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Grading Houston Rockets Top Six Head Coach Candidates

May 1, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Indiana Pacer head coach Frank Vogel reacts to a call during the Pacers 89-84 loss to Toronto Raptors in game seven of the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
May 1, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Indiana Pacer head coach Frank Vogel reacts to a call during the Pacers 89-84 loss to Toronto Raptors in game seven of the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
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Apr 7, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets head coach J.B. Bickerstaff speaks to the media after losing against the Phoenix Suns 124-115 at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Shortly after the Houston Rockets got knocked out of the Playoffs by the Warriors the search for a new Head Coach began. And while strong candidates like Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks were already pinched by the competition there’s still a wide array of competent professionals left in the market.

More than a week after Rockets elimination from postseason I believe it’s safe to say now: this adventure did nothing for the Texan team other than costing the team a draft pick and losing out on great possibilities for consideration to the Head Coach role.

Although it’s also true that coaches like Tom Thibodeau would never get the same kind of work conditions as he got in Minnesota from the likes of Daryl Morey and Leslie Alexander there’s still much to regret from the Rockets not delving earlier in the market, thus also missing out on new opportunities like Luke Walton (snatched by the Lakers) for example.

Besides as we recently found out Rockets interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff  withdrew from consideration to the post. Regardless if he has his sight set on another job or if only to save his reputation I’m positive that Red Nation was much relieved with the news.

Nevertheless this article’s proposal is to take a look at the top candidates for the Houston Rockets Head Coach post according to the news, and likewise dig into their characters and overall profile with the goal to provide readers a full insight on who could be the best choice to take this coveted role.

We’ll base our grades and analysis on the following bullet points:

  • Adaptability to Rockets role
  • Tactical Discipline
  • (Re)Building Chemistry
  • Level of Respectability (by the players / and the league)

Therefore with no further delay let’s take a look at where the top 6 candidates rank based on the above rating system

Next: The JET Flying High With The Rockets?

Oct 23, 2015; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; Former Tar Heel Kenny Smith and host of Late with Roy Williams at Smith Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Number 6: Kenny Smith

Former Houston Rockets legendary point guard and currently basketball analyst for TNT is only ranked 6th because it’s as low as my list ranks. Had it been a Top 50 list, The JET would still be my lowest ranked candidate. And it’s mainly because I don’t trust him even in the slightest to run H-town.

Nowadays notably due to the unexpected stratospheric success that Steve Kerr achieved with the Golden State Warriors a growing trend in the league of pursuing (and hiring) TV analysts for main staff roles is slowly gaining traction.

First of all Steve Kerr success derives mostly from an already estabilished squad and style of play that kept his initial tweaks to a minimum.

And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the name of Kenny Smith, who’s a player with plenty of bonds tight to the Houston Rockets organization, Jet fails to tick any other boxes.

Whoever takes the job in Houston will have as much work as any other team that is in full on rebuilding mode. With the only (huge) benefit of already having a superstar in James Harden to (re)build around.

From my perspective not only is Kenny Smith a big question mark because he’s never held a role even remotely similar, but he doesn’t exactly provide the Rockets with the kind of leadership and discipline they so desperately need right now

And while there’s no doubt that Smith would enjoy a very high level of respect among players and the league, likewise he would lack the same support from the stands. The reason is most Rockets fans see him not as the “Clutch City point guard Kenny Smith”, but the “Charles Barkley unfunny sidekick Kenny Smith”, and that could be a big problem.

Could he build back chemistry? Tough to say for sure, but to be fair the most likely scenario (in my opinion) is him ruining any remnants of a good environment in the Rockets locker room, as I predict Smith would create cliques and play favorites.

All in all, to sum up: Kenny Smith is not – by a long shot – a good candidate.

Final Grade: F

Next: Former Clutch City Rookie Calling the Shots

Mar 13, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Sam Cassell helps warm up the Clippers before the game against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Number 5: Sam Cassell

Now that we’re off the gimmick aspect of the NBA we can start to debate better or worse fits for the Head Coach position. Don’t get it wrong: the former Houston Rockets point guard is a much more serious candidate than his Clutch City counterpart.

Although Sam Cassell has never held a head coach role  he would come with a very respectable level of experience in his bag: 5 years as Washington Wizards assistant where he worked with the likes of Flip Saunders, for example, and 2 years as Doc Rivers assistant in Los Angeles.

You can’t take those lightly.

Even if his style of play, preferences and tactical knowledge is rather unknown, you can’t make an argument against his development work ethics. Especially after Wizards duo John Wall and Bradley Beal credited the current Clippers assistant as the main reason for their exponential growth:

Definitely helped me with my jump shot. Just being a mentor, somebody who was a point guard who knew the game very well. It was big – John Wall

There’s a lot going in Cassell’s favor. He is a former three-time champion, a motivational leader, someone who knows the city and this franchise. Granted you can never be sure of success when making the jump to the head coach post for the first time (as happened with Bickerstaff), but so far the odds are much more on his side.

He’s ranked as low as the 4th position in this list due to the lack of head coaching experience and relatively unfamiliarity of his basketball offensive and defensive preferences.

Final Grade: B-

Next: A 60% Head Coach

Mar 28, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger reacts to a call in the first half againt the San Antonio Spurs at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Number 4: Dave Joerger

Out of every coach ranked in this list, Dave Joerger is the one with the best winning percentage. Roughly 60%. During his three years tenure in Memphis, Joerger twice achieved 50+ wins.

Of course after an injury-plagued season that left their two biggest stars: Mike Conley and Marc Gasol sidelined for the third portion of the season there just wasn’t  much he could do. Imagine the Rockets playing this season WITHOUT James Harden and Dwight Howard but still reaching 42 wins: that’s what Dave Joerger did.

But what I’m struggling to understand is the Grizzlies giving up the talented young coach for reasons he simply couldn’t control. Much has been said about Houston Rockets firing of Kevin McHale, but the team was losing right and left.

How can you condemn a coach for winning? And worse: Joerger was winning in adverse situations.

Regarding Joerger’s style while in Memphis, I believe we are all familiar with the grit-n-grind, slow game that the Grizzlies impose against their adversaries. This however was already true before Joerger took the head coaching gig.

In his three years in Memphis, the team ranked 30th, 26th and 27th respectively in pace. We can only assume that with big heavy players like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph there’s hardly any other choice.

Could he be a good fit in Houston? Unlikely, especially if his preference is to utilize this slow paced style.

Slowing the tempo does allow for his teams to have a low rate of turnovers witnessed in his three years as the Grizzlies never ranked below 7th for fewest turnovers per game.

There’s no doubting Joerger’s effectiveness and accomplishments with the Memphis Grizzlies, one has to wonder though if it’s worth that shift in culture and basketball style for the Rockets.

Final Grade: B

Next: Disciplined Man

Jan 31, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek yells to this team during the first half of the game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Suns at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Number 3: Jeff Hornacek

To put it bluntly if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Jeff Hornacek to take the Houston Rockets head coaching job.

Jonathan Feigen said and I quote:

Morey said search to be “thorough.” I think will be quicker than last time. JVG a favorite. Don’t sleep on Hornacek. https://t.co/1EkeqOPM6I

— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) April 30, 2016

So for those of you who think Jeff Hornacek only has an outside chance of coaching the Rockets next year: think again. I’d go as far as to say Hornacek, not Van Gundy is the odds on favorite to take the helm.

Why? Because I feel the definitive word on this matter will be on Leslie Alexander, not Daryl Morey.

In many opportunities this season Rockets owner said he wanted to be more involved in the team’s decision making process and if there’s any attribute I believe Alexander is desperately looking for in his next head coach is discipline. And that is right up Hornacek’s alley.

Let’s face it: the Rockets had a train-wreck of a season filled with inside drama, wrapped in off court issues. Too many ‘players only meetings’, far too many Kardashians and distractions left and right that were a recipe for disaster.

There wasn’t strong enough leadership nor accountability. Jeff Hornacek can offer all that and more. But to what extent is it worthy?

Last year after the Suns finished as the runner up in total technical fouls in the league, Jeff Hornacek decided to implement a technical foul policy. Whichever player that got a T would be benched for the remainder of the game.

Hornacek later felt obliged to say that his policy was a way for his players to “develop leadership traits” that the Suns were lacking.

Even so, don’t let yourself be fooled, in Hornacek’s time at the helm for the Suns he is described as a calm and collected coach.

  • He doesn’t yell.
  • He doesn’t like selfish plays or players.
  • He uses analytical data and shot charts.
  • He holds players accountable for their mistakes and shortcomings and works to find a solutions:

"“They were horrible defensively” Hornacek said of the Morris twins. “Whether that was the system, or what. But we’re putting a lot of responsibility on them to help out and to rotate and these guys are following it, and I think that’s what’s taking them to the next level.”"

Take a look at Phoenix Suns 2014-2015 offense to see how Hornacek likes to see his players on the offensive end: multiple screens, spacing, off the ball movement and incisive drives to the basket.

Read all that again and think of Rockets troubles this past season: ISO plays, ball hog players, misguided shots from misplaced players.

Could Jeff Hornacek be the panacea for all the Rockets ailments?

Or instead, is it possible that his hiring can turn into a power struggle with James Harden in regards to his ethics on and off the court?

Tough call.

Final Grade: B+

Next: Everyone's Favorite

Feb 5, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy watches the game between the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs at the American Airlines Center. The Spurs defeat the Mavericks 116-90. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Number 2: Jeff Van Gundy

The ESPN color commentator and former Houston Rockets head coach seems to be everyone’s favorite for the job. Now, whether this is a case of serious nostalgia or if it’s entirely based on Van Gundy’s coaching ability is hard to say.

To be fair in many opportunities JVG has been incredibly friendly to the Texan team and in fact has shown a strong likeability to the Houston Rockets.

But over his years in broadcasting Van Gundy went for the league’s jugular: ranting about flopping, “hack-a” strategies allowed, missed calls, etc. there is a slight possibility that as soon as JVG returns to the court he quickly becomes the odd man out, an unwelcome addition.

That’s not enough to keep the man away though.

Throughout the years Van Gundy has amassed 430 wins on 748 games (good for 57.5%) and a 50% record on the playoffs (44 Wins and 44 Losses).

He was also a NBA finalist on the 1998-1999 season with the eight seeded New York Knicks of Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston and coached three 50+ winning teams over his 11 year-career including two Houston Rockets squads.

He also comes loaded to bear with a superb defensive-oriented game. To wit, in 9 of his 11 seasons in the NBA his teams finished ranked between the top 6 teams in the league on Defensive Rating. Suffice to say he is able to rapidly affect changes, as his first year in Houston demonstrates when he catapulted the team’s defensive rating from 14th place to 5th.

As far as experience and defense goes he’s as good as they come.

Final Grade: A

Next: No More Small Ball

May 1, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel gestures during first half play against Toronto Raptors in game seven of the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Number 1: Frank Vogel

I wasn’t entirely sold on Frank Vogel until I basically took a look at his defensive average numbers.

They are just… amazing.

Vogel is a 6-year head coach veteran. With the Indiana Pacers he achieved a 58% regular season winning-percentage.

That in itself would be nice enough to land him the job, but Vogel’s Pacers led the league TWICE in defensive rating. From 2012 to 2014 the Pacers defense was ranked 1st in the NBA. Then last season playing without superstar Paul George he still managed to have the 7th best defense in the NBA despite the team missing the playoffs.

More from Space City Scoop

This past season he returned to fine form and with PG13 back, Indiana nabbed the

3rd position

in defensive rating.

He’s also proven to be a coach who complies with what the upper brass requests of him.

Throughout his tenure in Indy his relationship with Larry Bird was solid as he delivered on requests. For instance Bird requested for the Pacers to no longer employ two bigs in the game and instead focus on small ball and pace. Vogel adapted and did the best he could with the players at hand while also doing a fabulous job developing youngster Myles Turner. And, he delivered on Bird’s request to speed up team’s pace as Indy moved from 19th to 11th.

Thus to sum up Vogel is a coach that is all about meeting expectations (within reason of course).

If given the job and with a set of well-defined goals I believe the Pacers former coach is likely the best name to turn the Houston Rockets around.

Final Grade: A+

Next: Has Morey put analytics ahead of character?

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