Mike D’Antoni and the Houston Rockets parted ways on Sunday after four seasons, a few playoff heartbreaks, small-ball experiments, and a 217-102 regular-season record. Yet, D’Antoni failed to reach an NBA Finals, and the veteran coach decided to move on after a five-game Western Conference semifinals defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers in the bubble.
Both sides were cordial upon the break-up. D’Antoni released a statement thanking the Rockets organization, while Houston owner Tilman Fertitta expressed gratitude for D’Antoni’s contributions. However, a report by Kelly Iko and Sam Amick of The Athletic‘s sheds some light on the miscommunications and behind-the-scenes dealings over the years that ultimately doomed the partnership.
In 2016, Mike D’Antoni signed a three-year, $15 million contract with Houston, with a team option for 2019-20. The team won 55 games before falling to the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals. D’Antoni wanted his fourth-year option picked up by owner Les Alexander, only for Alexander to abruptly sell the franchise two weeks later to the brash restaurant chain owner, Tilman Fertitta, for $2.2 billion. Fertitta declined to offer D’Antoni the option.
Houston rolled to 65 wins in 2017-18, and arguably came a Chris Paul injury away from reaching the Finals. That June, D’Antoni was asked if he would be the head coach if free agent LeBron James chose to take his talents to Houston, a notion that irked the coach.
“Sources say D’Antoni was furious at the notion that his job security would even be in question,” The Athletic writes. “What’s more, he believed the reason the Rockets hadn’t picked up his option, in large part was because they were holding out hope of landing James in free agency. Had that happened, D’Antoni believed they wanted the flexibility to change coaches if James came their way and preferred a different voice. Rockets officials deny that this was the case.”
James went to L.A., Mike D’Antoni stuck around, and expectations were high for 2018-19. But the team got off to a rocky 4-6 start and Carmelo Anthony’s struggles became an unwelcome distraction. The Rockets fell to the Golden State Warriors in seven games in the second round — a series that became eminently winnable for Houston after an injury to Kevin Durant in Game 5. Fertitta vented his frustrations to the media after Game 7.
“I’m a fighter. That’s my culture,” Fertitta ranted. “The longer I own this team, they’re gonna pick up more of my culture. We had ’em. We should have stepped on their throats the other night and cut their throats. It’s not make a few shots and win, it’s step on their throats, and let’s take it back to Houston and end it in six.”
According to Amick and Iko, “Fertitta’s message rubbed D’Antoni the wrong way,” but the coach still hoped to work out a three-year extension. That May, Fertitta further rankled D’Antoni with an interview in Houston Chronicle, in which Fertitta misrepresented D’Antoni’s age and intentions.
“Mike is going to be 69 years old and Mike doesn’t totally know what he wants to do yet,” Fertitta said, even though D’Antoni had just turned 68 and wanted to remain on board for multiple years.
D’Antoni’s wife, Laurel, called an attorney and LeGarie rang Morey to warn against age discrimination during negotiations. Fertitta offered D’Antoni a one-year, $2.5 million deal, which D’Antoni reluctantly accepted. Morey then declined to bring back the bulk of D’Antoni’s coaching staff — decisions that D’Antoni “didn’t appreciate,” per the Athletic.
In a last-ditch effort to make amends and finalize the deal, Fertitta and Morey visited D’Antoni’s home in West Virginia in the summer of 2019. D’Antoni agreed to an incentive-laden deal, with assurances from the owner and GM that he was the Rockets long-term coach. D’Antoni “gave the strong impression that he was on board,” but LeGarie pushed back on the terms and the deal was never reached.
One year later, after another disappointing second-round elimination, Mike D’Antoni informed the players and staff that he would be moving on from the Rockets franchise on the plane ride from Orlando to Houston on Sunday.
D’Antoni is likely to be in the running for open head coaching positions with the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers. The Rockets will look to candidates such as Becky Hammon, Sam Cassell, Ty Lue, Jeff Van Gundy to fill their vacancy.