What’s going on with the Rockets?
(TLDR: It’s not as crazy as it looks. It’s probably not crazy at all.)
First came an ominous post-season silence, then a faintly jolly press conference with Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni, offering signs he would remain the head coach.
Now we are informed via Twitter that Tilman Fertitta, rather than Daryl Morey, took the decision to pick up Mike D’Antoni’s option for next season. So MDA will run it back.
D’Antoni’s assistant coaches, it appears, will not. So far erstwhile defensive savior Jeff Bzedelik, Roy Rogers and player development coach and Harden trainer, Irv Roland, are all gone. The purge may continue.
These moves seem inconsistent, almost capricious, at odds with the perceived steadiness of retaining the head coach. One might think that Daryl Morey, recipient of a recent contract extension himself, is in conflict with the team owner.
Often NBA moves don’t make sense, seem misguided and do indeed arise from internal conflict. When such moves come from the organization that personifies steely rationality in the Association, looking deeper may be rewarding.
Here’s a line of counter-factual reasoning (also known as “sheer speculation”) that leads to present situation, does not entail any great amount of upper level conflict within the Rockets, and represents a rational response to the Rockets current situation.
- The Rockets cannot change much about the current roster. Barring major trades of Chris Paul, Eric Gordon (who is on an expiring deal) or Clint Capela. Most changes will occur at the margins, and likely yield fairly minor results.
- It could be possible to trade away a raft of picks, and possibly a player, in pursuit of, say, Jimmy Butler, but this is improbable.
- It’s reasonable to believe that while the Rockets haven’t proven to be better than Golden State, they aren’t much worse, either. They’re very close. Every game in the series defeat to Golden State was decided late, and not by much. Shouted narratives aside, the Rockets are arguably closer to defeating the Warriors than any other team in the NBA, excepting a highly surprising NBA Finals result.
- So, let’s assume the roster talent can’t really be changed except by bargain (and therefore risky) purchases, and shrewd signings on buyout players, much like last season. Hartenstein and Clark might provide upside surprises, but counting on that is foolish. Let’s further assume, though, that the current roster remains within striking distance of Golden State.
- What then can be changed? What might provide a swing of six points in a series with the Warriors, aside from certain players just being better? The answer lies in coaching.
- Let’s imagine that Morey, while not truly dissatisfied with D’Antoni, sees what many TDS readers see in terms of stagnant late game offense. He observes that the Rockets also did not adjust in any meaningful way to the Warriors going from Durant ISO-heavy offense, to their movement offense of old. He knows that all the contests were very close, and perhaps if those issues were addressed, the playoff outcome might have been different.
- Now let’s say that new owner Tilman Fertitta largely agrees with Morey on this point. Being an experienced businessman, though, he believes that talented high-level management is difficult to replace. He notes that the Rockets have compiled their best regular seasons ever under D’Antoni, and have come achingly close to beating the champions. It doesn’t seem prudent to dismiss D’Antoni without a better option in hand.
- Daryl Morey, clever guy that he is, sees the wisdom, and moreover, authority, in Fertitta’s qualms regarding MDA. So he proposes something like this:
What if the replacement for D’Antoni was already in hand?
What if by putting that possible replacement in hand, the Rockets might also address the offensive and defensive issues that seemed to be the margin of Golden State’s victory?
Perhaps if certain changes requested of MDA did not manifest, or if the team did poorly, he might be dismissed in the midst of next season?
Not to say that’s a desirable course, but it does satisfy both Morey, who may well believe that the only meaningful change to be made is coaching, and Fertitta, who is unconvinced a better replacement to MDA is in the offing.
9. Were acceptable replacements for MDA already on hand? It appears not, as the high level assistants are now gone. They weren’t likely new head coaches for the Rockets.
Jeff Bzdelik had to be convinced to un-retire, and his solo outings this season were not encouraging. Roy Rogers might become a very good head coach, but may not seem to be the “head coach of a contender” at present.
10. Watch the assistant coach hires very closely. They could well be the candidates to replace MDA, even in-season. Recall that Raptors coach Nick Nurse was part of the Rockets coaching “farm system” at RGV, and was considered a prospect for the Rockets job.
11. Mike D’Antoni seems to be angling for an extension, but he has little leverage. He can surely see which way the wind is blowing. An extension is great for him, either it offers more coaching, for which he’s expressed enthusiasm, or some nice paychecks to ease the journey into retirement. A Finals trip for the Rockets probably gets him a new contract, but it is difficult to envision what else could.
12. Tilman Fertitta is a new team owner, and new NBA owners often have (kindly) a rocky beginning. (Except Les Alexander, who bought an immediate champion.) This all may simply be what happens upon transition in ownership. But it might well be otherwise.
Can we please, at least, dismiss the “Cheap & Malevolent” narrative regarding Fertitta? The man essentially put his entire fortune into buying the team he loves. He’s Houston to his bones. Assuming otherwise is silly at this point. He might be wrong, but he’s proven to be neither cheap, nor malevolent regarding the team.
It is difficult to envision a possible and achievable Rockets roster that would have beaten Golden State by paying the luxury tax. As it stands now, the Rockets will have more money to spend next season than they would have in the tax, and have avoided the repeater tax. It appears more like good long-term thinking than cheapness.
13. The Rockets appear to be taking a middle way between the fictive positions presented here for Morey and Fertitta, and retain maximum flexibility, which is, of course, very Rockets indeed.
This poll is closed
Crazy like a fox.
Staring stupidly, mouths agape, at the multi-dimensional hypergame played by Luka. A game that only he and genius space aliens fully understand.