As he sipped his coffee in a Salt Lake City hotel lobby just after the All-Star break, Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni spoke fondly about his professional fit with general manager Daryl Morey.
D’Antoni had plenty of experience as a coach who butted heads with front offices when it came to basketball philosophy. He felt restricted in Phoenix, in New York and in Los Angeles. In Morey, D’Antoni found a partner who also embraced ignoring traditional NBA norms and pushing extreme playing styles that were supported by analytics.
“That’s what makes it work,” D’Antoni said. “It makes it fun to go to work, because you know that everybody is thinking the same way. We’re just trying to figure out how to make this better.”
D’Antoni was well aware at the time that he was likely in his final season as Houston’s coach if the Rockets didn’t go far in the playoffs. It was the NBA’s worst-kept secret after the coach’s contract extension talks with the Rockets fizzled — twice — in unusually public fashion last summer, with Houston owner Tilman Fertitta and D’Antoni’s longtime agent blaming each other and developing bad blood.
It’s been believed by many in the league — D’Antoni included — that the Rockets would need to make a deep playoff run for him to return as coach. The divorce between coach and franchise could be finalized soon after Houston’s Game 5 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, sealing a second-round departure from the NBA’s Walt Disney World bubble.
D’Antoni is officially an unrestricted free agent and intends to consider his options regardless of whether the Rockets show real interest in re-signing him, sources told ESPN. He’s considered a leading candidate in the Indiana Pacers’ search, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and is expected to have other suitors. The 69-year-old D’Antoni has no desire to retire, as he’s made clear, and hopes to coach at least another four seasons.
There has been widespread speculation throughout the league that Feritta would want to also move on from Morey this offseason, gossip that began in the wake of Morey’s tweet that damaged the Rockets’ relationship with China, costing the franchise millions of dollars in sponsorship deals. High-ranking Rockets sources dismiss those rumors, saying that Fertitta fully intends to keep Morey.
Houston’s commitment to playing a historically small lineup will almost certainly continue next season — with or without D’Antoni roaming the sideline.
Morey believes that a center-less look that opens up the floor maximizes the Rockets’ potential with their pair of max-salary superstars, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Due in large part to their salaries, the Rockets are pushing up against the luxury tax and tax apron, limiting their avenues to make roster upgrades or dramatic changes even if desired, especially considering their lack of young talent to use as trade bait.
Critics will consider the Rockets’ failure to get back to the conference finals as proof that the small-ball plan was foolish. But the skeptics all expected the undersized Rockets’ doom would be due to their defense. The facts are that the Rockets ranked as the stingiest defense in the first round (101.7 points per 100 possessions), and the Lakers stopped playing centers to adjust to Houston’s style, so it’s quite a stretch to turn the Rockets’ relatively early exit into a referendum on small ball.
This playoff loss could be used to poke holes in the Rockets’ logic to pull the trigger on a blockbuster deal that shipped premier closer Chris Paul, two future first-round picks and the rights to swap two more first-rounders to Oklahoma City for Westbrook. But it’s only fair to recognize that the Rockets had some bad luck with Westbrook’s strained right quadriceps sidelining him for the first four games of the playoffs before he returned as a rusty, out-of-rhythm, minutes-restricted version of himself.
For Morey and the rest of the Rockets’ front office, it’s pointless to dwell on past decisions. In choosing a coach, they face such an important one for the immediate future of a franchise that might optimistically have a three-year window to contend. That’s how many years remain on the contracts of their trio of 31-year-old guards: perennial MVP candidate Harden, perennial All-Star Westbrook and Eric Gordon, whose injury issues and struggles this season prevented the Rockets from ever having a consistent third scoring weapon.
A couple of proven coaches with Rockets roots have been mentioned often inside the league as potential replacements for D’Antoni: ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, the Rockets’ coach from 2003 to 2007 who maintains a home in Houston; and former Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, the Rockets’ director of player development during the first season of Morey’s tenure.
Another name to watch: New Orleans Pelicans associate head coach Chris Finch. His résumé as a head coach includes championships won in the British Basketball League and with the Rockets’ G League affiliate Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
It’s a background quite similar to Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who, after a brief stint with the Vipers and five-year run as Raptors assistant, guided them to a title in his first season as an NBA head coach. Finch also spent five recent seasons as a Rockets assistant, so there’s a lot of familiarity between Finch and Morey.
A mindset similar to Morey’s is a must for a Rockets coach. It’s what made Morey and D’Antoni’s partnership — which led to being knocked out of the postseason four of the past five seasons by the Golden State Warriors dynasty — one of the NBA’s best over the past four years.
“Mike’s exactly what we’ve been looking for for a long time — someone who’s a partner who can basically innovate, take the information we can hopefully help him with and do amazing things with it,” Morey said before the playoffs began.
It’s not that Morey and the Rockets believe that small ball provides the only path to a championship. But they believe it provides their best chance with Harden — arguably the best isolation player ever and a point guard most comfortable defending centers and power forwards — as their franchise centerpiece.
So if D’Antoni’s run with the Rockets is indeed done, Houston’s search will be for a coach who can thrive in a similar style. For better or worse, the Rockets’ small-ball run seems to be just starting.