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Replacing Mike D’Antoni: Three candidates the Rockets should consider

With Mike D’Antoni out, the Houston Rockets must find the right coach to help steer their franchise in the right direction.

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Houston Rockets v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Everything was good just four years ago — promising more than ever. Sitting between GM Daryl Morey and former team-owner Leslie Lee Alexander was Mike D’Antoni. Dressed in a navy blue suit with a red tie, D’Antoni was the new kid on the block in Houston as Morey and Alexander introduced the then 65-year-old as the 13th head coach in Houston Rockets history.

At times throughout the press conference, there were some laughs. Like when D’Antoni went out of his way to introduce Jeff Bzdelik as his assistant coach, since he was not known to be a “defensive-minded coach.” But more than anything, there were talks about a promising future and plans to get the Rockets back to championship contention.

And that he did.

In his first year at the helm in 2017, D’Antoni helped the Rockets improve by 14 wins (55-27) and took home his second career Coach of the Year honors (2005). Three years later, D’Antoni became the winningest coach in franchise history in terms of winning percentage (.682). He set a franchise record for the most regular-season wins (65) in 2018. And came a hamstring and a game away from reaching the NBA Finals that same season.

In a perfect world, the success the Rockets have had with D’Antoni should have kept him around for at least three more seasons. But instead, an explosive article by Kelly Iko of The Athletic chronicles the toxic events that followed D’Antoni’s introductory press conference that ultimately led to his jettison.

Now — in what could be the most important off-season in its history — the Rockets are faced with a daunting task to find another head coach to steer their franchise. One who could possibly navigate the Rockets to a place where D’Antoni could not.

Kelvin Sampson:

New York Knicks v Houston Rockets Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Only a handful of coaches have made a successful jump from the collegiate to the pro-level. Most recently, Brad Stevens has been the poster child of a college coach making the triumphant transition, leading his Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals in three of his seven seasons at the helm in Boston.

Asking a college basketball coach to come in and help a franchise compete for a title immediately may be a daunting task for most, but Kelvin Sampson would be the right man for the job.

Why it makes sense:

Since taking over as head coach of the Houston Cougars, Sampson has instilled a winning culture that has changed the basketball program in Houston. Since 2014, Sampson has led the Cougars to five winning seasons — which includes back-to-back American Athletic Conference regular-season titles — and three trips to the Big Dance during March Madness.

After two consecutive playoff eliminations in humiliating fashion for the Rockets, it may take Sampson’s proven culture to get Houston over the hump. But more importantly than any coaching philosophy, the Rockets must find someone who can gain the trust and respect of their players — a feat Sampson already has accomplished.

As a former assistant coach to Kevin McHale for three seasons (2011-2014), Sampson has a strong relationship with the core of the Rockets’ roster — which includes James Harden and Eric Gordon. In February, Robert Covington credited Sampson for laying the foundation for his career as an undrafted rookie during his first stint in 2014.

Billy Donovan:

Oklahoma City Thunder v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Bill Donovan may be the most underrated free-agent coach on the market — and perhaps the league. The work he put in over his five-year tenure in Oklahoma City (243-157) should make him a top candidate for several teams with a vacant head coaching position. If signs were not pointing towards a rebuild, Donovan would still be leading the helm for the Thunder in OKC.

His most successful season came in 2016 (55-27) when Donovan came one game shy from reaching the NBA Finals over the 73-9 Golden State Warriors. Two months later, he would lose Kevin Durant in free agency, but not even the loss of K.D. could put a blemish on his coaching tenure.

Donovan would continue to lead the Thunder to the playoffs over the next four seasons — falling either a game or two shy of 50-wins. This past season might have been Donovan’s best to date — even more so than his lone season with Durant.

After trading Russell Westbrook, the Thunder came into the 2019-20 season with a 0.2 percent chance to make the playoffs. Not only did he defy the odds, but it took a game-winning block by Harden in Game 7 to keep Donovan from leading his team to the Western Conference semifinals. And if not for a global pandemic, Donovan would have captured his first 50-win season since 2016.

Why it makes sense:

No matter the players on his roster, Donovan always excelled at putting his teams in a position to win. His system would give the Rockets something they never had during the D’Antoni era — that grit and grind that can help lead a team to victory on nights when shots are not falling.

Based on their time in OKC together, Donovan already has the respect of Westbrook. And could be the best person to coach the nine-time All-Star. Plus, the addition of Harden would give Donovan his best roster since the Durant & Westbrook-led Thunder. Already proven he could succeed with less talent, Donovan’s grit and grind may be enough to help push the Rockets over the hump.

Tyronn Lue:

Toronto Raptors v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Two Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Out of the three coaches on this list, Tyron Lue has already emerge as a top coaching candidate for the Rockets. He spent the past two seasons as an assistant to Doc Rivers in Los Angeles, but it’s his three-year coaching tenure with the Cavaliers (128-83) that makes him a leading candidate.

He led the Cavaliers to three straight Finals appearances, capturing the crown in 2016. Of course, having LeBron James was a tremendous help, but Lue’s impact as the head coach was vital to the team’s success.

Why it makes sense:

Offensively, there isn’t much of a difference between Lue’s coaching style and D’Antoni. The former Rocket guard (2004) relies heavily on pick-and-roll and isolation, so Harden and Westbrook — especially Harden — should feel right at home playing within Lue’s system. It also helps that Lue has dabbled in small-ball, plus the Cavaliers finished top-five in offensive net rating in all but one season in Cleveland.

However, Lue will give the Rockets something they did not have in D’Antoni — a coach who understands the importance of making adjustments in the post-season. As we saw during the 2016 NBA Finals when the Cavs trailed 3-1 to the Warriors. And if Lue could co-exist with two of the NBA’s biggest divas over the past decade (LeBron & Kyrie Irving), earning the trust and respect of Harden and Westbrook should not be a dilemma.