At the end of the day, if the Houston Rockets are ever going to break through with James Harden at the helm, they need their roster to execute in the playoffs; there’s no coaching godsend waiting in the wings.
The Rockets came up short yet again in the playoffs this season — and they could’ve easily come up even shorter. The Oklahoma City Thunder took the Rockets to seven games in the first round. Both offenses went quiet in the closing minutes of Game 7, missing shots all over the place. Houston literally eked out the series, mostly due to a handful of missed shots from Chris Paul in the closing moments.
Then the Rockets came out strong, beating the Los Angeles Lakers with conviction in Game 1 of the ensuing series, 112-97; the Lakers proceeded to win four in a row, marking the second consecutive season that the Rockets have failed to reach the Western Conference Finals.
News broke on Sunday that Mike D’Antoni won’t be returning to coach the Rockets next season, ending his four-year run.
There are a handful of options and talking points for the Rockets going into the offseason. Trade James Harden? Trade Russell Westbrook? Trade for a big man? Fire general manager Daryl Morey? Who’s the best head coach for this team moving forward?
Houston’s immediate focus is on hiring a new coach, and there are plenty of viable options.
Tyronn Lue has an NBA championship under his belt; Alvin Gentry, Mike Brown, and Nate McMillan are proven commodities; Mark Jackson coached a shiny backcourt with the Golden State Warriors; Jason Kidd’s elite point guard background could help Westbrook; Kenny Atkinson has experience developing young players.
No matter the coach they hire, the Rockets have no room for growth. They have a roster of established players.
Morey went all-in on small ball and outside shooting around his star-studded backcourt at the NBA trade deadline, most notably trading stud center Clint Capela for forward Robert Covington in a complex four-team deal.
The bulk of the Rockets’ 2019-20 rotation is under contract for the 2020-21 NBA season: Harden, Westbrook, Covington, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and Danuel House. The funny thing is they actually found some success with this small rotation defensively. Across their 12 playoff games, the Rockets held opponents to 106.9 points per game.
This leads to the stinging reality: D’Antoni was perfect for the Rockets.
What do star players want? They want the freedom to play to their strengths and have players around them who complement their skill set; Morey and D’Antoni did precisely that with Harden and Westbrook. Covington, Gordon, Tucker, and House have been steady outside shooters over their respective careers, which complements players who attack the rack with frequency like Harden and Westbrook.
Neither star suffered. They were able to do as they pleased with the ball in their hands. Plus, there was minimal, if any buzz about issues with D’Antoni and his coaching staff. That’s impressive for a team with a pair of high-profile players.
Westbrook has been an inefficient shooter for most of his career, and that has historically come back to bite him in the playoffs, as he’s forced to settle for mid-range jump shots in half-court sets given the pace of play slows down. This postseason he averaged 17.9 points per game, compared to his 27.2 points per game in the regular season, while shooting 42.1 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, Harden tends to dribble the shot clock down to the last possible second and is sometimes forced into shooting a tightly contested, low-percentage jump shot. Harden and Westbrook drawing double-teams is supposed to open up one of those three-and-d players out on the perimeter, especially when they attack the rack.
What happens with the new coach: do they advise Morey to trade some of their wing/forward depth for a big man? Do the Rockets trade up in the NBA Draft? Two years ago they had one of the game’s best big men in Clint Capela alongside Harden and Paul, and they also didn’t win the West.
Harden and Westbrook are arguably the most talented backcourt on planet earth; they’re electric with the ball in their hands. At some point, they have to play the part in more than just the box score. That means winning big series and making clutch jump shots.
The positive moving forward for the Rockets is their overall defensive improvement in the NBA bubble. This is something they can build on to get one of the top seeds in the conference. But as the 2017-18 season proved, a team’s regular-season feats are meaningless in playoff crunch time (the Rockets were the one seed in the West and lost to the Golden State Warriors in seven games in the Western Conference Finals).
A new head coach, a new philosophy, and some new faces are on the horizon for the Rockets. What does that guarantee alongside two star players accustomed to their own styles of play? The West is getting stronger by the month, with a combination of proven powerhouses and young teams with, in some cases, rising stars.
In 2017 the Rockets had a roster of players that fit around Harden. They opted to trade for Chris Paul in the offseason, creating a power combo. Last summer they made another bold decision, trading Paul and draft picks for Russell Westbrook. None of these decisions have resulted in a conference championship. None of these decisions have produced newfound optimism that a different outcome is on the way. This offseason won’t deviate from the past.
A head-coaching change is a mere distraction for the Houston Rockets. Harden, Westbrook, and friends have to find a way to come through in the grinder; no coach is going to change that.