After the Houston Rockets and head coach Mike D’Antoni failed to agree a contract extension last summer, it’s increasingly likely he’ll will depart once the 19-20 season is eventually concluded. Jeff Van Gundy is among the candidates linked.
Despite impressive displays in each of their last three seasons, the Rockets have failed to advance into the NBA Finals.
D’Antoni, appointed their head coach in the summer of 2016, expressed his desire to sign a new deal last year – but nothing materialised as talks reached an impasse.
He won the NBA’s Coach of the Year accolade for 2016-17, his debut year in Houston – they lost in six games against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semi-finals. The next two years? Losing in successive years to the Golden State Warriors.
Stat: Houston won more games in D’Antoni’s three seasons than any three-year stretch in franchise history (173-73), accumulating the best win-percentage of any Rockets coach.
Many have suggested D’Antoni may be on his last legs with the organisation, with The Athletic’s Sam Amick speaking on the Brodie and The Beard podcast that if Houston fail to win the title this season, it’s unlikely he’ll be rewarded with an extension.
“Barring a championship, if they do save the season, I do not get the sense that Mike D’Antoni is going to be back. They’ve had a major divide in the contract negotiations.
I’m always cautious when it comes to reporting so I’m going to throw in the never say never. Pro sports is a crazy thing, you know what I mean? But the information that we’ve constantly heard is that bridge for the most part, has been burned, and now they’re just kind of mutually agreeing to make the best of the time they have together.”
Where does Van Gundy, then Thibodeau come into the picture?
Amick also reported that Jeff Van Gundy has been discussed as a potential D’Antoni successor. Having coached the New York Knicks for six years between 1996-2001, he has prior experience in Houston too – earning a 182-146 record from 2003-07 before being fired after successive underachievement in the playoffs. Does that ring a bell?
As I reported earlier this month, the Rockets are among those linked with an approach for Tom Thibodeau. He was an assistant under Van Gundy with the Rockets, before having head coaching jobs with the Chicago Bulls and most recently, the Timberwolves.
Amick revealed the one of the pair is most likely to be coaching Houston next year:
“Van Gundy’s name is the one that I had heard consistently as a very possible replacement for Mike. Him and [Thibodeau] being from the same tree, whatever happens next I think you are starting to get a sense of what might be prioritised – obviously defense first, discipline.”
Harden has proven himself as one of the sport’s most prolific and deadly offensive players, but remains a polarising figure – given his inability to step up in the postseason.
D’Antoni shaped his offensive plan around Harden’s efficiency in isolation, while doing something similar to help get the best out of Russell Westbrook after his shock trade from OKC last summer.
Statistic: The Rockets held the NBA’s second-best offensive rating at the time of the suspension in March, at 113.4 points per 100 possessions.
Burning questions that need answering
There’s no guarantee that Van Gundy or Thibodeau will prove an improvement over D’Antoni, who has been unfortunate with the hand he’s been dealt in the postseason.
Everyone speaks about that Chris Paul hamstring injury in Game 5 two years ago, who knows what might have happened if things were different?
Harden and Westbrook are Houston’s deadly guard duo and owed a lot of money on lucrative deals over the coming years. If D’Antoni does depart, will their new coach adjust to their needs or try to fit the superstar pairing into their system?
Their small-ball style was criticised, then heralded for its originality, then blitzed back into reality against a bonafide Western Conference rival in the Los Angeles Clippers.
Clint Capela’s February departure means their roster is lopsided and the presence of a defensive-minded coach could mean they look to target a quality big man this offseason.
They don’t have the assets to trade for one, but there are a number of intriguing centers who will be free agents this summer including Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell, Derrick Favors (Pelicans) and Raptors’ Serge Ibaka – a former teammate of both Harden-Russ in OKC.