As the Houston Rockets head into Wednesday night’s deciding Game 7 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, there’s no shortage of questions about what happens if Houston loses.
What does this do to James Harden’s legacy? What about Russell Westbrook? How about that big, fat $74 million extension (including options) of Eric Gordon’s? He of the currently shooting 18.6 percent from three Eric Gordon. Can the Rockets move that?
But perhaps no question looms quite as large as the future of Mike D’Antoni. If the Rockets lose tomorrow, how do you bring him back?
Yes, he has the highest win percentage of any coach in franchise history at .682 (217-101). Yes, he’s led the Rockets to the playoffs every season he’s been in town, and he had the key to unlock the full potential of The Beard as one of the league’s best players and a perennial MVP candidate.
But the team, for various reasons, just hasn’t been able to yet get over the hump. Should they falter tomorrow night, it won’t be that the Rockets lost to their first-round opponent. This is the 4-seed versus 5-seed matchup, technically the most prone to a first-round upset. And these two teams finished with the exact same record in the regular season. On paper, it wouldn’t be a bad loss.
But no, it’s how it happened that will be D’Antoni’s undoing, with the Rockets squandering fourth-quarter leads in all three losses, with just some horrid play down the stretch by almost everyone. And that’s long been a criticism of D’Antoni-led teams. Can’t win when it matters most. The Rockets appear more talented. They don’t appear as mentally tough as the Thunder right now, and that buck stops with the coach.
In addition, should a loss occur, there’s the Chris Paul storyline. The former Rocket was dealt for Westbrook in the offseason after looking mostly washed the prior year in Houston and quite frankly incapable of beating his man off the dribble.
The Rockets were then forced into drastic changes to accommodate Westbrook’s game, trading center Clint Capela and embracing a small-ball approach that’s seen mixed results since it’s inception. One night, the Rockets look unbeatable. They next night, they could struggle with a league bottom feeder. While that is one of the side effects of Houston’s high variance offense, it unfortunately hasn’t been their three-point shooting that’s done them in. It’s been clutch-time execution.
Meanwhile, CP3 spent the year looking rejuvenated in Oklahoma City, leading what many thought to be a lottery team into the middle of the playoff pack on the strength of his veteran leadership and crunch-time play.
Paul’s brought that clutch into this series, thoroughly dismantling the Rockets’ defense in the fourth quarter of OKC’s Game 6 win, beating guys off the dribble and cashing threes.
The point of all this is, the reason D’Antoni is the most important domino is that he is technically the perfect coach for Houston’s micro-ball approach. If he goes, that could be a harbinger that the Rockets are in for some major changes up and down the roster.
What coach do you bring in to manage the Pocket Rockets approach if not for Mike? I’m sure there are guys out there willing to give a run at it, but with only a season or two left of James Harden’s prime, now is not the time to play around with a coach who thinks he can make it work.
If D’Antoni goes, it’s very likely Eric Gordon does too. Or the team is at least making every effort to make sure he does. Russ’s contract is ridiculously untradeable ($40 million-plus per year through 2023), but you never know with Morey. Chris Paul was virtually untradeable too.
P.J. Tucker is injured, not playing great, and will be 36 next year. He also has an expiring contract in 2021. Austin Rivers has an expiring veteran’s minimum deal in 2021 also. I don’t want to mention the unthinkable in a James Harden trade, but the wild card in all of this could be owner Tilman Fertitta. Who knows if he’ll demand a complete and total blow up with the team unable to make any real free agency moves? The only way to change or improve right now is to trade.
But all of this becomes moot if the Rockets win tomorrow night. I mean, could D’Antoni not be retained even if the Rockets fall in the second round? Sure... but I think say... a six or seven-game competitive, entertaining series against L.A., and D’Antoni has a very solid chance of being asked back (just a gut feeling). I think Western Conference Finals and beyond, and he’s definitely back.
Now this is all supposing D’Antoni wants to be back. He’s already been linked to the Indiana Pacers, who just fired Nate McMillan. There will be options to coach elsewhere if that’s what he wants.
Ultimately, there’s a lot riding on Wednesday’s Game 7, but most of it starts with what happens with the coach. If Houston loses, the dominoes could start to fall.
Gotta win. I don’t think I can bear NBA Twitter through an offseason of Rockets change.