Twitter Mailbag

Rockets Mailbag: Ideal playoff brackets, adjustments against micro-ball, and more

Composite photo by Jack Brame

Before the NBA suspended league-play, I received a bunch of Rockets-related questions on Twitter and never got around to answering them. Assuming the NBA does plan to wrap their season up in three months, here are the answers to some of those questions (mostly about Houston's closing stretch).


This is an awesome question because if you just flip it to "What would an ideal first round matchup for the Rockets be?", you'd get an entirely different answer. Generally, I think it's more important to prioritize seeding and first round matchups and then worry about the rest later. However, I'll put that aside to answer this question.

Even if the NBA didn't shorten the rest of the season once it returned, it was already unlikely that the Rockets could get the 2nd seed. So, you're looking at falling anywhere from 3-6 (currently 6th). No ideal matchup for the Rockets involves playing the first round at home, so I'll eliminate any scenario in which they fall to the 5th or 6th seed.

This leaves the 3rd and the 4th seed and between those two, I actually believe it's better for the Rockets to get the fourth seed. The reason is, I think the Rockets stand a better chance at beating the Lakers in round two than the Clippers. Fundamentally I believe the Clippers have a higher playoff ceiling than the Lakers and have the defensive versatility to counter everything Houston wants to do.

I also think the Rockets put the Lakers in really uncomfortable situations with their micro-ball lineups. Even if you disagree with this thesis, it doesn't really matter because the Rockets would probably have to face both teams anyways to make the Finals. They don't care when they get eliminated because the goal isn't to get eliminated at all. The difference between a second round out and a Western Conference Finals appearance is purely optics for an organization like Houston.

This leaves the obvious question: what about round one? Between the Nuggets and the Jazz, I think Houston would much rather play Utah. They have a history of making Rudy Gobert really uncomfortable defending in space and I think Denver is just better. The Rockets also lost the athletic advantage they had over Denver for years in the Clint Capela trade.

So the ideal bracket would be Rockets face the Jazz in the 4-5 matchup, then the Lakers in the 1-4, then presumably the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals, and then the Bucks in the Finals.

Ideally, the Rockets avoid the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals and play the Nuggets. Houston would also rather play any Eastern Conference team other than the Bucks. However, you have to keep the bracket somewhat realistic.

Yes, but it's really subtle. You're starting to see teams pack the paint against Houston and dare their average three-point shooters to hit shots. Houston doesn't mind this adjustment as long as these shooters actually hit shots - which they haven't been of late. I understand the logic behind leaving guys like P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington open for three, but over the course of a seven-game series, it could come back to bite these teams. They're banking on Houston having historically bad shooting efforts in the playoffs.

Which, in their defense, has happened before.

Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic wrote a more in-depth breakdown of these adjustments if you want to go see if yourself.

After the Clint Capela trade, it's pretty clear that Eric Gordon has become the third most important player on this basketball team. It's true salary-wise and on the court, Houston isn't making a deep run without a healthy and fully functioning Gordon. The problem is - he hasn't been healthy and functioning this year.

For starters, Gordon has already missed 30 out of Houston's 64 games this season due to his right knee injuries. Gordon originally started the season off really poorly, got surgery, returned and looked good, and then re-injured the knee in late February. The games he has played in have been some of the worst of his career. This, of course, is completely out of his control. However, with the nearly three months off he's about to receive, Gordon will have time to train and fully recuperate that knee.

The answer is Eric Gordon and it's a no brainer.

Their styles of play definitely conflict in that they are both high-usage ball handlers that were meant to be the hubs of their team's offense. However, Westbrook has never been efficient enough to lead an elite offense on his own and thus, it makes sense for him to adapt to being a secondary ball handler. That was never where the fit issues came from, however.

It's always been about floor spacing and Russell Westbrook's shooting. Teams didn't just start doubling and trapping James Harden because it was a new idea. They did it because it was now possible with two non-shooters on the floor in Westbrook and Clint Capela. The Clint Capela trade opened things up, however, and I think the fit has looked a lot better since.

They've had several games since where both have been very good (Minnesota, Memphis, Utah, etc…). Harden and Westbrook can succeed together. Now if the question is, "Are the pieces around them good enough to win a championship this year?", that's still up in the air. However, I do tend to lean "no" due to the current powerhouses in the Western Conference.

That has nothing to do with fit though. It has to do with team strength.

I think you were on the right track about taking that win with a grain of salt. There were, however, some things Houston could build upon. For starters, James Harden was very good and tallied 37 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block on 11 of 19 shooting from the field and 5 of 10 shooting from three-point range. This was after two weeks of Harden struggling to make three-pointers fall.

The team as a whole also shot much better from behind the arc (15 of 38 or 40%). They looked flustered and without confidence in the past couple games and started to pass up on open looks. Defensively, the Rockets were mediocre - which is better than awful.

I guess the best term to describe that game for Houston is "baby steps".

I'll be doing more of these mailbags throughout this period without games. Be sure to follow me on Twitter for when we do another of these (@SalmanAliNBA).

Stay safe everyone!

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Tucker looks like the real deal. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker finally had his breakout season in 2020. The 23-year-old flashed potential to be a legitimate five-tool threat. He slashed .268/.325/.512, swiped eight bags, and played above average defense. Is Tucker's performance sustainable? Not only that, but is there room for growth?

Hard Hit % - 44.5%

Barrel % - 9.1%

K % - 20.2%

BB % - 7.9%
Chase % - 26.2%

The first thing to realize with Kyle Tucker is the small sample size at the MLB level. Despite appearing in three separate seasons, he's played in a total of 108 games, which is obviously quite a bit shy of even one full season. He also has an extremely unique swing that you wouldn't teach to anybody, but it "works" for him. This makes him a tough hitter to judge, as it's uncomfortable judging mechanics that work for him, and it's uncomfortable judging numbers that haven't had time to develop trends.

Hard Hit, Barrel, and Chase numbers are unavailable for the minors, but walk and strikeouts percentages are. This creates the ability to at least look at one trend.

Tucker broke onto the scene in 2018 with a monstrous season for AAA Fresno, the Astros affiliate at the time. In 2018, Tucker slashed .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 20 steals. He had an 18.1% K% and a 10.3% BB% that season. In 2019, Tucker struck out a little bit more (21.6%) but also walked a little bit more (11.2%). Tucker's 20.2% K% in 2020 is more in line with his minor league K%, indicating he's adjusted to major league pitching.

Tucker essentially put the pieces of contact ability and quality of contact from his previous MLB stints together in 2020. In 2018, Tucker didn't strike out very much (18.1% K%), but his 3.9% Barrel % didn't strike fear in any opponent.

In 2019, Tucker had a 12.8% Barrel %, and his 92 MPH average exit velocity is the best of his three seasons in MLB, but he struck out 27.8% of the time and walked just 5.6% of the time.

In 2020, there's a marriage between the two. His K% and BB% aren't as good as his 2018 marks, but they're better than his 2019 marks. His exit velocity and Barrel % aren't as good as his 2019 marks, but they're better than his 2018 marks. Tucker became a hitter that was able to do more damage without sacrificing consistency.

Tucker had a xBA of .267, which is right in line with his .268 average. His .459 xSLG lags behind his .512 actual SLG, but it isn't a catastrophic drop. The version of Tucker Astros fans saw is essentially who he is, but how does he improve?

What really unlocked Tucker in 2020 was a change in his setup.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here he is on August 2nd against the Angels. As you can see, he's standing pretty straight up, and he has a "neutral" stance. Following the game on Aug. 2, Tucker was batting .200/.250/.300 with no homers.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here's Tucker on August 6th, just a few days later. He's started to close off his stance just a bit, but he's still pretty neutral, and he has a little more forward body lean with his torso. Following the game on Aug. 6, he was batting .214/.267/.357 with a homer.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Now, here's Tucker on August 10th. His stance is considerably closed off, and he's maintaining the forward body lean he adopted on August 6th. Following the game on Aug. 10, Tucker was batting .190/.230/.328. It would be the last time any of those numbers would be that low the rest of the year. He maintained that stance for the rest of the season, and he finished the month of August hitting .272/.333/.588.

The swing change allowed him to be a factor on the outside pitch. Tucker would pull off on his front side, which made it tough for him to keep balls fair on the pull side. He'd often yank inside fastballs into the stands down the right field line. It also made him uncompetitive on outside strikes, as he'd either swing-and-miss, or roll them over into the shift.

After he made the change, Tucker started steering inside pitches fair, and he was able to do something with pitches on the outer third.

The next step is finding a way to continue to diversify his batted ball profile. Tucker's pull percentage in 2020 was 47%. That's a higher pull % than guys like Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. It was only 1% lower than Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo.

The one dimensional batted ball profile allows teams to shift Tucker aggressively. Teams shifted Tucker in 74% of his at-bats. His wOBA against the shift is .304. In AB's where teams didn't shift him, Tucker had a .455 wOBA. The shift hurts Tucker more than most as well, because he hits the ball on the ground 39% of the time. Gallo and Olson hit it on the ground 32% and 35% of the time respectively.

Lastly, Tucker's performance on breaking balls leaves a lot to be desired. He crushes fastballs, as he batted .303 with a .574 SLG against fastballs in 2020, with a .292 xBA and .528 xSLG. His .208 AVG and .396 SLG against breaking balls aren't very good, and his .209 xBA and .340 xSLG don't tell a prettier story. His 32% whiff % against breaking balls is nearly double his whiff % on fastballs.

If Tucker can learn to be more competitive against breaking balls and learn to use the whole field, then he'll be a really scary hitter. If he doesn't, teams will be able to gameplan for him, and he'll see streaky production similar to other one dimensional hitters like Matt Carpenter and the aforementioned Gallo and Olson.

While the bat may be streaky, Tucker brings it with the glove and on the bases. He had 5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in the outfield in 2020, a 0.6 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and he was plus-4 in Outs Above Average. His well above average speed and instincts give him the ability to be a rangy outfielder and dangerous baserunner.

Tucker had a breakout season in 2020, but there's still changes left to be made if he wants to be a breakout star and not a one hit wonder.

This is part four of an offseason series covering the 2020 Houston Astros. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 on SportsMap.

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