Since the Houston Rockets’ defeat to the Golden State Warriors in the second round of the playoffs, many takes for how to fix the Rockets are floating about, and one of the hottest I’ve seen is that it’s time to move on from Mike D’Antoni.
Now, let me start off by saying that everyone on the team deserves blame for the loss. This is an organizational failure.
The players for underwhelming in their biggest moment of the year, the owner, Tillman Fertitta, for not being willing to spend on the luxury tax, GM Daryl Morey for having a total bust of an offseason that resulted in a slow start and required some careful midseason maneuvering to dig out of, and D’Antoni for not getting the most out of two of his Big Three during a series with their greatest rival.
But you don’t simply fire your coach just because he hasn’t gotten past the greatest team of all time. D’Antoni has been fantastic since the Rockets brought him aboard.
Since he was hired in 2016, the Rockets have a 173-73 record, which is good for a ridiculous 70.3 percent winning percentage. In addition, he successfully changed the culture after the up-and-down Kevin McHale years, and he re-arranged the offense around the greatness of James Harden and has fully maximized the abilities of his most dynamic player.
It’s actually very similar to when Rudy Tomjanovich took over for Don Chaney and did something similar for the Rockets of 25+ years ago. He changed a culture of mediocrity and rebuilt the team concept around the greatness of Hakeem Olajuwon. Of course, his culture change resulted in back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995, something D’Antoni has yet to achieve, but the effect on the day-to-day of the franchise was similar. The team went from yearly first-round fodder to a legitimate title contender every year from 1993 to 1997 before Olajuwon’s window ran out.
The Beard is on a similar trajectory. He’ll turn 30 this offseason, which means he has about 3-4 years of his physical prime remaining before he starts to slip. And he’s improved every year, something he can continue to do. I don’t need to remind everyone that Dream didn’t win his first ring until his age 31 season, and he continued to get better until topping out at age 32 in 1995. I foresee the same arc for Harden.
Is there another coach out there and available that can fully maximize the final three seasons of Harden’s prime better than the guy who turned an All-Star into an MVP and won 70 percent of his games while doing it? Is this really time to do a reset to a complete unknown or likely less qualified retread and hope he can implement his philosophies on a veteran group of players? And how do you justify the firing of a coach who’s done so much good for your team simply because he couldn’t get past one of the greatest collections of talent ever assembled?
Look, D’Antoni’s not perfect. He doesn’t often develop young players well enough (though he was better at that this year, giving Gary Clark and Danuel House significant minutes), and he can play his main guys too much, something he was also better at this year. You might even make the argument that he gives his guys too much rope on the court. But let’s not kid ourselves that the Rockets were more talented than the Warriors, even after KD went down.
That team was still rocking three All-Stars, while the Rockets were essentially down to 1.5 with Chris Paul’s slippage. That doesn’t mean they still didn’t have an opportunity — this was a razor-thin series that they could have taken with just a little bit more — but they were underdogs for a reason. 19 of 20 ESPN pundits still picked them to lose even after KD went down for a reason.
We’ll be addressing some personnel stuff in upcoming pieces, but let’s just say that Houston’s supporting cast is going to need to change this year. The Rockets need several things — another shooter, someone who can create a shot now that CP3 is slipping, and another serviceable big. Whether Daryl Morey can make any or all of that happen with Houston’s cap limitations is a conversation for another day.
But short of blowing up the entire thing — like a trade James Harden blow-up, which would be the dumbest thing ever (you simply don’t trade a star of that magnitude in his prime unless the situation is toxic) — D’Antoni’s earned another chance to reload with this group.
The players like him, he’s had plenty of success (don’t forget, the Rockets made it out of the first round just twice in 20 years before D’Antoni, three straight now with him), and there’s simply not another elite option out there that can fit with this group.
D’Antoni deserves to be back, and I believe the front office feels the same.