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State of the Rockets: If the season returned

Russell Westbrook

For obvious reasons, we haven't done one of these in a while. However, it feels like a good time to check in on not only the state of the Rockets, but the state of the NBA. It's now been a full month since the NBA decided to suspend the 2019-20 season indefinitely after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for Covid-19. Before this, the league had already barred media from locker rooms and was planning on playing games without fans.

So, where do things stand one month in?

Well, as everyone reading this already knows, more than 90% of the country is under stay-at-home orders of some sort. As of this writing, over half a million Americans have tested positive for coronavirus and nearly twenty thousand people have died. While it's particularly bad in states like New York and Louisiana, every state has been impacted severely by this virus in one way or another.

There is some encouraging data that's come out this week that suggests social distancing efforts have at least slowed the spread of the virus a little bit. However, it's important to note that we're far from out of the woods as many hospitals haven't reached their estimated peaks yet and restrictions on the local and national level have yet to be lifted. The whole point of social distancing is that the end result will hopefully look like we've overreacted when in fact the opposite is true.

As far as the NBA is concerned, commissioner Adam Silver has already ruled out the possibility of any decision being made in the month of April. If that's the case, the idea of the league starting back up again in the next two months seems unlikely. There's also the non-zero chance the league unilaterally makes the decision to end the 2019-20 season without an NBA champion. However, it's a little hard to envision this possibility for several reasons.

The biggest reason is obviously the amount of playoff revenue the NBA would be leaving on the table. Currently, the league office is trying to do everything they can to preserve as much of the current salary cap as they can. There's little doubt that the cab will take a significant hit due to the pandemic and there's a strong possibility that if the NBA does return, regular season games would not. That's revenue from about 18 games (give or take) for every team down the drain on top of what they lost with the China debacle this summer.

Every team in the NBA will have to reshape their offseason plans because of the cap hit. Damage will be done and there's no way around it. The best possible way to limit that damage would be to have a playoffs this year.

For what it's worth, 15 out of 25 randomly selected people around the NBA (media, team personnel, agents, players, etc…) said they were optimistic of the season returning in some way, shape, or form.


So assuming that they're right and that the league does return, what does that mean for the Rockets?

Seeding

More than most title contenders, the Rockets are a team that desperately would like a run-up to the season. Currently, Houston is slated as the sixth seed in the Western Conference and would likely have the toughest path to the NBA Finals from all the realistic title contenders. Only one team has won the championship from the sixth seed in league history - the 1995-96 Houston Rockets.

Having to face every one of their opponents on the road and still be able to hoist the Larry O'Brian trophy in the summer is unlikely. The best case scenario for Houston is they have at least five to ten regular season games to climb a little bit in the standings.

Chemistry

The other reason the Rockets would prefer a run up is that they ended the season finishing 1-4 in their last five games. Houston, being just 18 games into the micro-ball era, would probably want a little more time with this unique style of play before they go through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference.

Now, to be fair, the Rockets finish 12-6 in the micro-ball era on the whole. That's on-pace for 55 wins, which is noticeably better than what they were before micro-ball (50 wins). Robert Covington was a welcome addition to their play style and PJ Tucker has actually played less after the move to center (32.9 minutes per game) versus before the change (35.0 minutes per game). Russell Westbrook is also thriving within his new role.

But after Houston's rough patch before the hiatus, they may want to wipe off some rust from not playing and clean some things up defensively before they enter the playoffs.

Playoff Opponent

Although Houston would like a run-up to the playoffs, the most likely scenario appears to be freezing the standings and going directly to the playoffs.

This means Houston's most likely opponent would be the 3rd seeded Denver Nuggets. The Rockets have historically done pretty well against the Nuggets, but they've drastically changed their roster make-up over the last 8 months. Swapping out Chris Paul and Clint Capela for Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington is about as significant as it gets without trading James Harden.

Capela was a matchup nightmare for the Nuggets for years, averaging 24.0 points and 11.0 rebounds on 69.6% True Shooting last season alone. The Nuggets had no good option for covering Capela's constant lob threat and the Rockets were a staggering 23.6 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court. For Nikola Jokic, Capela was just too springy and too quick to cover while trying to properly defend James Harden. The Rockets would make life on the perimeter hell for the Nuggets as the constantly targeted Jokic for the switch and made smaller defenders try and cover Capela's lob threat when Harden drove to the rim.

Without Capela, the Rockets will not have that option open for Harden when driving to the rim. In it's ' place will be an open three-pointer that P.J. Tucker will have to hit at the same points per possession rate that Capela made his lobs. That's asking a lot, but it's the tradeoff Houston made when they made the swap.

The floor spacing that Chris Paul took with him to Oklahoma City will also be something missed for Houston in a potential first round series. The Nuggets can and will aggressively throw double teams and James Harden, often at random. Unless Russell Westbrook is constantly cutting to the rim to make them pay, it will be an effective defense that Harden has to be ready for.

I talked about this on a recent podcast episode, but I believe this series is closer to a coin toss than Rockets fans give it credit for. The historical record makes it sound laughable, but as I said, the Rockets are a different team. The margin for error they had over a team like Denver is much smaller than it was before.

If Houston can move up a seed and play the Jazz in round one, that's much preferable than this Nuggets squad. There will be no easy round one matchup in the Western Conference, but Houston's confidence against a team like the Jazz after eliminating them in the playoffs the past two years helps.

Micro-ball also sounds like an on-paper hell for a center like Rudy Gobert. He's the kind of high-impact player that has the possibility of being played off the floor against a team like the Rockets.

Eric Gordon's health

One of the only positives the Rockets can take away from this hiatus is that Eric Gordon gets time to rest his knee. Gordon has been battling soreness in his knee of late and had just returned for Houston after a two-game absence. He's now had a month without competitive basketball, which may prove to be healing for his knee. It may take a while for him to get in rhythm, but this may have helped Gordon over the long-term as the Rockets enter what they hope to be a long playoff run.

It will be interesting to see which players had access to a basketball court to get some training in over the hiatus. You would think every player have a court in their home or close by, but it's not as common as one might think.

Alright, that'll do it for this week's State of the Rockets. We changed up the format a little bit, but drastic times call for drastic measures. Next week, we'll be tackling important questions the Rockets face if the season were to be canceled.

Stay tuned and be safe.

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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