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.

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.

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Mauricio Dubon has stepped up big for Houston. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

So all it took to rouse the Astros into playing stellar baseball was competition that got their attention? It’s not that simple but taking two out of three from the Blue Jays followed by a three game sweep of the Braves in Atlanta and then winning two of three from the Rays in St. Petersburg sure seems to have order restored in Astroworld. A weekend rematch of last fall’s World Series vs. the Phillies should hold their attention.

Who saw this coming?

Raise your hand if you had Mauricio Dubon having a 20 game hitting streak this season. Hand down liars! The Astros have one Hall of Fame second baseman in Craig Biggio. They have a future Hall of Fame second baseman candidate in Jose Altuve. Dubon is probably bound for the Honduran Sports Hall of Fame if such a thing exists but Cooperstown will never be calling him. Nevertheless, Mauricio Dubon now has a longer hitting streak than Biggio ever compiled or than Altuve has yet to compile. That sounds ridiculous but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Biggio’s career best hitting streak was an 18 gamer in 2001. Altuve hit in 19 straight during his Most Valuable Player Award-winning 2017 season. The longest hitting streak by any Astros’ second baseman belongs to Jeff Kent, 25 games in 2004. Amazingly, Dubon is within striking distance. He is ten games away from the Astros’ franchise record hitting streak, the 30 game stretch posted by Willy Taveras in 2006. Funny thing about Taveras is he was a poor offensive player overall in 2006. He hit .278, but rarely walked (just 34 walks in 587 plate appearances), and had next to no power which added up to a weak .672 OPS.

Dubon has been terrific, but Altuve need not bone up on Wally Pipp. If unfamiliar, in 1925 Pipp was the Yankees’ starting first baseman who missed a game because of a headache and was replaced by Lou Gehrig. Gehrig next missed a game 14 years later. There is zero question that as soon as Altuve is ready to rejoin the Astros he reclaims his position and Dubon goes to the bench. Well, unless a month from now Dubon’s hitting streak is intact and making Joe DiMaggio spin a little in his grave.

Things continue to go poorly for the other half of the right side of the Astros’ infield. Jose Abreu drags a .554 OPS into the weekend. Frame of reference: Martin Maldonado had a .600 OPS last season, .573 in 2021. Maldonado has finished a season with an OPS worse than .554 just once in his career (.520 in 2013). Abreu’s extra base hits tally is a paltry four, all doubles. It’s still early, but less so by the day. Counting last season and this, Abreu has one home run in his last 80 games played. He has 104 at bats and drawn four walks.

Magnificent Maton

Back to the subject of unexpectedly outstanding Astros with a tip of the cap to Phil Maton. He was mediocre last year (though it was his best MLB season to date) and had his season end ignominiously with a broken hand incurred by punching a locker after a poor outing in the 162nd and final game of the regular season. He was not missed at all in the postseason. No higher than sixth in the bullpen pecking order coming into this season, Maton has been near perfect thus far. He’s made 10 appearances, pitched 11 2/3 innings giving up just two hits, walking just one while striking out 13. Earned run average: 0.00. Like Ryne Stanek in the Astros’ pen, Maton is a free agent after this season.

Pirates handing out the booty

The Pittsburgh Pirates gave outfielder Bryan Reynolds a seven year 100 million dollar contract extension this week. The Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s been widely reported as an eight-year extension, but that’s wrong. It’s seven years on top of the contract he already had for this season, plus a 20 million dollar option for 2031 that carries a two million dollar buyout. Reynolds is more than two years older than Kyle Tucker, and not as good. He could have become a free agent after the 2025 season, which is when Tucker can hit the open market. The Astros refusal to this point to consider longer than seven years for Tucker is increasingly questionable. Reynolds got 100 million new dollars guaranteed. A seven-year extension for Tucker would likely take at least 150 million. Astros’ revenues dwarf Pirates’ revenues.

Crunching the numbers

Amazing if not significant stat: Dating back to last August the Astros have now won their last 17 “getaway” games, meaning the last game of a series before travel required to get to the next series.

Amazing and not wholly insignificant stat: The Astros remain undefeated in games Maldonado wasn’t the catcher, now 7-0. Maldonado is batting .143 with a .440 OPS, and this week added his MLB-leading third passed ball of the season. Still small sample size, but the Astros’ team ERA is lower when Maldonado is not the catcher.

Looking for more Astros coverage?

Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it goes up at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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