If you're reading this, you obviously know that the Rockets just came off of a very disappointing first-round loss in the Playoffs. There's a lot of bad feelings over this, and blame is being thrown around everywhere, particularly at Kevin McHale, whose contract was up after this season. Despite this loss, however, McHale was re-signed as coach, with Morey singing his praises in an interview. While it might seem like a coach that had underachieved with a talented roster would get fired, the Rockets made the smarter organizational decision not to fire him.
Why did they do this, you might ask? Well here are the reasons:
- Coaching turnover is inherently bad. There are a number of reasons why this is true, but the problem is that if you keep installing new coaches and philosophies repeatedly, you can't really know if these coaches and philosophies are working. This occurs in education in underperforming schools: Principles at these schools are often fired after just 2-3 years on the job due to their not immediately improving their school's performance, despite the fact that it takes multiple years to improve said performance. While obviously a basketball team is a different kind of organization, it's difficult to judge McHale's performance based purely on one season with a highly talented roster.
- Even if McHale is not a great coach, there's no reason to expect his replacement would be better. In the 2013-2014 season, there were 12 coaches that were newly hired and coached a full season for their team. (I'm excluding Jon Loyer out of fairness to him, as no mid-season hire should ever be expected to coach successfully.) Of those coaches, only 5 coached their team to the playoffs, and only 2 coached their team to the second round. Of those 2, one coach (Jason Kidd) had the luxury of working with a team with extensive playoff experience, and the other (Doc Rivers) had won a championship and had coached his previous team to a very good record over the years. The Rockets are young and without much playoff experience outside of Harden and Howard, and there is not a proven coach that has won championships like Rivers on the market. A cautionary tale for the Rockets is what happened with the Nuggets this last offseason: George Karl, the coach of the year, was pushing for an extension. Unfortunately, this led to a falling-out with his team, which, combined with issues the team had all year (particularly with Karl's rotations) led to his being fired and being replaced with first-year coach Brian Shaw, who was highly touted as an up-and-coming coach with a lot of potential. Shaw has basically turned out to be an awful coach this year, with his team performing far worse than under Karl. (Shaw also developed a spat with valuable bench veteran Anrde Miller that led to Miller being traded for peanuts.) While I don't think the Nuggets made a bad decision in firing Karl (unlike in the Rockets' case, there was tension between Karl and the front office), it's important to know that new coaches often are not as good as who they replaced.
- The players respect McHale. Even though their play does not always make it apparent (and remember, this is a young, immature team), outside of Kyle Lowry no player has ever had any issue with McHale. You want players trying to win games for your coach, no matter what.
I don't think the Rockets retained McHale because they think he's the next Popovich or Carlisle who will guarantee a banner in Toyota Center. Kevin McHale is obviously (like 29 other head coaches in the league) extremely imperfect, and has definitely made decisions that have lost us games on occasion. Rather, I think the front office decided to retain McHale because doing otherwise would be a very poor decision. And who knows, maybe with Harden and Howard he can win us a championship.