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State of the Rockets: An Awkward Pause To The Season

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com)

As of February 24th:

Offensive RTG: 114.0 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 110.0 (15th)

Net RTG: +4.0 (7th)

As of this week:

Offensive RTG:113.6 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 110.2 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.4

Biggest developments:

1. NBA suspends game play to due coronavirus pandemic

Not only is this the biggest story in sports, it's the biggest story in the world without a close number two. People have been asked to work from home, school has been cancelled at the local levels, and universities have opted for online classes until further notice. Mass gatherings in New York, California, Washington, and many other states have been barred and before Wednesday night, the NBA was going to play the remaining games without fans. However when Jazz center Rudy Gobert was found to be infected with the virus on Wednesday night, the gloves were off.

As soon as the NBA had its own patient zero, the outside magnitude of the pandemic finally hit home. Worries about spreading the virus to other teammates, team personnel, media, and opposing teams became top of mind as the league pivoted to its next logical step - suspending game play.

2. An awkward pause

So, where does that leave the Rockets? Well, Houston was in a bit of a weird spot before Wednesday as they had just won their first game since late February. They had completed 18 games in the micro-ball era, going 12-6 (approximately a 55 win pace), and we had just started to see the adjustments from opposing teams (packing the paint, leaving shooters open, etc..). Heading into the Staples Center to take on the Lakers next, it was possible that they could have built upon their win over the Timberwolves and started another run, but that's purely speculative. James Harden had his first really good game in quite some time (37 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block on efficient shooting) and Russell Westbrook was still playing very well.

It's just strange in that if the regular season just ended at the drop of a hat (which is still possible), I'm not sure we have a clear handle on this Houston Rockets team yet. We know what their goal is and how they will go about trying to accomplish it. What we don't know is if they can properly handle adversity with their new adapted playstyle. It's also possible that we know exactly what the Rockets are and it's probably not good enough to win a title this season.

The final 18 games would have really helped clear some things up or at least help confirm what we think.

3. James Harden's struggles

As mentioned above, before the Rockets defeated the Timberwolves on Tuesday, James Harden was going through his roughest stretch season. During Houston's four-game losing streak, Harden was averaging 26.0 points and turning the ball over 5.3 times per game, all while shooting 32.5% from the field and 19.0% from three-point range. The Rockets did a lot of things wrong, but Harden's struggles were arguably the biggest reason for the losing. Again, it's possible he's turned things around after that win over the Timberwolves, but it's impossible to know because a one-game sample size is not enough to know.

4. Eric Gordon returns from injury

The elephant in the room for Houston's season is easily Eric Gordon's health. After the Clint Capela trade, Gordon is easily the Rockets' third most important player and he's already missed nearly half of the season (34 out of 64 games played). First, his right knee was bothering him enough to the point where he had to get arthroscopic surgery. Then he bumped that same knee on the 24th of February and tried to play through the pain on and off again. Finally, he agreed to sit out five days before returning on March 10th. Gordon had a rough first half (0 points, 0 for 6 from the field, -10 in 11 minutes) before exploding in the second half (16 points, 5 of 9 from the field, +14 in 18 minutes) and helping Houston secure their first win since February.

The extent of knee pain Gordon is still feeling is unclear and as most players, he won't admit to it in the moment. This month off could be really good or really bad for him depending upon how much better his knee was feeling when he returned. If Gordon was really around 70% and was expecting to get to 100% by the playoffs, this buys him some time to get the proper treatment and recover by the time games roll around (if they do). If he was truly pain-free, it may be better for him to get game-play and work through conditioning and rust issues. Then again, the entire league may be rusty after a month off so that point could be moot.

It seems like the Rockets had a maintenance plan for Gordon before Wednesday's league closure and it'll be interesting if they plan to stick with it when games theoretically return.

Final two week of games in review:

It would be naive to suggest that these couple weeks weren't really bad for the Rockets. Any hope of grabbing the second seed in the Western Conference is effectively gone, the Rockets briefly lost their sense of confidence due to poor shooting, and in general, losing to the Knicks, Hornets, and Magic is never good. However, I think a lot of people have taken Houston's losing streak and used it as proof as to why micro-ball is a failed concept.

As mentioned before, they're still 12-6 without Clint Capela in the rotation, which is about a 55-win team. For some context, the Rockets were on pace to become a 51-win team before they decided to oust Capela from the rotation on January 26th. It may seem like a lot, but 18 games is just not a big enough sample size to determine the sustainability of this. People making bold declarations one way or the other off of a winning streak or losing streak are playing into their own confirmation bias.

However, Houston's loss to the Los Angeles Clippers was particularly concerning. If the Rockets are going to make the Western Conference Finals, the road likely goes through the Clippers. The way Los Angeles completely shut Houston's offense down and the Rockets' inability to play Ivica Zubac off the floor was a little troubling. It's just one game, but at the very least, it should raise some eyebrows.

Pressing questions if the season resumes:

  1. Will Eric Gordon ever look like his old self this season?

As mentioned above, if the Rockets are going to win a championship this season, Eric Gordon is going to play a central role in getting them there. However, Gordon has never looked more old and ineffective than this season. He's averaging 14.5 points per game (lowest since 2014-15), shooting 37.0% from the field (lowest of his career), and 31.9% from three-point range (lowest since 2011-12) this season. His right knee has clearly been an issue all year, but Houston needs him to bounce back and bounce back quickly. He's famous for closing off the season really strong in his Houston tenure so it's possible that's what might've happened if game-play continued, but there's no saying for sure.

Offensively and defensively, he's so important to what the Rockets want to do and his value to the team has even gone up since they've gone to micro-ball. Every player in Houston's locker room knows that, especially James Harden.

  1. Does Houston have it in them to be a good defense?

They've had their highs and lows, but overall, Houston has returned to where they've been defensively all season - middle of the pack. At this point of the season, teams are what they are and the most likely answer here is that they stay middle of the pack until the playoffs. That does bring up a question central to their title hopes: does Houston have another gear defensively or are they just going to be sporadic night-to-night and week-to-week? If the answer is the latter, then unless Houston hits their stride at the exact right moment in May and June (assuming everything is pushed back a month), they have a very clear playoff ceiling.

If the former is true, then man, they have to show it to close this season off. At this point, the Rockets have to hit a point where they're holding opponents to 100 points per 100 possessions for the rest of the year for them to climb into the top ten defenses. That's a high bar to climb, but historically, that's what's necessary to make the NBA Finals.

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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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