On Thursday, multiple sources reported that the Houston Rockets were finalizing a deal to make Mike D’Antoni the next head coach. After interviewing roughly a dozen possible candidates for the job, Rockets owner Leslie Alexander ultimately made the final decision to give D’Antoni the job. At first glance, this pairing seems to be a weird fit especially considering Rockets GM Daryl Morey said the search for a new coach would be done with an improved defense in mind, something Coach D’Antoni has never had interest in.
After a disappointing 4-7 start to the season, the Rockets fired previous head coach Kevin McHale after only 11 games, despite helping lead the team to their first Western Conference Finals appearance since 1997 the previous season. J.B. Bickerstaff was then named interim coach, compiling a 37-34 record the rest of the way, good enough to secure the 8th spot in the playoffs, where they were eliminated by the Golden State Warriors for the second year in a row.
D’Antoni has compiled an overall record of 455-426 in his head coaching career, which includes stints with the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, and Los Angeles Lakers. It is undeniable that D’Antoni had by far his most successful years with the Suns from 2003 to 2008, where he along with Steve Nash, who would win two MVP awards under D’Antoni, All-Star power forward Amar’e Stoudemire, and versatile forward Shawn Marion helped lead the team to 50-plus wins for 4 years in a row, which included two trips to the Western Conference Finals. D’Antoni was also named NBA Coach of the Year in 2o05. However, since leaving the Suns, D’Antoni has only had two more winning seasons and playoff trips, each resulting in first round exits.
The case can be made that the current style of play in the NBA where many teams emphasize playing small lineups, shooting a high number of three point shots, and pushing the ball in an up-tempo, fast-paced game was revolutionized by D’Antoni himself. His style of offense nicknamed “Seven Seconds or Less” emphasized running the ball, getting out on the break, spacing the floor and looking to score a basket as quickly as possible, giving the opposition as little time as possible to set up their defense. With D’Antoni, the Suns orchestrated the top offense in the league three seasons in a row from 2004-2005 to 2006-2007. However, the team finished in the bottom half in defensive efficiency each year during that same time span.
Which brings us to his fit with the Rockets. This season, the Rockets finished 25th in defensive efficiency and 4th in points per game. The offense is there, however now with the addition of Coach D’Antoni, expect to some differences in the Rockets offensive schemes next season. GM Daryl Morey and his analytic-based approach has always emphasized his players taking a high number of threes, which is a prevalent quality of D’Antoni-led offenses, and driving to the basket often, which analytics show to be high percentage shots. Furthermore, he prefers an overall low number of shot attempts from the midrange and virtually none from just inside the three point line (long twos), which are very low percentage shots, analytics show. Elite scorer James Harden led the NBA by far this season in isolation plays. D’Antoni’s style of offense will likely get the ball moving more and initiate more fastbreak opportunities, which will kill less seconds off the clock and lower Harden’s isolation plays, which will then lead to more possessions per game and likely more shot attempts for the rest of his teammates.
One important component to pay attention to this offseason will be the pending free agency of big man Dwight Howard. Howard notably clashed with D’Antoni when the latter coached the former for a season while with the Lakers. It is likely that Howard has no interest in being coached by D’Antoni again, so expect Howard to decline his $23 million 4th year player option, enter free agency, and join his 4th team this offseason. With restricted free agents (Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas), unrestricted free agents (Jason Terry, Josh Smith) and a team option on late season addition Michael Beasley, this could look like a very different team heading into next season. The Rockets front office will surely look to find players who fit in a Mike D’Antoni system.
That would likely mean finding a floor general that can play an up-tempo style of basketball by leading fastbreaks and making pinpoint passes. While Patrick Beverley has been the starting point guard for the majority of the past three seasons, he likely isn’t the floor general the Rockets need in order to excel in this system. Harden has been the primary ball handler for the majority of the time he’s spent on the court in his four seasons in Houston. Getting another ball handler in Houston would allow Harden to play more off the ball and focus more on scoring and hopefully have more energy on defense. Finding more deadeye shooters will also need to be a priority for the Rockets offseason. The Rockets were second in the league in three point attempts per game this season, but were only 19th in percentage. Attempts that high should result in a better percentage and that is something that needs to be fixed.
In just one year’s time, the Rockets went from a surprising 56 wins, a second seed, and trip to the Conference Finals to a disappointing 41-41 record, an 8th seed, and a first round exit. With money to spend but little trade assets, the Rockets will need to be creative this offseason in order to make the Mike D’Antoni experiment work. The hiring of D’Antoni as coach when defense was supposedly a main priority seems odd, however the front office must find a way to build a team that fits D’Antoni’s style. D’Antoni must in turn be willing to adjust his coaching techniques of the past in order to fit the personnel he does have to work with now and put everyone in position to excel out on the court. Improving the defense and having a more diverse, less predictable offense will be key in moving past their disappointing year. This is a team that has hopes of being a title contender and this offseason will be critical in making that happen, so long as the front office, coach, and players, especially James Harden, their star, are all on the same page and buy in.
Spark Sports NBA Analyst