When the Rockets' quest to identify the 16th head coach in franchise history set sail, it was clear what they were looking for: a defensive-minded coach who could take command in a locker room. And based on the list of candidates, the Rockets made it a point of emphasis to expand the criteria to coaches that had been a part of a championship run.
The early rumblings were that former Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel was the frontrunner, while rumors had been circulating that the franchise held Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse in high regard. What complicated matters on the Nurse front was the fact that Nurse hadn't officially been terminated when the Rockets' search got underway, as he and the Raptors hadn't yet decided whether he would be back in the fold, after a disappointing season in which the Raptors seemingly regressed.
The Rockets continued on with their search, irrespective of the situation regarding Nurse, and added former Celtics coach Ime Udoka to the fray. Udoka had been linked to Toronto, as he and Raps President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri are known to have a good relationship.
How the Rockets won a masterful chess match against the Raptors
But the Raptors couldn't interview Udoka until they had made a decision on Nurse, and although the Rockets reportedly liked Nurse, they decided against waiting for him. In the end, the Rockets hired Udoka before Toronto announced that Nurse wouldn't be returning, leaving Toronto grasping at straws, as they had missed out on someone they held a high degree of interest in, as long-time NBA insider Marc Stein explained.
"League sources say that the Raptors were indeed hoping to make Udoka part of their search to replace Nurse but were likewise determined to commission a broad search process that would feature numerous candidates and stretch well into May. When the Rockets moved quickly by presenting him with a four-year offer that, according to The Houston Chronicle, is valued at $28.5 million, Udoka took the job in front of him."
The Rockets had to pay Udoka a steep salary (roughly $7.1 million annually), as the Gregg Popovich disciple could very well have opted to hold off on accepting any offer until he interviewed with Ujiri and the Raps, in hopes of a better offer. And the Raps were slated to pay Nurse $8 million in 2023-24, so they wouldn't have had a problem giving him a number that he was comfortable with.
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta was aggressive to get a guy in Udoka who he really coveted and the franchise moved swiftly to prevent the Raps from even remotely having a shot at the 45-year-old Udoka. This level of urgency from ownership should bode well to a fanbase that's largely questioned whether ownership was committed to winning.