JOEL BLANK

Rockets bench remains a work in progress

Eric Gordon needs to up his game. Jonathan Daniel

The Rockets last two games should tell you all you needed to know about where they are as a team and how far they still have to go. Sure, the team has made great strides and made up ground in the Western Conference by winning five straight games, but losing back to back games to the Pistons and Cavaliers proved they still have a long way to go. Daryl Morey needs to take a hard look at his roster and in particular his bench and start working immediately to improve one of the worst second units among contending teams.

A year ago Houston finished the regular season with one of, if not THE best bunch of reserves in the NBA. They were deep, they could shoot, they were athletic and they had size and versatility to play multiple positions and both ends of the floor. This year they seem to have done a 180 and are lacking in almost every one of those characteristics. It didn't help that the Carmelo Anthony experiment screwed up everything from a continuity standpoint and forced every reserve to play a new role with different minutes, while being on the floor with different teammates than what they were used to. When Anthony departed, the rest of the roster scrambled to try and get back to their old roles while the team pressed to climb back into the top half of the Western Conference. It's been a work in progress all year for the entire team, but the reserves have had to shoulder a big load as they have struggled to make shots and hold a lead when the starters sit down.

When we start to dig deeper and try and find the root of all the issues the bench has been having, it has to start with Eric Gordon. EG has had the biggest fall off and suffered the most from the addition and then subtraction of Melo. First off, he was forced to defer to Anthony when they came in the game with the second unit, while still being counted on to be the primary ball handler. This was hard on Gordon because he has been a shoot first sniper since he joined the Rockets a few years ago. Having him on the floor with James Harden and Chris Paul, or at least one of the two superstars, has produced incredible results. Gordon was the 6th Man of the Year two seasons ago and a runner up last year. He was the beneficiary of teams double teaming the teams' two best players, giving Gordon wide open looks from all over the floor. So when you look at the stats this season, you will see EG taking a similar amount of shots and playing close to the same minutes as he did previously, but the quality of the looks and the players he is on the floor with has changed drastically and so have the results. His stats are down across the board and he has been mired in a horrible shooting slump for almost all of the teams' first 18 games. If this team is going to right the ship and improve the bench brigade, it all starts with Gordon finding his rhythm and making shots on a consistent basis.

The rest of the bench continues to struggle along with Gordon, but they are not counted on for as much offense on a nightly basis. That doesn't mean they get a pass or are off the hook, it just means that if they don't come in make shots everything is compounded. The new additions to the squad have not produced the results that Morey and company had hoped for and most of them came in with the huge disadvantage of being counted on to make shots while never being known as a shooter, especially from behind the arc. All of the newcomers may be younger and more athletic, but Michael Carter Williams, James Ennis, Gary Clark and Isaiah Hartenstein have a 25 letter alphabet with no "J" in it. Teams sag off these guys from almost anywhere on the court 15 feet and out and especially from 3-point range. The fans forget that last season with Ryan Anderson and Luc Mbah a Moute starting throughout the year, the bench had shooters all over with PJ Tucker, Gerald Green, Gordon and even Joe Jackson as a late add for insurance. As quick as fans wanted to see Ariza, Anderson and Luc head out the door, the fact that Morey didn't replace them with players that had similar skill sets has set this team back as much as adding Anthony did. The time is now to be active in the trade market and pursue players that shoot the 3-ball well, are athletic in transition and can defend on the other end. Jodie Meeks was just released by Milwaukee; bring him in and work him out to see if he has anything left in the tank. He is a career 37% three point shooter and had valuable, veteran experience. I have previously mentioned  names like Kyle Korver and Jeff Green as other vets that could come in and help bolster the bench. There is still time to make moves and improve this roster, but sooner rather than later would be nice for all those who have a rooting interest in seeing the Rockets return to being one of the top two teams in the west.

Deshaun Watson takes his act to New York. Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Texans Saturday play a lousy 4-9 Jets team Saturday now without its leading rusher (Isaiah Crowell) and leading pass catcher (Quincy Enunwa). Then they face a probably Carson Wentz-less Eagles team seeing its Super Bowl championship defense die away. Then the awful Jaguars come to Houston. 12-4 is right there for the Texans, but that will only be enough for the number three seed in the AFC and a Wild Card weekend home game unless the fading Steelers rise up Sunday to knock off the Patriots. That game is in Pittsburgh. The Patriots' final two games are both at home against the Bills and Jets.

With the Patriots losing their game to the Miami Miracle, on one hand you can say the Texans blew a massive opportunity in losing at home to the Colts. On the other hand the Colts were clearly the better team in ending the Texans' nine game winning streak.

The loss to Indy was a reality check. The Texans are a pretty good team, but glaring areas of weakness keep it from being a reeeeally good team. The offensive line is flat lousy in pass protection, though sometimes Deshaun Watson makes it look even worse by holding on to the ball too long. Pending free agent moves in the offseason, one of the Texans' top two draft picks next spring MUST be spent on an offensive lineman, the other on a cornerback (if not on another o-lineman). Even in their zone-heavy scheme, the Texans lack corners who run well enough. If the pass rush isn't raising hell, the secondary is Swiss cheesy. Remember, the Texans have an extra second pick this spring, acquired from Seattle in last year's Duane Brown trade.

If somehow the Texans chump up two of their remaining three games, as long as one of the losses isn't to the Jaguars they still win the AFC South even if the Titans or Colts win out.

Coogs' house

None of the Phi Slama Jama era Houston Cougar basketball teams started a season better than 5-0. Sunday Kelvin Sampson's Coogs go for a Bo Derek (perfect 10, anybody remember Bo?) start. Only UH team ever to open 10-0: the Elvin Hayes-led '67-'68 squad that went 31-0 and along the way beat UCLA in the Game of the Century before the Bruins obliterated the Cougars at the Final Four.

The new Fertitta Center is a modest-sized gem, and currently offers the hands down best sports environment in town. Non-Cougars are never going to embrace UH in big numbers especially not in a major league sports town, so UH's "For the City" slogan doesn't hit the mark. But so what? Drawing more of the Cougar base, plus any outside of it who might have some interest piqued by intensely played quality college basketball is good enough.

Rockets rumors

The Rockets have been vastly less excitement-inducing this season, though James Harden's closing brilliance in a 50 point explosion Thursday night to put away the Lakers was a doozy. Getting back to and then over ,500 is the Rockets' near term goal. A good month of sustained quality play is needed to restore credibility. Chris Paul's overall level of play remains a serious concern. The rumor this week of their interest in Cleveland malcontent J.R. Smith, egads! That would render Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey Desperate Daryl. Morey is trying to recover from his awful offseason, but I can't believe he sees J.R. Smith as worthwhile.

Speaking of Morey's offseason work, the Rockets Saturday gain the right to trade Carmelo Anthony. What a bonanza must await in return!

Astros still armed

Not a great look for the Astros that they tugged on their purse strings while the Tampa Bay Rays of all teams guaranteed Charlie Morton $30 million dollars over the next two years. The Astros did not err. Morton was on balance outstanding in his two Astro seasons but he wore down badly this year, and at 35 years old his arm is a ticking bomb. The Astros should add an established starting pitcher, but even if Jeff Luhnow doesn't, the Collin McHugh/Brad Peacock/Josh James/Framber Valdez quartet isn't an indefensible plan to cover three rotation spots while waiting on elite prospect Forrest Whitley's arrival during the 2019 season. If poor performance/injuries are issues, nothing precludes a notable in-season trade. That Verlander fellow worked out okay a couple of seasons ago. A left handed hitter is the obvious other logical Astros' target.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Pipe down Tony La Russa. Harold Baines making the Baseball Hall of Fame is ridiculous. 2. La Russa also used to lambaste those who dared to believe that Mark McGwire might have been a steroid guy. 3. Best teams in the AFC: Bronze-Patriots Silver-Chargers Gold-Chiefs (but barely post-loser Kareem Hunt).

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