The worst case is that the Rockets were sold a lemon. Wall has potential to be an upgrade, but comes with huge risk. He last took the court in 2018, where he was sidelined with a knee injury. He subsequently ruptured his Achilles in an accident at his home while recovering from the knee injury, forcing Wall off the court for almost two years. It's possible an extremely unfortunate Wall reinjures something and completely derails the machinations of the trade. Even if he's recovered fully, it will take time to get him up to game speed which could frustrate Harden on a team that can't afford a slow start in their stacked conference. Harden has managed to cultivate drama with just about every co-star he's played with, so there's no reason to assume this attempt would go any better.

The best case scenario is that Wall arrives ready to play team basketball and resembles the better part of his pre-injury form. Wall and Harden buy into Silas' new system, space the floor, and take turns carving up the lane with dribble drives and kick outs to players who can actually hit from distance. This version of the Rockets could potentially be a 3-seed in this year's Western Conference.

Who won the trade?

At the moment the Rockets. Not only did they remove at least one of their locker room distractions, but they also gain a first round pick. If Wall can stay healthy and Silas can keep both stars happy, this team should be a lot more fun to watch than last season's clunker.

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