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Rockets miss out on key free agents, but keep an eye on the trade market

Daryl Morey usually has something up his sleeve in the trade market. Rockets.com

Lebron James is a Laker now. Paul George is returning to Oklahoma City. Once again another free agency period where Houston’s front office has asserted aggressiveness in acquiring a superstar, and once again the Rockets have nothing to speak of (Chris Paul and James Harden were both acquired via trades, and Houston’s most productive free agent in recent memory would be Eric Gordon). Instead of lamenting another failed attempt at luring big name free agents to Houston, however, Rockets fans should be more worried about how their team plans to recover from their in-house losses if they plan to remain a Western Conference threat next season.

So far the Rockets managed to resignPaul and fan favorite guard Gerald Green. Clint Capela remains a restricted free agent, but it’s widely assumed that Houston will match any offer made. Their core therefore remains mostly intact, with the exception of forward Trevor Ariza.

Ariza made the surprising decision to to leave Houston and sign with the Phoenix Suns this weekend, leaving a gaping hole in the Rockets starting small forward position. While his departure is nowhere near the magnitude that Paul of Capela’s absence would create, Houston fans shouldn’t sleep on what Ariza brought as a starter to a Rockets team that won a franchise record 65 games last season.

Ariza’s durability will certainly be missed. Since the 2014-2015 season, Ariza missed a total of 18 contests out of 328 in his latest stint as a Rocket, averaging over 33 minutes per game each season. That level of reliability is tough to find in an 82-game season.

Aside from his durability, Ariza was most well known as a clamp down defender that could shoot a reliable 3-pointer. He suited Houston’s system well by shutting down his assignment defensively and setting himself up in the corner for kick out 3-pointers. He didn’t quite light up the scoreboard, but a veteran defensive specialist with range will never be short on suitors during free agency. This time, it came at Houston’s expense.

Should Houston have made a more concerted effort to lock up Ariza? The answer is simply no. It was assumed after their Western Conference Finals exit that Ariza would be willing to take a pay cut to help assemble a superteam. Word got out soon after that Ariza would be looking for a max contract, however, and that was quite simply not an option the Rockets could logically consider.

The question now centers on General Manager Daryl Morey’s remedy to the situation. Reserve forward Luc Mbah a Moute looks to be the most logical heir to the starting rotation spot, but he remains a free agent and Houston would not be able to bring him back at the bargain they sign him at last season. Doing so would deplete the Rockets bench depth, a key factor in their success last season.

Where Houston falls short in free agency, however, they excel in their trade savvy. As a result, this looks to be the most likely route the Rockets. Rumors are already circulating regarding Houston’s interest in Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler, a very capable replacement. Expect more of the same in the coming days.

Without Ariza, the Rockets remain among the elite teams in the Western Conference, if not the entire league. It will be interesting however to see who eventually is tabbed as Houston’s starting small forward in just a few short months.

 

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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