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The biggest ‘What if’ in Rockets franchise history, and it’s not Chris Paul’s hamstring

Rockets, Kevin McHale, Chris Paul, Kevin McHale Rockets

In 2014, I was blogging about the Houston Rockets for a local Houston sports blog. The Rockets had just come off of a crushing defeat to the Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs and missed on signing Chris Bosh in free agency so fan morale was down. I pitched a story to my editor titled, “Is it time for the Rockets to move on from Kevin McHale?” right before the 2014-15 season started. By the time the idea got approved and the draft had been written, the Rockets had started the season on a six game winning streak. The story idea was scrapped.

Rockets fans know what happened that season.

Houston played unbelievable defense, James Harden finished second to Stephen Curry for the MVP, and the Rockets reached their first Western Conference Finals in nearly two decades. They were the cinderella story team that year and Kevin McHale was given a contract extension mid-season.

The following season the Rockets completely fell apart.

After a 4-7 start, McHale was abruptly fired and replaced by interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. After being the second seed the year before, Houston ended the season as an eight seed (41-41 record) and got eliminated in five games by the Golden State Warriors. Franchise center Dwight Howard left in free agency and the Rockets had to rethink the way they built around James Harden. If not for a massive jump in the salary cap, Houston may have never gotten the train back on track as quickly as they did.

This warrants the question: what if Houston had moved on from McHale earlier than they did?

McHale was very much on the hot seat after losing in the first round to the Trail Blazers and everyone knew it. After acquiring James Harden and Dwight Howard in consecutive summers, the Rockets were the talk of the town heading into the 2013-14 season. Harden and Howard were viewed as top 15 talents in the NBA, there was an exciting supporting cast of Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, and Terrence Jones around them, and everyone knew the franchise had title aspirations. So when they fell so hopelessly short, McHale was the obvious scapegoat. Houston barely earned home court advantage that season, they were mediocre defensively with the best rim protector in basketball, and McHale was thoroughly out-coached by Terry Stotts in the playoffs.

Frankly, it was a surprise to a lot of people that Houston chose to retain McHale that summer. Perhaps they didn’t want to distract from their free agency pursuit of Bosh, but it certainly raised eyebrows. If you look back at it, McHale was never supposed to have this specific job to begin with.

The Rockets were shaping up to be a young, rebuilding team before the James Harden trade. McHale was hired the season prior to Harden’s arrival (2011-12) to replace Hall of Famer Rick Adelman. He wasn’t a bad coach, but when you acquire players as good as James Harden and Dwight Howard, you’re past the point where “not bad” is acceptable.

Houston’s 2014 series against the Trail Blazers was a clear indication that the task at hand had surpassed what McHale was capable of as a coach. Starting Omer Asik next to Dwight Howard felt like a drastic overreaction to LaMarcus Aldridge having the playoff games of his life. Sure Asik was more capable of defending Aldridge but, the tradeoff in floor spacing just wasn’t worth it and most coaches at the time could have told you that. Beyond the sub-par floor offense in that series, it never felt like the Rockets had a strong defensive identity under McHale other than 2015-16.

So when it became clear that McHale in the playoffs was a sub-par offensive tactician and the team was severely underperforming defensively, what exactly was he there for?

Had Houston let go of McHale after the Trail Blazers series and gone on to hire another coach with an established basketball identity other than “player’s coach,” they’re a lot less likely to have had a wasted season in 2015-16. It’s possible they don’t reach the Western Conference Finals in 2014-15, but if it looks like they’re building towards something meaningful, that doesn’t really matter. The Rockets also could have used the summer of 2016 to recruit free agents like Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward instead of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.

But what coach could they have theoretically hired in 2014?

Perhaps the coach the organization has always wanted to hire and eventually ended up doing two years later: Mike D’Antoni. What’s funny about Houston losing to Portland on May 2, 2014 is D’Antoni resigned as coach of the Lakers just a few days prior to the loss. If the Rockets wanted to move on from McHale, D’Antoni was there for the taking.

Now, there’s the obvious elephant in the room with Dwight Howard’s ugly departure from the Lakers a year prior. Howard reportedly didn’t end on the best of terms with D’Antoni. However, D’Antoni has shown that he’s willing to bury the hatchet with players for the betterment of the team and that would apply here. He also doesn’t get the job without the theoretical sign off from Harden and Howard.

Imagining Harden and Howard as true pick-and-roll partners in a D’Antoni system is much more fruitful than what they ended up being together. At the peak of his powers, Howard had the ability to do everything Clint Capela could do offensively, but better. His catch radius was bigger, his hands were better, and he was more physically imposing. You would see instances of this lob threat in flashes, but never for the full duration of a game. This is part of why the Harden and Howard pairing was so frustrating to watch – their skill sets complimented each other, but they never did.

The alternate timeline for Houston had they hired D’Antoni two years earlier is jarring. Harden and Howard could’ve ended up more symbiotic than they ended up being, the offensive would’ve flowed better, and they would’ve had a clearer identity as a basketball team. This identity prevents them from wasting a season in 2015-16 which, in-turn, makes them competitive for free agents like Durant in 2016. Perhaps they miss on Durant, but they’re certainly in the conversation instead of the afterthought they ended up being.

Of course, nobody can prove or disprove this theory. This is why it’s a fun thought exercise. Nevertheless, one of the key ‘what ifs’ of the Harden era Rockets is them choosing to not to move on from McHale earlier than they did. Sure, the Chris Paul hamstring injury in 2018 was certainly devastating for Houston, but the McHale ‘what if’ was preventable. It was just clear that after the 2013-14 season, McHale wasn’t the right coach for where the Rockets wanted to go and choosing not to move wasted multiple seasons.