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.
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.
Ronald Acuña Jr. and Corbin Carroll just got a little more dangerous. Same for Bobby Witt Jr., Elly De La Cruz and the rest of baseball's fastest players.
Major League Baseball wants umpires to crack down on obstruction, and the commissioner's office outlined plans during a call with managers this week. MLB staff also will meet managers in person during spring training to go over enforcement.
The increased emphasis is only on the bases and not at home plate. The focus is on infielders who drop a knee or leg down in front of a bag while receiving a throw, acting as a deterrence for aggressive baserunning and creating an increased risk of injuries.
“I think with everything, they’re trying to make the game a little safer to avoid some unnecessary injuries," Phillies shortstop Trea Turner said Friday at the team's facility in Florida. “The intentions are always good. It comes down to how it affects the players and the games. I’m sure there will be plays where one team doesn’t like it or one team does.”
With more position players arriving at spring training every day, the topic likely will come up more and more as teams ramp up for the season.
“We'll touch on that. We'll show them some video of what’s good and what’s not,” Texas Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “You know, it’s going to be a little adjustment.”
Making obstruction a point of emphasis fits in with an ongoing effort by MLB to create more action. Obstruction calls are not reviewable, which could lead to some disgruntled players and managers as enforcement is stepped up, but it also means it won't create long replay deliberations.
A package of rule changes last season — including pitch clocks, bigger bases and limits on defensive shifts and pickoff attempts — had a dramatic effect. There were 3,503 stolen bases in the regular season, up from 2,486 in 2022 and the most since 1987.
MLB changed a different baserunning rule this offseason, widening the runner’s lane approaching first base to include a portion of fair territory. MLB also shortened the pitch clock with runners on base by two seconds to 18 and further reducing mound visits in an effort to speed games.
“Last year, you know, a lot of our preparation was around like, especially just the unknown of the clock and making sure like we’re really buttoned up on that," New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "These guys are so used to it in so many ways that sometimes I even forget.”
Increased enforcement could lead to more action on the basepaths. But a significant element of MLB's motivation is injury prevention.
Top players have hurt hands or wrists on headfirst slides into bases blocked by a fielder. White Sox slugger Luis Robert Jr. sprained his left wrist when he slid into Jonathan Schoop's lower left leg on a steal attempt during an August 2022 game against Detroit.
“It’s been happening for a while. It’s been getting out of control," Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “I know some of the players complained about it the last two years.”
While acknowledging his reputation as a significant offender, Phillies second baseman Bryson Stott didn't sound too worried about his play.
“We like to fight for outs at second base,” he said. "It’s never on purpose, blocking the base. For me, or someone covering second to the shortstop side, it’s a natural move for your knee to go down to reach the ball. It’s never intentional. I guess we’ll figure out how to maneuver around that.”