A loss that doesn't matter

What to take away from Houston's first televised scrimmage

Photo by Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets played their first NBA-sanctioned scrimmage Friday night against the Toronto Raptors and came up short (94-83). Fortunately for Houston, this was an exhibition game and they really let their foot off the gas with guard Russell Westbrook sitting the entire second half and James Harden sitting for the fourth quarter. I have a feeling people aren't going to crucify the Rockets for this one. However, that doesn't mean there aren't things to take away from Houston's first televised game in four months.

1. Russell Westbrook and James Harden look ready to go

His shooting as a whole may have been subpar, but Russell Westbrook looked spectacular in the first half, logging 10 points and 9 rebounds in just 15 minutes. He looked fast, springy, and more importantly, did not look like someone who was recently cleared of COVID-19. As a reminder, COVID-19 can cause breathing problems and lung scarring that can persist after recovery, but if that was the case, Westbrook certainly didn't show it in his first night out.

"He looked pretty athletic, didn't he?" head coach Mike D'Antoni joked after the game. "He must've been working on his athleticism."

Westbrook set the bar low when he returned to practice Wednesday when he suggested that he didn't know whether or not he could make a layup, but he certainly looked as fast and bouncy as ever Friday night.

"I'll be alright," said Westbrook after the game."I'm just trying to make sure that we're in a rhythm as a team. I'll find my way."

Oh, and James Harden looked incredible. Harden only played through three quarters (25 minutes), but he was able to put up 24 points, 10 assists, 4 rebounds, and 2 steals on 61.9% true shooting. He was making his threes (3 of 7), he was drawing fouls (9 of 10 from the charity stripe), and he was making the extra pass. He looked like James Harden.

The only notable thing is he seemed to make an effort to move the ball a lot Friday night. In fact, the Rockets as a team were doing a pretty good job at moving the ball and finding open three-pointers in transition (16 of first 25 field goals were assisted). It made a fairly meaningless game be pretty entertaining.

This may be seem like a dumb takeaway, but every year, there's a team that starts with their star player(s) out of shape and the Rockets don't have to worry about being that team.

2. Eric Gordon will be the starting small forward

This isn't really a game-specific takeaway, but more of something important to note going forward. There has long been debate as to who would be the better starter this season - Eric Gordon or Danuel House. However, Mike D'Antoni was surprisingly firm when he was asked about who would be the starting small forward pre-game and he maintained that stance post-game.

D'Antoni said he would like to have Gordon play 30 to 32 minutes a game and that it becomes difficult to do that when the 31-year-old guard is resting for the first 6 minutes of every half.

"He only has four minutes of rest in those 36 minutes [left over]," said D'Antoni. "It's just better for him physically that he get on the floor for the first six minutes. I [also] think he's better on the floor with Russell, James, P.J., and Covington."

Gordon didn't have the best first outing (11 points, 4 turnovers, 2 of 8 shooting from three-point range), but he didn't look to be bothered physically which is an encouraging sign considering the knee injuries he's dealt with this season.

For what it's worth, Danuel House looked awesome off the bench, logging 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals on 7 of 11 shooting from the field and 3 of 6 shooting from three-point range. House has had moments this season where he looks surprisingly capable with the basketball in his hands and he had another one of those tonight with a coast-to-coast floater.

3. The Rockets still have a ways to go with their transition defense

Typically, a team as small as the Rockets should find strength in their transition defense. After all, that's one of the benefits of going small in the first place - not having to worry about laboring 7-footers getting back down the court. However, the Rockets were 23rd in points allowed after turnovers and it appears to still be an area of struggle. The Rockets allowed 15 fast break points (6 of 8 from the field) in the first half alone. For the game, they allowed 25 of these points, which would be the worst transition defense in the NBA by a significant margin.

4. The television product was...good? And the teams liked it too

So this was the big question all summer: How would a televised basketball event look without fans? As it turns out, the games have been fine. It helps to have good play-by-play guys on the broadcast to help distract from the noise of squeaky sneakers, but other than that, you're not going to find a complaint from me. Due to the pace, this game was actually one of the more enjoyable ones this week.

And the teams seem to enjoy it too.

"It's about like practice," said Mike D'Antoni. "You hear everything [on the court] and you can talk from the bench and they hear you. You know I was talking to James [Harden] and it's a great atmosphere. It's fun to play there. This is pure basketball and they're hooping."

It's almost surprising that with all the lead up to games without fans, there's been little discussion about how much easier it would be to communicate without crowd noise. Players are chirping at each other, defensive assignments are easier to yell out, and even bench players are able to help quarterback the defense from their spots.

"It's pretty dope," said James Harden after the game. "I think this environment - I didn't know what to expect. Now being here in this enviornment, it's pretty cool."

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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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