State of Houston: The Big Three’s Title Window

Houston fans have seen plenty of heartache, as well as a few triumphs along the way. Consider today’s concentration of generational stars in Houston. The Astros feature a mini-core four of Altuve, Bregman, Correa; the Texans bring their star studded defense, the best receiver in the NFL in DeAndre Hopkins, and a rising star at quarterback in Deshaun Watson; and the Houston Rockets are led by James Harden and Chris Paul. So much star power not only brings excitement to the city, but also hope towards sports prosperity. With stars come the pressure of legacies and winning; here is how much of a window I believe the Big Three have to win. 

Rockets

Is the window open? No. It’s not because of how they are constructed, but due to the fact that the Golden State Warriors exist. While on paper there are teams who can bother the Warriors, or at least be competitive against them, there isn’t a team this year built to knock them out. I can see Golden State losing two games at most in a series, but four? Not likely. After all, they have been in the Finals four straight years, winning three times, and were a win away from a four-peat in 2015-16.

Another couple of reasons why the Warriors aren’t beatable: they have 28 combined all-star appearances from their starting lineup, Curry and Durant have three regular season MVP’s between them, and Durant has two Finals MVP’s on his resume. In fact, Durant, who’s easily the second-best player in the world, has been in the top ten in scoring. The only time Durant finished outside the top ten in the league in scoring was the 2016-17 season (his first with the Warriors).

While the Warriors have closed the Rockets’ window, Houstonians can still enjoy championship hopes this basketball season. Though they’re not a professional team, look no further than the Houston Cougars. Currently 25-1 and ninth in the AP poll, the Cougars are having one of their best seasons in school history. After being knocked around in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament, the Cougars will look to advance further, as they haven’t reached the National Title game since 1984.

What do the Rockets need to do to keep contending? While the Warriors’ supreme talent has the NBA on lockdown, they have some major decisions ahead which could impact their future. The Warriors’ run possibly could end this summer, but for the Rockets to prop their title window open, they need to make a big splash in the offseason.

The problem for Houston will be trying to create enough flexibility financially to make that big splash possible. This may involve approaching either Harden, Chris Paul, or Clint Capela to take a paycut, as the big portion of Houston’s salary cap is tied to their Big Three. The problem is that CP3 and Capela signed contract extensions this past summer, so getting a pay cut from them is not likely. The question will be, who is willing to make the financial sacrifice to potentially better the team? Without financial flexibility, the Rockets have only a minimal chance to improve their team.

Astros

Is the window open? Yes. Built around a good young core of stars in Altuve, Bregman, Correa, and Springer, as well as boasting the ninth-best farm system. The Astros are not only a championship contender now, but with the potential they have on the farm, the Astros could be a force in the foreseeable future.

What do the Astros need to do to keep contending? More aggression from Jeff Luhnow would be nice. According to Brian McTaggart, after getting railed in the ALCS by the Red Sox, owner Jim Crane opened the idea of increasing payroll.

After being linked to possible deals for JT Realmuto (who wound up with the Phillies) and Paul Goldschmidt (who wound up with the Cardinals), the Astros weren’t willing to pay the costs. Instead, they settled for Churinos, who’s solid, but isn’t a long-term solution at age 35. After seeing Charlie Morton walk to the Rays in free agency, the Astros signed Wade Miley, who could be in the mix for one of the Astros’ final rotation spots, or could become a reliever. Houston also added more outfield talent and another good bat in the lineup in Michael Brantley. While Brantley is a three-time All-Star, he does come with an injury history. After missing significant time in 2016 and 2017, Brantley bounced back nicely in 2018, playing in 143 games and delivering an all-star season at the plate, batting .309 with 17 home runs and driving in 76 runs.

Again, the way the Astros got handled in the ALCS was a letdown. But there is still time to make the coming season better, either via trade or whatever is left of the free agent market. In no way should the Astros sell the farm, but if they have a chance to land a player capable of making a huge and immediate impact, then by all means Luhnow shouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. After all, what if some of these top prospects become Major League busts? Suddenly those players lose value, and the Astros lose out on making their current roster even stronger.

Luhnow has done a great job building a great foundation around a strong farm system and a good core. But when it comes to remaining strong and getting ahead of the Yankees and the Red Sox, a little more aggression, whether through trade or free agency, would be nice to see from the Astros.

Texans

Is the window open? Yes. What a difference drafting Deshaun Watson has made for the Texans. Outside of the Matt Schaub years from 2007-13, the Texans never fully invested in the quarterback position, believing that if they had enough talent around the quarterback (which they do), they could hoist a Lombardi without an elite signal caller. They were wrong, and after years of ignoring their most pressing need, Houston finally wised up to move from 23 to the number 12 pick in the 2017 draft to take Watson.

Watson’s rookie season was magnificent but short-lived, as he tore his ACL and the Texans faltered to just 4-12. Having to rehab from the injury and not appearing like himself was a big reason the Texans stumbled out the gate to an 0-3 start. But despite injuries, and despite being the most-hit quarterback in the NFL, Deshaun was able to lead the Texans to an 11-5 season and division title. Sure, getting embarrassed by the Colts at home was not the outcome Houston was hoping for, but 2018 showed that, as flawed as they were, a healthy Watson plus a good defense equals a Texans team which has a chance to be something special.

What do the Texans need to keep contending? Get some offensive help and keep much of the defense intact. Thanks in large part to the resurgence of JJ Watt, the Texans defense returned to form and was a big factor in the Texans’ turnaround. The Texans do have some decisions on that side of the ball to make, but where they really need improving the most is on offense, starting with the offensive line.

Watson himself should take the lion’s share of the blame for some of the hits he took after holding the ball too long. Watson needs to improve as a passer, but that does not excuse the Texans from ignoring their biggest need. If Houston does not improve up front, then not only could Watson’s career be put in jeopardy, but also Houston’s window to win slams shut.

GM Brian Gaine did not have much to work with his first year, as Houston was getting out from the Brock Osweiler mess; yet he still put together a pretty good roster. Now expectations will be to build on the success of 2018, while attacking the most pressing needs. An even bigger boost for Gaine is that Watson is currently in his rookie contract. Since his contract currently cap-friendly, this is a golden opportunity for Houston to really bolster their roster; once the time comes for Watson to be extended, building a championship-caliber team becomes harder.

Wrapping up

Star power is great, as it creates excitement and a buzz of winning potential among the fan base. It is on each front office to maximize what they have. If they don’t, then all these three will have to show will be one World Series title and a Western Conference Finals appearance. Given all the potential that these teams have, that outcome would be more than a letdown; quite honestly it would be pathetic.

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