Imagine this hypothetical: you just got a new job. Congratulations! You meet your boss. She’s a seasoned professional in your field. You meet your support staff - they’re headed by one of the best in your industry.
Life is good. This is going to be a cushy position. Sort of. You’ll have to work hard, but you’ll have all the support you need. All you have to do is your job, and you’ll succeed.
Weeks later, you’re on the way to work. You stop at Starbucks. You grab yourself the fancy coffee and the micro sandwich that’s priced like a hoagie. Why not? You just got a new job.
Your phone starts going off. The boss quit. The top support worker put in his notice. They’ll be replaced by fresh-faced kids with plenty of potential, but little real-world experience.
The company tanks - and somehow, it’s all your fault.
Stephen Silas is a victim of circumstance
This has been the Stephen Silas experience.
Shortly after Silas was brought on board to coach James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the sky fell. Mike D’Antoni left the team before their flight from the Orlando bubble had landed. Daryl Morey quickly followed suit. He claimed it was to spend more time with his family. Who knew he was so close with the Philadelphia 76ers?
You know the history if you’re reading this. Westbrook was quickly moved for John Wall in a last-ditch effort to salvage the situation. Harden, equipped with pillows stuffed under his workout gear, publically declared that it couldn’t be fixed.
The Rockets moved him for seven first-round picks and/or pick swaps. In my opinion, it was a great return. Yet, somehow, Silas has somehow struggled to coach players that won’t be on the team until 2027.
I’m not saying Stephen Silas is one of the best coaches in the NBA, but I refuse to assume that he’s one of the worst. I’m saying we have no fair basis on which to judge his tenure in Houston.
What do we know about Silas?
If we want to judge Silas’ basketball acumen, it’s not fair to base our judgment on his time in Houston alone. We should also look to his time as a lead assistant for the Dallas Mavericks.
In 2019-20, the Mavericks boasted the best Offensive Rating in the NBA (117.5). By all accounts, nobody had Head Coach Rick Carlise’s ear like Silas did.
Of course, Silas doesn’t deserve all the credit. Carlise was the head coach. Furthermore, the Mavericks weren’t doing anything especially complicated. In essence, they put the ball in Luka Doncic’s hands in a pick-and-spread offense and told him to cook.
Realistically, that’s how Silas got the Rockets gig. Doncic’s game has always felt modeled after Harden’s as a heliocentric offense engine who’s an equal threat to score or pass. Silas was likely to have the Rockets running very similar actions, only with the big (Christian Wood) popping instead of rolling.
Again, this isn’t Tex Winter reinventing the triangle. Silas is a student of simplified, post-modern basketball. He may not deserve all the credit for Dallas’ attack, but if he doesn’t, why should he get so much blame for the Rockets’ shortcomings?
What has Silas done right - and wrong?
We know Silas’ offensive principles require five-out spacing. In 2021-22, he spent much of the season with Daniel Theis and Jae’Sean Tate in the frontcourt - possibly the absolute worst shooting forward combination in the NBA.
This bleeds into another common criticism of Silas: that he plays the veterans too often. To be sure, swapping out Theis for Kenyon Martin Jr. would have improved the spacing (modestly). With that said, Martin Jr. is prone to mental lapses (particularly on defense) that the veteran Theis just isn’t.
Who cares, right? We’re tanking anyway.
That’s easy for you to say. You’re not clinging to an opportunity you’ve spent your whole professional life waiting for.
Beyond the poor spacing, Silas’ system requires, like D’Antoni’s before him, an elite ball-handler. That’s particularly true in a five-out system. With all of the opposing team’s defenders drawn out to the perimeter, there are more hands in the honeypot. It’s easier to commit turnovers when the entire defense is effectively forced into a blitz.
That wouldn’t have been a problem for James Harden. It’s a bit of an issue for Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green.
If there’s a valid criticism to be made of Silas, it’s to do with his sideline demeanor. It does occasionally feel like Silas is the cool dad when some of the kids on this roster could use a more authoritarian figure.
Even that criticism doubles back to my larger point: this isn’t the job Silas was hired to do.
Look, Silas is probably on the hot seat in 2022-23. He’s a victim of history as well as circumstance. NBA head coaches just don’t lose as much as he has over the past two years without compromising their job security.
The Rockets ought to make progress next year, but if it’s not enough to satiate Silas’ bosses, that’s understandable. With that said, I personally hope that, if he loses this job in 2022-23, he finds another opportunity:
Hopefully, he gets the one he signed up for next time.