When John Lucas was drafted by the Houston Rockets during the 1976 NBA Draft, the North Carolina native was brought in to help change the fortune of a struggling franchise. The Rockets came up short of qualifying for the playoffs a year prior and finished the ‘76 season with a 40-42 record.
Lucas was Houston’s top overall pick following a sensational collegiate career at Maryland, though it wasn’t until 1986 — Lucas’ second stint with the team — when the Rockets’ investment began to show full promise.
Lucas was the starting point guard who experienced a resurgence in his career by helping the Rockets establish themselves as contenders in the league. While Houston’s ‘86 run ended at the hands of the Celtics during the NBA Finals, Lucas’ season infamously came to a premature close on March 15th due to his on-going battle with substance abuse.
Instead of helping the Rockets capture what would have been the franchises’ first title, Lucas’ transgressions led to one of the biggest “what-ifs” in franchise history. His absence might have been the missing piece that prevented Houston from pulling off one of the greatest Finals upset in league history.
Thirty-four years later, Lucas may have a chance at redemption — this time as head coach. According to Marc Stein of the New York Times, Lucas has emerged as a top candidate in the Rockets’ search for a new leader.
Why it makes sense:
Unless there are plans of a rebuild in a year or two, it could be a daunting task for the Rockets to find the right coach given the unique structure of their roster. Houston’s current make-up isn’t suitable for most philosophies, and they would not be able to make a roster change without departing from one of their core pieces not named James Harden.
Whoever takes the helm will need to have a similar outlook to that of Mike D’Antoni, and Lucas fits the bill. Lucas has been a part of the Rockets’ system since 2016 and would need no introduction to their style of play.
Of course, Lucas would implement his coaching philosophy as head coach, but the knowledge of Houston’s personnel will make the transition easier for the Rockets. He already has the respect and a strong relationship with the players, which includes a close-nit bond with Houston’s top two stars in Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Lucas checks what should be two of the top qualifications for Houston’s next head coach. However, his track record as the team’s player development coach should give him the upper hand.
The top priority for a coach is to put their team in the best situation to win, but their ability to develop talent can sometimes fly under the radar. Lucas has already proven he can help with the development of a player — especially a young and raw prospect.
Over the past four seasons, contrary to popular belief, the Rockets have had success developing young guys. In recent years, Houston witnessed the emergence of Clint Capela, Gary Clark, Isaiah Hartenstein and Danuel House — all unproven prospects who developed under the close stewardship of Lucas, even though House is the only one that remains on the roster.
Lucas’ experience at the helm — or lack thereof — may be the only knock that will prevent the 66-year-old from becoming the Rockets’ next head coach. Lucas has only held three head coaching jobs in the past. His last stint came during the 2002-03 season with the Cleveland Cavaliers — where the team went 37-87 in under two seasons.
Although Lucas’ head coaching record is far from pleasant (173-258), a bulk of his resume is occupied by teams who were a year or two removed from drafting generational talents in Allen Iverson (76ers) and LeBron James (Cavs).
The only successful tenure Lucas had as a head coach came during his two-year stint with the San Antonio Spurs. After taking over for the recently fired Jerry Tarkanian, Lucas went 94-49 with two trips to the post-season.
After all, the Spurs did provide Lucas with his most talented team headlined by future Hall-Of-Famer David Robinson.
It’s going to be a long process for Houston in their head coaching hire, but Lucas should be near the top of the list among other candidates. On Friday, Marc Stein announced that the Rockets expect to meet with Lucas about the vacant position soon — along with Tyronn Lue and former Rockets’ coach Jeff Van Gundy (2003-2007).
If the Rockets were to hire Lucas as their next head coach, it would give him a unique opportunity to fulfill a purpose with the organization that began 44 years ago. A purpose that made Lucas the Rockets’ No. 1 draft choice in 1976.