The Houston Rockets as we knew them are no more. Per reports, the team has agreed in principle to a four-year deal with Mike D’Antoni to come on as head coach. The 65-year old D’Antoni will supplant interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who took over for a fired Kevin McHale last year and helped the Rockets get back to the playoffs.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) May 26, 2016
Houston was only marginally better with Bickerstaff at the helm, but overall regressed after reaching the Western Conference Finals during the 2014-15 NBA season. Bickerstaff was never a lock to get a hard look at the long-term head coach, but during the season seemed to take himself out of the running by failing to get the Rockets to play consistently. Houston’s biggest struggle was on defense, where they gave up a staggering 106 points per game. The Rockets never lacked any offensive prowess, but won just 41 games and finished the year with the Western Conference’s 8th seed. They were bounced immediately in round one of the playoffs, falling to the Golden State Warriors, 4-1.
While D’Antoni himself isn’t the answer for Houston’s defensive woes, he’s as good of an offensive mind as a team will find and he’s enjoyed a lot of success. In addition, talks leading into the signing suggested D’Antoni would bring with him a sound defensive assistant to help the other side of the ball. Who that ends up being and what their exact involvement is, of course, remains to be determined.
All we know is D’Antoni has been wanting back in the league for a while now and understandably got burned after signing with the Los Angeles Lakers back in 2012. He came on with what was supposed to be a title contender, but Steve Nash couldn’t stay healthy, Dwight Howard wasn’t 100% and Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles before the playoffs.
The Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs that year, lost Howard in free agency, and never got Bryant or Nash back at full strength in D’Antoni’s second – and last – season at the helm.
He was dealt a short stack and did the best he could, much like an ugly four-year run with the New York Knicks, where he was tasked with turning a roster full of subpar talent into a winning group. The Knicks struggled mightily during his tenure, but did show mild signs of progress, winning 42 games in his second to last season.
D’Antoni will be best known in the NBA for his epic days with the Suns, who he built from the ground up and led to four straight 50+ win seasons, including two straight Western Conference Finals series.
He brings elite offensive knowledge and playoff experience to the table, including years of winning overseas. If the Rockets play things right, he could be what pushes them over the top.
Of course, there are two issues: D’Antoni doesn’t care about defense and when he hasn’t had the proper pieces in the past, he’s struggled. He never had the right guys in New York and in Los Angeles the expectations were simply not realistic.
The first part could come by way of a strong assistant, as well as team effort. Then again, if the Rockets can be as efficient offensively as D’Antoni’s Suns teams were, it’s possible it doesn’t matter all that much.
That could leave the bigger issue being getting the roster right. That has to mean the end of center Dwight Howard, who didn’t seem to see eye to eye with D’Antoni in L.A. and just isn’t a great fit for the system. There is also the question of who will dominate the ball, as James Harden thrives in that role, but plays shooting guard and has complained in the past about having to handle the ball too much.
Harden is the best option to run the offense on the team right now, however. If Harden isn’t up to the task, he’d have to relinquish the ball and D’Antoni would then be on the hunt for his own version of Steve Nash. Patrick Beverley can offer solid defensive intensity and outside shooting, but he’s not going to be confused with the second coming of Nash when it comes to running an offense, penetrating and setting teammates up.
Figuring out who will run the offense is the first step, making sure Howard is gone – and replacing him – is the second step, and step three is making sure Harden is surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Looking back on D’Antoni’s best teams, he had a roster filled with players who could fill multiple roles and brought serious versatility to the table. They would exceed at one main skill, but would still be backed by basic fundamentals. In other words, for this system to work, D’Antoni needs players that can handle the ball, shoot from outside, and know how to pass.
Houston already has a few in place, as Corey Brewer, Donatas Motiejunas and Trevor Ariza all look like good fits. Younger players like K.J. McDaniels and Sam Dekker could also end up filling bigger roles come next season.
D’Antoni has to merely be the start of Houston’s transformation. The team was already taking the first logical step forward offensively, as they had slowly made Howard less and less a part of their offensive system. They need to become more versatile and more fluid, but in a way that they can still compete on the boards and prevent from being out-muscled in the paint.
As they stand, the Rockets are an average, one-dimensional squad that can only go as far as Harden takes them. Clearly, to this point, that can be fairly far, but they need to cut the dead weight, add the right pieces to fill out the roster and actually buy into this new system.
D’Antoni isn’t likely to figure it all out and create a title contender right away next season, but the Rockets should be better, get closer to 50 wins again and remain in the playoff picture. That’s all they can ask in D’Antoni’s first season and if management gets the right pieces in place that he feels he needs to win, it’s possible this could be a team to fear a couple of seasons from now.