Cousins’ status up in the air
Talks of trade aside, center has issue with heel
The Rockets had not moved on from center DeMarcus Cousins just yet. The Justin Patton era had not begun. The return to full-time small ball — until Christian Wood’s return from his ankle injury — was not official or even preferred.
Cousins’ status as the Rockets’ starting center with Wood out, however, was uncertain Sunday for this season’s usual reasons.
Though the Rockets have spoken with Cousins’ representatives about coming up with a trade or release that would send him to a team of his choosing, according to a person with knowledge of the talks, coach Stephen Silas said Cousins is still his starting center if he’s able to play.
As always with the Rockets’ season, whether planned starters will be able to play is another thing entirely.
“He’s here in practice,” Silas said. “He’s here for tomorrow’s game and moving forward. I know there’s rumors out there as far as what’s coming ahead, but those are just rumors at this point.
“As far as I know, (Cousins will start Monday against the Bulls). Actually, today he had a little foot thing. He was out for most of practice.
Started practice, then was out for the rest of it. We’ll see how he responds to treatment moving forward. But if he’s ready to play, he’s going to start.”
Cousins is listed as questionable with a sore right heel. But as unusual as the other part of Cousins’ circumstances would seem to be, it is not the first time even this season that the Rockets would play someone knowing he will soon be heading out.
Though there are many differences between Cousins’ situation and James Harden’s to start the season — with the Rockets having no issues with Cousins’ commitment — the potential distraction had to be ignored in both cases.
“We’ve had outside noise from the head of the season,” Rockets forward Jae’Sean Tate said. “It’s just (about) controlling what we can control and focusing on getting out of this losing streak we’re in.”
It is also getting close to one part of every season, with the trade deadline a little more than a month away.
“It’s a business, man,” said Rockets forward/center P.J. Tucker, who is in the final season of his contract and will be part of trade speculation until he is dealt or the deadline passes. “That’s the only thing I tell (teammates). You focus on today. Obviously, it can change on any day. But you have to keep your focus on what you’ve got going on that day, what team you’re on that day, and take care of your business.”
For the Rockets, that could mean a return to long stretches using the small lineups that filled last season.
With Wood not close to returning, when Cousins is dealt or unable to play, the Rockets would be left with the 6-foot-11 Patton, who signed a two-way contract Friday, and the small-ball lineups with either the 6-5 Tucker or 6-4 Tate at center.
“I’ve liked them overall,” Silas said of his small lineups. “The rebounding is an issue, but the ability to switch is hard to play against. We have smart, hard-playing, physical guys in the small-ball group, whether we have Tuck or J.T. at the five. It makes our defense a little bit cleaner, I guess, because you are body on body. Teams are starting to play better against switching than they were even last season. We have to be on it a little bit more. We can’t be as loose.”
The Rockets’ lineup with Tate at center on the floor with Eric Gordon, Danuel House Jr., David Nwaba and Sterling Brown has had the second-most minutes together of any current configuration, outscoring opponents by four points per 100 possessions this season. The small lineup with John Wall at point guard and Tate at center has been on the floor for just 13 minutes but has dominated that small sample size.
“I think we have guys who can do it,” Tucker said. “We have to get better at it. That lineup works when you have guys who can guard multiple positions and still be able to rebound the ball, still be able to guard the post. We have some guys who can do that.”
The Rockets’ use of center-less lineups is unlikely draw the attention that came with last season’s move to small ball.
They cannot be sure yet when they will play without a big man in the middle, given the uncertainty — for various reasons — about Cousins’ immediate future. But while they might prefer not to go through another stretch waiting for the next roster move, they have learned how to deal with “all of that outside stuff going on outside of the group.”
“The day-to-day preparation, film-watching, drill work, all of the things that we do that we have control over, that’s what I really concern myself with,” Silas said. “That makes it easier for me. Compartmentalizing that part of it and making sure I’m on top of making this team better and concentrating on the things as a group we can control, I feel that helps the players as well.”
If nothing else, the Rockets should be used to it.