Welcome. Let's talk Rockets.

State of the Rockets: Eric Gordon's back, signature victories, and more

Introduction:

Hello, my name is Salman Ali and I cover the Houston Rockets. Most people reading probably already know this, but I feel like a proper introduction is in order. Every week, I go to the Toyota Center several times to cover Rockets' practices, games, and other miscellaneous team events. I notice things about the team and then proceed write about it, tweet about it, and even podcast about it.

However, I always feel I can do more, and that's what this is. Starting today, I will be writing a weekly column on the Rockets including random observations, pressing questions, general thoughts, and some statistics I can sprinkle in. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to go about this or even if there's going to be a specific format, but I guess that's what's fun about it. What I do know is that every Sunday there will be an article here on SportsMap about the Rockets.

So without further adieu, welcome to the very first 'State of the Rockets'.


Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com):

Offensive RTG: 114.1 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 109.2 (17th)

Net RTG: +4.9 (7th)


Biggest developments:

1. Eric Gordon's return to the rotation

Eric Gordon has returned the the rotation for the Rockets after receiving arthroscopy on his right knee in mid-November. The Rockets were careful in bringing Gordon back and originally placed him on a minutes restriction of 25 minutes per game, but that's now since bumped up to 30 minutes. As a whole, Gordon's played well since his return, scoring 14.7 points per game on 40.9 percent from beyond the three-point line.

The bigger story here is that the Rockets are fully healthy for the first time since the beginning of the season. It's hard not to be cautiously skeptical of the team's status as a tier one title contender this season, but Gordon is significant enough of a player to hold off on grandiose declarations about the team until he's become acclimated. Offensively, the Rockets were going to be awesome this season either way, but it's really the defense where Gordon has the potential to be a real game-changer. Without Chris Paul this season, the Rockets have not had a strong point-of-attack defense and Gordon provides Houston with someone other than Austin Rivers who can defend well on-ball.

Rockets Defensive RTG (last two games):

With Eric Gordon: 100.0

Without Eric Gordon: 109.6

The Rockets can also lower the load on players like James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

2. Isaiah Hartenstein temporarily secures backup center spot

According to head coach Mike D'Antoni himself, 21-year-old center Isaiah Hartenstein has secured the backup center spot in Houston's rotation "for now". This has the potential to be a big development for Houston as they've struggled to find consistent play behind Clint Capela for months now, and Hartenstein has played well enough to warrant that spot (14.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks on 70.4% true shooting per 36 minutes). This also hopefully puts the bed the idea that Mike D'Antoni willfully ignores playing talented young players at every turn considering 3 of Houston's ten-man rotation is now under the age of 27 (House, Capela, and Hartenstein).

Of course, the caveat of all caveats here is "for now". The Rockets may try and acquire a big man at the trade deadline or the buyout market and if he's good enough, it may thwart Hartenstein out of the rotation again. Hartenstein could also struggle and therefore, lose his backup center spot to the veteran combo of Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker. Things are fluid here.


3. Rockets climb to third seed in Western Conference and tie for the second

With the Rockets winning five out of their last ten games and the Clippers going .500 in their last ten, Houston has jumped Los Angeles to obtain the third seed seed in the Western Conference. Denver also lost to Washington Saturday night which means the Rockets are also tied with them for the second seed. The Nuggets currently hold the conference tiebreaker over the Rockets, meaning they will keep the second seed for now.

While this isn't a major development as seeding is still very fluid in the West (the Rockets are also two games away from falling to the sixth seed), it's still noteworthy. The Rockets will likely battle with Los Angeles and Denver for seeding until the bitter end of the season, so the fact that they're already within striking distance of the second seed means they won't have to make a dramatic surge like they did last season. It also hammers home how must-win every game for the rest of the season will be considering how tightly bunched the conference is.

Week of games in review:

It's hard to hold the Pelicans loss against the Rockets, considering they were without the services of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Clint Capela. However, Houston did a pretty good job bouncing back by convincingly beating two title contenders in the Nuggets and 76ers in consecutive games. It's not so much that they beat the Nuggets and 76ers that's impressive, but more how they won them. The Rockets had a defensive rating of 106.0 in both games combined, which would be good for a top ten defense in the league.

This is really the origin of a lot of people's skepticism with the Rockets. Everybody knows the Rockets will have a top three offense when it's all said in done, but it's their defense that will elevate them to a level formidable enough to actually win a title. Thus far, they've been mediocre which only gets you a hard-fought, second round exit. If they can carry this good momentum into the rest of the season, it'll be a lot easier to buy more Rockets stock.

Something the Rockets can cling to is that they haven't been healthy enough to show their true colors. Eric Gordon missed 23 games, Danuel House missed 6 games, Clint Capela missed 6 games, Russell Westbrook missed 4 games, and even James Harden missed a game. One could reasonably argue that the injuries to Gordon, House, and Capela specifically have prevented them from reaching their heights as a defense. For now, we can only judge the Rockets on what they've been so far.

Questions for the coming week:

1. Can the Rockets sufficiently blowout the Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves buzzer-to-buzzer?

The truest of contenders blow teams like the Atlanta and Minnesota out of the water by halftime. The Rockets this season have been the model of inconsistency against below .500 teams. Sure, they've had some blowouts, but they've also let some truly bad teams hang around and even beat them in the month of December (Warriors, Kings, Cavaliers, and Suns). These games may not seem important, but they're resume builders and can help build good habits to carry over against good teams. They're also important fourth quarter rest opportunities for Houston's starters.

2. Will Russell Westbrook rest on the first or second night of the back-to-back?

The Rockets have a road back-to-back this week against the Hawks and Thunder. Mike D'Antoni has said that Houston's plan is to rest Russell Westbrook on one of the games during back-to-back sets and he's stuck to that plan. What's interesting is the Rockets have been opting to rest Westbrook on the second night, but this isn't a normal back-to-back. Russell Westbrook will be returning home against his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. This brings to question of whether or not they break the habit and allow Westbrook to play in Oklahoma City and properly say goodbye to the fans that have adored him for the past decade. The Thunder are also the clear, tougher matchup between the two, so it also makes sense from a basketball perspective to break the established norm.


Well, I hope you enjoyed the first one of these. See you next week.

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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