With the report that the chances of Mike D’Antoni returning to the Houston Rockets next year are “slim”, let’s weigh the pros and cons of the decision.
The dispute between the Houston Rockets and Head Coach Mike D’Antoni has been public and at times contentious. A deal could not be made before the season started so D’Antoni, in a sense, is a “lame duck” coach this year. Even with his regular-season success, D’Antoni may be on the hot seat this year if the team doesn’t accomplish their ultimate goal of taking a title back to H-Town.
There has been speculation since the offseason when talks broke down between the Rockets and D’Antoni, and it surfaced again in the last few days.
In their recent story, Sam Amick and John Hollinger of The Athletic wrote about (subscription required) the ongoing situation with the Rockets and their coach:
Barring a Rockets championship that could spark a kumbaya healing of sorts and inspire Fertitta to open his wallet to meet that sort of moment, a source with direct knowledge of these dynamics expressed serious skepticism that D’Antoni would return after this season. To be more precise, the chances – per the source – are currently seen as “slim.” This shouldn’t surprise anyone considering the context here.
While it’s probably premature to speculate about the future of Coach D’Antoni in the first half of a season in which the Western Conference is wide-open, there definitely is a question surrounding what may happen this offseason. Let’s examine what the Rockets would have to gain or lose depending on their decision should Houston come up short again this season, starting with the pros.
D’Antoni’s Houston Rockets’ resumé is impressive. In the three previous years coming into this campaign, the Rockets are 173-73 with a 70 percent winning percentage, which is the best in Rocket history. His 23-16 record in the playoffs and 59 percent winning percentage is again number one in franchise history for a coach.
Two years ago, as we all know, the Rockets were a Chris Paul hamstring away from probably winning the NBA title. The Rockets have never lost in the first round under D’Antoni, and if not for falling victim to one of the greatest teams in NBA history, the narrative of his stint with the team so far would be entirely different.
While D’Antoni has been at the helm, the Rockets have had a top-five offense every year, which is still true this season. In fact, the Rockets have been no worse than third in offensive rating since he’s been with the team. The year before he joined, they were seventh in offensive rating. It may not seem like a big jump, but there’s a big difference between a 107.3 offensive rating and 114.1.
The entire offense is built around D’Antoni’s system and the excellence of James Harden. Sure, you could plug in another coach and Harden would still be an all-time great, but chemistry extends to player and coach as well. Critics say the head coach just lets Harden do whatever he wants and there isn’t a system in place. This is far from the truth. A trust has been built over the years between Harden and D’Antoni that can’t be measured by numbers.
While Coach D’Antoni has done plenty of things well throughout his coaching career and during his tenure with the team, he does have some shortcomings. If he and the organization indeed aren’t able to come to terms this offseason, here are a couple of things the Rockets wouldn’t miss.
Lack of emphasis on defense
This comes as no surprise to most critics of D’Antoni, but defense hasn’t been at the top of his priority list throughout his career, which has followed him at every stop. While Houston’s offense has thrived, the team’s defense has ranked seventh or lower every year since D’Antoni took over. In last year’s playoffs, it was a lack of defensive discipline that ultimately did the Rockets in against the Warriors once again, as they simply couldn’t get stops when they needed them the most.
This season, the Rockets rank 15th in defensive rating and have had times this year where the team didn’t look motivated or was completely confused on the defensive end. The lack of emphasis on defense sometimes can be felt throughout the lineup and has been a major reason Houston has given up sizable leads on multiple occasions.
Not playing young talent enough
Another complaint against D’Antoni is his unwillingness to play younger players in favor of playing his starters extended minutes. The newest example is the lack of playing time for players like Gary Clark and Chris Clemons. Both players have excelled in the G League and in limited minutes for the Rockets, however, D’Antoni is the type of coach who values experience over production when it comes to his rotation.
Clark, a player who started a handful of games last year, has bounced between the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and the Rockets all year. The Rockets lack depth and wing defenders, so he should be an obvious choice. Clark provides good weak-side shot-blocking and can guard multiple wing positions.
D’Antoni’s stubbornness with young talent has been a criticism going all the way back to his first year when the talk was that he should give more time to players like Montrezl Harrell and K.J. McDaniels. Harrell has since gone on to become one of the best bench players in the league and a possible Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the title-contending LA Clippers this year.
One thing is for sure regarding D’Antoni’s future: Tilman Fertita was not happy with the way last season ended and anything short of a Finals appearance may lead to the Rockets weighing other options come the summer of 2020.