FOUR KEY POINTS

Observations from Rockets training camp and preseason (Part 2)

As the Rockets returned back from their long, grueling trip overseas, they returned to questions ranging from their on-going China controversy to actual basketball stuff. Today, we're going to break from all the China craziness and just focus on all the interesting basketball stuff. (Believe it or not, basketball is being played at the Toyota Center in the background of this geopolitical mess.) Without further ado, here's part two of observations from training camp.

​1. Ryan Anderson will play backup center (sometimes)

One of the interesting developments of preseason has been the Rockets experimenting with newly added forward Ryan Anderson at center with second units. Some of this may be out of necessity, as center Nene Hilario is out with an adductor injury and may be severely limited due to the structure of his incentives-based contract. Also, the Rockets may implement a rest schedule for Tyson Chandler, 38 years old, as they did with Hilario.

"Definitely. I think we can look at that," said Mike D'Antoni when asked about Anderson playing center. "You know Tyson, probably, some back-to-backs won't play. So obviously, there's some [minutes] there. You can go small with him, although he's big."

Anderson seemed more than open to the idea and even playfully encouraged media to refer to him as a center from now on.

"It's definitely a role we talked about here," said Anderson. "I think it's something I can be really effective at. This team can play in a lot of different ways so that's just one of them."

Chandler will likely be the primary option at backup center, but the Rockets have been known to experiment even with a full roster.

"I think [center will be an option] obviously depending on matchups and the way teams play," said Anderson. "Some teams might want to go big and we can change the lineup around to where I might play the four. It's just the way the league is now. A lot of teams go small and it could be a different dynamic of a lineup with me playing at the five."

2. Rockets players slowly adjusting to Russell Westbrook

For most of the early training camp, the questions have all been about how James Harden and Russell Westbrook can fit together.

"The first possession out of the gate, [Westbrook] went to the basket off a pick and roll, and he kicked it out to me and I hit a catch-and-shoot three," said Harden, who says he can see more catch and shoot opportunities for himself alongside Westbrook. "It just depends on how teams guard us. Throughout the course of the year, we're going to see so many different defenses. We'll take whatever they give us and try to execute."

So far, nobody on the Rockets has questioned whether or not this will be a cohesive combo. Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni, who has been enthusiastic about the pairing dating back to September, has liked what he's seen in the early going.

"It's easy. They can play together," reiterated D'Antoni at Sunday's practice. "It'll be an on-going process all year. They play off each other pretty well. The synergy there is pretty good."

However, there's also real questions about how other players will adjust to Westbrook. Westbrook, a much different player than Chris Paul or Harden, plays at a frenetic pace and for some - like athletic, young forward Danuel House - that's a welcome change.

"He pushes the ball in transition really fast, so filling the lanes is going to be a lot of fun this year," said House. "[We're] getting downhill quicker, scoring easier points. It's actually going to be good for the whole team because we can up the ante on our transition points."

House raises a valid point. Through four preseason games, the Rockets have been the third fastest team in the league - a drastic change to where they were last season (27th in the regular season, 25th in the preseason).

"We've always been a running team," said P.J. Tucker. "Now, that we have Russ, who's really good at pushing the ball and getting in the paint and making plays for people. We want to push it even more."

Westbrook, smirking, hinted that guys haven't quite adjusted to his pace yet, but claims that it's a process and the Rockets won't figure out all of the nuances in preseason anyways.

"We're getting there," said Westbrook. "The season hasn't even started yet. I only played two games. We got time. We're still figuring it out and figuring out the best way to play on both sides [of the ball]."

One thing that's been so pronounced is just how loud Westbrook is in a practice setting. Even when practice was opened up the fans on Monday, Westbrook didn't let up on the intensity. The trash talking and swearing and Rockets teammates have loved that side of Westbrook so far.

https://twitter.com/SalmanAliNBA/status/1183437195593388033?s=20

3. Turnovers may be a problem for Houston

A known risk when the Rockets traded for Russell Westbrook in July would be the spike in turnovers. Chris Paul's historically good assist to turnover ratio had been a nice counterbalance to James Harden over the past couple seasons, but Westbrook is the complete opposite in that respect. Through four preseason games, the Rockets are eighth in turnover percentage.

"The turnovers are killing us right now," said Mike D'Antoni. "Way too many turnovers. That leads to easy baskets for the other team."

Houston will try and do what they can, but looking at the way their roster is currently structured, it's hard to see turnovers not being their achilles heel this season.

"Offensively, we played very well, but we turned the basketball over too much," agreed James Harden. "We averaged 19 turnovers the last few games. Last game [against Toronto] we had like 9 or 10 turnovers and gave away 15 points."

4. Who fills Gerald Green's void?

According to ESPN's Tim MacMahon (and confirmed by Mike D'Antoni), it seems Gerald Green suffered a significant, potentially season-ending foot injury. Green may not be one of Houston's core seven players, but he's been consistent in their rotation over the past couple years. For regular season purposes, this injury is pretty significant.

The obvious question now is who takes those leftover minutes for the Rockets. Ben McLemore has been a popular name floated as a potential replacement for Green's eighth man role, but D'Antoni seems to be hesitant to nail down one specific replacement and will more likely have the role filled by committee.

"Austin would get more minutes, Ben [McLemore] could be, Thabo [Sefolosha] could be, Chris Clemons could be," said D'Antoni. "We're still working that out.

Fortunately for Houston, they have a decent amount of time to find another long-term replacement on the wing before the playoffs. If they do choose to search for market solutions, it does appear that they may be forced to pay the luxury tax this season which they tried to avoid last season. It's still very early to make a definitive determination though.

So how pumped are you about this Rockets' season so far? Are you willing to fake it a little? Their 5-3 start is OK, but nothing to fire up the masses.

The Rockets are going to be very good again this season. Somehow that's probably part of the problem with the relative apathy for this team. Other than within the Rockets organization, or among the most loyal and hopeful fans, the Rockets are not considered a first tier NBA championship contender.

Russell Westbrook makes them a more compelling game to game watch. Other than that (and The Brodie is a big that), the Rockets have a bit of same old same old feel to them. Their same old same old isn't bad. It's quite good. James Harden is going to keep putting up astounding stats. The Rockets are going to keep firing up three point shots like no other. They will win plenty of games. But does it excite you on a regular basis? Even with the Warriors out of the way this season, until or unless the Rockets are in at least the Western Conference Final, they're not going to be vigorously embraced as a title threat. That's a tough standard. But it's where the Rockets are.

Astros making off-season news

It's still kind of letdown mode from the Astros losing the last two games of the World Series. Plus the off season Hot Stove of transactions isn't even warming yet, as we wait to see where Gerrit Cole signs to pitch for the next several years. Among many other moves.

Anyone can understand a father wanting to set up his son going forward. UH basketball Head Coach Kelvin Sampson has done a stupendous job rebuilding the Cougars, so in his new contract was able to have his son Kellen designated as "head coach in waiting." Jim Crane is the lead owner of the Astros, so we should all grasp his moving son Jared into Astros' business operations, and moving out Reid Ryan in the process. I now note that I don't know Reid really at all on a personal level, and not all that deeply on a professional level. While it's the on field results that by far most shape the image of the franchise, when the Astros were a joke in this city, bringing on the relentlessly upbeat, approachable, and classy son of Nolan as President of Business Operations was a notable step in the Astros' return to relevance. With Reid reassigned, in a non-shocking non-coincidence, Nolan is out as an Astros Special Advisor.

Key stretch for Texans after off week

Allow me a brief semi-screed about the Texans' open week. Most of the sports world refers to it as a "bye" week. Most of the sports world is wrong! A bye is when an individual or team advances in a tournament bracket without having to play. If for the first time in franchise history the Texans finish as one of the top two seeds in the AFC, they will earn a bye week past the Wild Card round directly into the Divisional round of the playoffs. A week during the season when a team has no game scheduled is not a bye week. It's an open week, or an off week, or a week without a game. It's not a bye week! I feel a little better for that, thanks.

As for the Texans, their open week (!) finds them in good position in the AFC South. At 6-3, they'll pick up tackling the defining stretch of their regular season schedule. Deshaun Watson gives them hope in any game anywhere, but it's unlikely the Texans win two road playoff games to get to the Super Bowl. They need the playoff bye which means one home win from a spot in AFC Championship game. There are two division leaders ahead of the Texans in the AFC. The Ravens are 6-2, the Patriots are 7-1. The Texans play both within their next three games: at Baltimore, home vs New England. Those challenges are sandwiched around a home game with the Colts. Indy is behind the Texans at 5-3 (before the Colts play the dismal Dolphins Sunday) but with a win at NRG Stadium would own the AFC South tiebreaker. With a loss in Baltimore they're probably Texans Toast with regard to securing a bye. With a win they'd have a real shot at bit, winning tiebreakers over both the Ravens and the Chiefs.

SEC showdown

College football's latest regular season game of the year has LSU at Alabama Saturday afternoon. The Crimson Tide has rolled the Tigers in their last eight meetings. Two of the last three years LSU didn't even score.This season's Alabama's defense isn't up to usual elite Nick Saban unit standards, LSU has an explosive modern up-tempo attack for the first time, well, ever. With a strong showing and a win Tiger quarterback Joe Burrow can about cinch up the Heisman Trophy. LSU's only Heisman winner did it 60 years ago, Billy Cannon in 1959. Entirely gratuitous follow up fact!: Syracuse won the National Championship that season, beating Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

Buzzer Beaters

1. I'll take LSU +6 ½ 2. Toronto or Seattle Sunday? MLS Cup matchup! 3. Best rarely used synonyms for steal: Bronze-snaffle Silver-purloin Gold-filch





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