FOUR KEY POINTS

Observations from Rockets training camp and preseason (Part 2)

Russell Westbrook

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.

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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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Who's going to step up in the Astros outfield? Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images.

Astros manager Joe Esapda has certainly faced his share of criticism this season. When it was looking like another playoff appearance was out of reach in May, many were putting the blame mostly on Espada (Jose Abreu took his lumps too).

Now that the Astros have crawled above .500 and are in striking distance of the division leading Mariners, a new challenge has emerged.

Who should be playing regularly in the outfield and at first base? It would be nice if one of these options really stood out from the rest of the pack. But that hasn't been the case, at least since Joey Loperfido returned on June 21. So I decided to dive into this minuscule sample size to see who's making the best case to get regular at-bats as of late.

How have the bats fared since Loperfido returned?

When Loperfido rejoined the team, the Astros said they would get him more at-bats this time around. And that did happen for a while. He started five straight games after being recalled to the big league club (June 21).

His first game back was terrific as he recorded 3 hits with 2 doubles and 2 RBIs. But after that, he's done next to nothing as a starter. He did have a huge pinch hit against the Mets, but otherwise he's been pretty underwhelming since his big game against the Orioles on June 21.

So if Loperfido doesn't appear quite ready, what about Chas McCormick? McCormick shares some similarities with Loperfido recording one multi-hit game since June 21. He's started 4 games, plus some pinch hit opportunities. He, too, had a big game against Baltimore, but hasn't done much else in limited chances.

Trey Cabbage has shown some flashes with 1 multi-hit game in three starts. But nothing to write home about.

Mauricio Dubon has 2 multi-hit games with nine starts over this span, splitting time in the infield and outfield.

Jake Meyers appears to be the mainstay out of this group. His offense has been solid, and his defense is Gold Glove worthy. He has two multi-hit games in nine starts.

Jon Singelton may not play the outfield, but he does impact Dubon's playing time at first. He has two multi-hit games in six starts, which includes a three-hit game with a dinger against the Mets.

Let's assess the situation

Okay, we covered all the recent stats for these players and one thing has become apparent. Nobody is doing enough to get regular starts outside of Meyers and Dubon. And that has more to do with their season-long resume.

One could argue Singleton has been okay over this short stretch. But he's almost 33 years old. Expecting him to show much improvement over his career numbers seems unlikely. He'll continue to get chances against right-handed pitching, but that's about as far as it goes. We've already seen him lose playing time to Dubon even with righties on the mound.

Just look at Wednesday's lineup. Espada started all righties outside of Yordan Alvarez against left-handed Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi.

Photo via: MLB.com/Screenshot

Right-handed hittingGrae Kessinger is starting at first base over Singleton and Loperfido. This should tell us everything we need to know about the logjam in the outfield and at first base.

Espada has seemingly made this a full-blown platoon situation. And that's not changing unless one of these players steps up and takes the job.

Over the next two weeks before the All Star break, the sample size will get bigger, and we'll have a better idea of who deserves the most playing time. Hopefully, Kyle Tucker will return around that time, and that will make cracking the lineup even harder for these guys.

That's when predicting the Astros lineup will get a lot easier, in theory. Meyers and Dubon have done enough to play almost every day. With Meyers in center and Dubon bouncing between the outfield and first base. Which means Singleton will start against righties fairly often, and Dubon should play first when a lefty is on the mound.

If that's the case, Espada won't be looking to put Cabbage or Loperfido in left field against a southpaw. Chas McCormick will likely get most of those starts, being right-handed.

What about Yordan?

When he plays left field, we typically see Yainer Diaz hitting DH. I would expect that to continue. When Yainer has the day off and Yordan plays left, expect Espada to play the matchup (shocker).

The other factor to consider is Cesar Salazar. We know he'll get starts behind the plate, spelling Yainer Diaz. So those lineups could be a little tougher to predict depending on if Yainer is in the DH spot.

But Salazar does deserve a quick mention. Espada received some criticism for pinch hitting Cabbage for him in the ninth inning of Tuesday night's loss. This season, Salazar has been money with runners in scoring position. He's slashing .571/.500/.714 with an OPS of 1.214.

Cabbage made Espada look even worse with an uncompetitive at-bat, swinging at three straight high fastballs.

But that goes along with the point of this article. Espada is going to have his hands full trying to predict which player will come through on any given day.

If someone doesn't separate themselves from the bunch, he's going to play the matchups almost exclusively. Which is understandable based on the cards he's been dealt.

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