Time to lean on the other guys

The James Harden streak is over, and that is a good thing for the Rockets

Kevin C. Cox

I'm glad it's over.

There. I said it.

I'm glad James Harden's streak of 30 point games ended on Monday night.

Sorry Hardenites or whatever James Harden fans are called.

I was sick of it. It's a nice personal achievement but basketball is a team sport. And it was boring. Iso ball sucks. I hated it during the Steve and Cuttino days and I hate it now.

You can't tell me that a team with one of the best point guards of all time can't move the ball around and get guys open looks. Case in point, the Warriors game. Without James, Chris Paul had 23 points and 17 assists and led a team that was overmatched talent-wise to a 118-112 win.

I'm going to divide this season into three parts. The crappy start to the season, the #unguardabletour season and the gang is back together season.

The crappy start to the season was well, crappy. Coming off the 65 win season they began this one 12-14 which was inexplicable. They just plain sucked. It's a time I would rather not dwell on. It's best to leave these things in a dark place in the deep recesses of your mind and never touch them again.

Then there was the #unguardabletour. It has its place in Rockets history. I'm not going to put it up there with all time Rockets achievements. It was a great individual achievement. James got a bunch of national media attention which was nice. They were 21-11 during that stretch which was good too but not spectacular. They did have a bunch of injuries which meant they had to rely on James to carry the load. He did.

Those days are over and they are healthy again playing better basketball. Since the All-Star break and the return of Clint Capela and the resurgence of Chris Paul they look different. They look cohesive offensively. They look like a winner and they're doing it with James struggling, further proof that they are better playing team basketball as opposed to iso ball.

The win over the Warriors without James was eye opening. No they're not better without James but they have proven this past week that they are not nearly as reliant on him as was previously thought.

In their last three games they beat the Warriors without James and they beat the Hawks and Hornets while James was less than stellar. These past two games while the Rockets were scoring 119 and 118 points James has shot just 34% from the field and under 10% from 3. He's made just 1 of his last 21 three-point attempts. That's bad. Real bad.

Yet the other guys are picking him up. Against the Hornets the other guys shot 52%. Against the Hawks 46%. That's really good. This notion that James has to do it all himself has got to change. He doesn't, not with a heathy supporting cast. They can make shots if you put them in position and give them opportunities to make shots. When you only get a couple shots a game it's hard to get into any kind of rhythm. The more shots you get the better the chance you'll make them.

Plus it's just more fun to watch. James dribbling out the shot clock at the top of the key is brutal. It's not going to end but they can cut back on it and let Chris Paul drive and distribute. He's making $40 million a year for a reason.

I'm not saying they're last year's team. They're different. They're different than they were two weeks ago. And that's a good thing.

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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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