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ESPN host floats wild anti-Houston conspiracy about Rockets draft

ESPN host floats wild anti-Houston conspiracy about Rockets draft
Is this actually a thing? Composite image by Brandon Strange.

There are 99,999 reasons why the Houston Rockets are stupifyingly awful this season. Leave it to ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser to find the one reason why not.

Earlier this week on Pardon the Interruption, Kornheiser was pondering where sensational French teenager Victor Wembanyama might play next year in the NBA. Kornheiser said if NBA commissioner Adam Silver has his way, Wembanyama won’t be taking his talents to Houston.

“I don’t think he (Silver) wants him in a place like Houston where the owner doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing,” Kornheiser said.

Huh? Is Kornheiser suggesting that it’s Fertitta’s fault that the Rockets are a disastrous 13-45 and destined to finish with the worst record in the NBA for the third consecutive season?

If you’re looking for reasons why the Rockets are flopping, there are culprits a’plenty, starting with the roster. You want to know why the Rockets seem to lose night after night? You see when the Rockets take the court for the opening tip? The players in the other color uniform are better than the Rockets. That’s why the Rockets lose.

The Rockets are young – the second-youngest team in the league. Their average age is 23.58. The bad news is, the only younger team is the Thunder, which racks up points against the Rockets like they’re playing a video game set on “easy.” The Rockets three core players are Jalen Green (21, second year), Alperen Sengun (20, second year), and Jabari Smith Jr. (19, rookie).

It could be the coach. Now in his third season, Stephen Silas has one of the worst career won-loss records (50-162) in NBA history. His defenders will say, “he’s a young coach who can relate to young players, which is what this team needs.” Silas is not a young coach. Silas will be 50 years old in a few months. He is older than the coach of the Celtics, the Grizzlies, Jazz, Thunder, Pelicans, Blazers, Clippers, Nets, Wizards … I could go on.

You can blame NBA superstars who collude to demand trades so they can play amongst themselves and freeze out have-not teams in less desirable markets. The Rockets in their present state can’t attract big name stars. The idea that Texas teams are appealing to star players because of no state income tax simply isn’t true.

I asked a Rockets insider, does Kornheiser know something we don’t? Is Fertitta the reason the Rockets struggle? Is it true that Fertitta doesn’t know what he’s doing?

The insider said, “Tony Kornheiser doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’ll bet he hasn’t watched one Rockets game this year and couldn’t name three players on the team. It’s easy for these national guys to look at the standings and blame the owner.”

Fertitta has been somewhat successful in his careers (plural). His Landry’s restaurant empire is expanding like a kielbasa in a microwave. Forbes calls him the richest restaurateur in the world. He is chairman of the board of regents for the University of Houston, home of the No. 1-ranked college basketball team. His name is on the UH basketball arena. He was the star of Billion Dollar Buyer on CNBC. His net worth is estimated at $7.6 billion.

Yeah, I’d say that Fertitta knows what he’s doing.

The Rockets are in a down cycle, but the team is still drawing fans. The marketing department, under Fertitta’s guidance, has come up with some pretty creative promotions (Undertaker bobbleheads, bargain beer and tacos) to occupy the seats. Toyota Center is clean, the food is upscale, and Bruce Springsteen just rocked the roof off the place.

The insider: “Fertitta gives fans a quality experience. He can’t control the final score. The fact that the Rockets still have strong attendance shows that Fertitta is delivering an attractive product despite the team’s record. The NBA isn’t like the restaurant business, where you can turn a loser into a winner by changing the menu. Larry David thought he could run a successful restaurant simply by adding scones to the menu on Curb Your Enthusiasm. That’s a TV show. The NBA is real life.”

This isn’t the first time a national media type dumped on a Houston good guy and missed the target. Remember a couple of years ago when radio talk host Clay Travis went after Mattress Mack?

Travis said, “I find myself rooting for this Mattress Mack guy to lose all of his money because I’m tired of hearing about him. Marketing genius, but I want this guy to go bankrupt. I wish he would lose $100 million.”

Oops. First, and most important, Travis picked on the wrong guy in Houston. He heard from Mack’s supporters loud and clear. And while I don’t have access to Mack’s books, I’m pretty sure he could lose $100 million and not go bankrupt.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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