Rocket re-launch: Houston’s search for Kevin McHale’s replacement

Did the Houston Rockets fire Kevin McHale too early? That’s a legitimate question, but it’s a separate conversation. Daryl Morey has already made a decision. He now has to plot his next move and, accordingly, determine the future of this organization.


The interim coach of the Rockets, taken from the pool of McHale’s assistants, represents the starting point for this discussion. J.B. Bickerstaff watched his father, Bernie, torment the Houston Rockets in the 1980s. The Seattle SuperSonics became a nemesis for the Rockets, ushering them out of the playoffs in the 1987 Western Conference semifinals (embedding was disabled).

Now, the son will try to lead the team the father defeated over a quarter of a century ago. What emerges in Bickerstaff’s biography is that for all the ways in which he has not yet proven himself in the NBA, he could quickly prove worthy of his position of leadership.

Erik Spoelstra was a Miami Heat assistant before he was elevated to the top spot by Pat Riley, given the keys to the kingdom in South Florida. Spoelstra gained his assistant position in his mid-20s (just before turning 27), and he ascended to the head coaching spot before turning 38. Bickerstaff became an NBA assistant at 25 with the Charlotte Bobcats, and just like Spoelstra, he spent 11 seasons as an assistant before being given a head coaching job on the sunset side of his mid-30s (he’s 36). The obvious difference is that Bickerstaff hasn’t yet been named the permanent head coach, but if he does well over the next 71 games (should he be given the chance to coach that long), he’ll obviously represent a particularly credible candidate. That much should be kept in mind.

Yet, the Rockets made the West Finals last season. They have James Harden and Dwight Howard on their roster. They nearly landed Chris Bosh a year ago, which would have given them an even more formidable roster. This organization is pursuing championships; the question is if it thinks this season can still be salvaged. Publicly, that’s the expressed intent, but if an NBA title is truly the goal, Morey has to give strong consideration to a few outside candidates.


One candidate the Rockets can’t currently pursue — but could keep in mind for June of 2016 — is Mike D’Antoni. He brought forth the best and most aesthetically pleasing basketball of Steve Nash’s career. He presided over a symphonic Phoenix Suns offense a decade ago, pushing pace and valuing the quick attack before the opposing defense could get set. If the Rockets value the fine-tuning of their offense to the extent that merely modest improvements on defense would enable them to win consistently, D’Antoni is the best candidate on the market. Naturally, Morey would need to be convinced that D’Antoni and James Harden could coexist.

However, D’Antoni can’t become a part of this organization in the 2015-2016 season. Two words which require no explanation suffice to settle the matter: DWIGHT. HOWARD.

If the Rockets want a reboot with D’Antoni, it would have to come after the 2016 free-agent frenzy. Dwight would need to take a hike. Then D’Antoni could come in and make a run at the brass ring in 2017.

The more realistic outside candidates for this season are coaches who would bring a defense-first identity to the Rockets. Naturally, the matador defense witnessed over the past two weeks — and, if we’re being honest, the first 5.7 games of the Clippers series before the final 14 minutes of Game 6 and all of Game 7 — shows that Houston has to remake its approach to defense more than anything else. Given that the Rockets possess so many long and powerful physical specimens, this team — in the hands of the right defensive tactician and motivator — could become a lethal force.

One name which can be considered here is Jeff Van Gundy. Sure, he was fired by the Rockets nearly a decade ago, but with more than eight years of separation from that last experience, the context surrounding his return would be different enough to create a fresh start for both the organization and Van Gundy himself. He’s seen so much of the league over the years as an analyst, so his ability to scout and plan for teams would not be all that rusty. He would be fresh in a coaching sense. He flies around the country to call games for ESPN, so it’s not as though he’s been out of the loop. He could be integrated with this team in time to make it a defensive force.

The best candidate, however — the obvious choice (even with its known risks) — is Tom Thibodeau.

Let’s deal with the shortcomings — or if not shortcomings, at least the tension points — first. Thibs ran players into the ground with the Chicago Bulls. In Houston, he has a deeper bench to work with. Morey would need to create an environment in which he knows Thibs would rotate bodies, so that the full roster would be cultivated. As long as Morey and Thibs worked out the details in a possible interview, such that Thibs feels he’ll work in a climate far more supportive than what he had in Chicago, this pairing should work.

Thibodeau immediately comes to mind as the defensive thinker who can make use of all those long “6-8 or taller” players the Rockets have. As was the case in Chicago, Harden could take on the Derrick Rose role, creating offense by himself. Houston wouldn’t get a complete coach, but it would get the right fit for the roster. If Harden plays merely adequate defense (nothing more, but not what we’ve seen in 11 games this season) and can be his typically showstopping self on offense, a Houston roster committed to defense becomes extremely effective, and a major threat to both Golden State and San Antonio.

It’s not as though Golden State had an easy time in the West Finals — let’s remember that. The Warriors won in five, but all three games in Oakland were fiercely contested. If the Rockets ever became a more fully realized team at the defensive end of the floor, they are a top-tier title contender.

Thibs would be just the man to give the organization that identity.



About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |