With high hopes for success after making it to the Western Conference finals, the Houston Rockets began their 2015-2016 season with a 4-7 record, resulting in the firing of head coach Kevin McHale.
The Boston Celtics legend joined the Rockets staff in 2011 and spent four full seasons as the team’s head coach. McHale went an impressive 193-130, making him the winningest coach in the franchise’s history. With all of McHale’s success, what went wrong? Why was he fired only 11 games into his fifth season with the franchise?
The obvious reason is that the Rockets got off to an awful start. The Rockets record, disappointing as it is, isn’t entirely indicative of the Rockets play. They aren’t just losing games; they are being blown out by teams they should be beating. The players have looked lackadaisical on both ends of the ball, and it is clear that effort has become a greater problem than execution.
Deemed a player’s coach, McHale eventually lost the trust of his players. Since hired as the Rockets coach, McHale’s roster has seen a complete turnover. Not a single player from the Rockets 2011 roster remains on the team.
Until 9:50, McHale had best winning percentage of any Rockets coach in franchise history. Not anymore. J.B. Bickerstaff takes over lead.
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) November 19, 2015
Since landing Harden in a trade with Oklahoma City, the Rockets have made the playoffs each season. While one could assume that McHale’s winning record speaks of his coaching ability, in truth, McHale’s success is in large part due to the play of superstar James Harden.
Hired a couple of seasons after the Rockets lost franchise pieces Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady to injuries, McHale came to the team during a rebuilding process. In McHale’s first season, nobody would have been able to foresee that a year later the Rockets would add then 6th man of the year James Harden to their lineup who would eventually transform into one of the league’s best.
The fact of the matter is that whether or not he is capable of coaching a championship level team, McHale was hired to coach a team that was in the middle of rebuilding.
On paper, McHale had a good run with the Rockets. He had a winning record, and made the postseason 3 out of his four years with the team. Anyone who has spent significant time watching the Rockets, however, understands that McHale is far from being a great in-game strategist.
The Rockets offense under McHale’s reign has basically consisted of giving the ball to Harden and letting him try to get into the paint, in hopes that he will either make it all the way to the basket, or find someone for a spot up three when the defense collapses on him. If that didn’t work, the Rockets were out of luck.
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In the Rockets first game without McHale Wednesday night against Portland, Rockets fans got a breath of fresh air when the Rockets made an in-game offensive adjustment. After struggling to score the ball all night, the Rockets began to play inside out with James Harden on the post in which they were able to erase a double digit defecit and win the game in overtime.
In-game adjustments on both ends of the basketball are something the Rockets need more of in order to eventually win a championship. The players may have gotten along with McHale, and they may have found success in running an offense that had little direction, but a strategist with a clear game plan and an ability to change the direction of that plan during a live game is what the Rockets need in order to compete at the highest level.
For a couple of seasons now, I have been of the opinion that the Rockets would not be able to win a championship with McHale as the head coach. As I mentioned earlier, McHale was hired to coach a team that was in the process of rebuilding, not a team with hopes to compete for a championship. For now, the Rockets will put their trust in interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, hoping that he can succeed where McHale failed. Bickerstaff will try to get the second win of his head coaching career tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies.