Mike D'Antoni wasn't the first choice of Houston Rockets fans to be the franchise's 13th head coach. Hell, if you believe this poll on ClutchFans.net, in which D'Antoni received roughly a 13 percent approval rating, he probably wasn't the 50th choice. But he was the choice of owner Leslie Alexander and general manager Daryl Morey, and that's all that matters.
So it was that D'Antoni, 65, was introduced to the media on Wednesday afternoon as the Rockets' next head coach, the fifth stop of his NBA head coaching career. The questions were largely centered around two areas — James Harden's fit in D'Antoni's prolific offensive scheme and where exactly team defense fits into the whole plan.
D'Antoni is understandably excited about coaching Harden in his prime, and Rockets fans should be excited about watching Harden play in D'Antoni's system as the Steve Nash-like trigger man for what should be a prolific offense, especially if Morey is able to make substantial upgrades to the roster. "It doesn't hurt. What's important is how good [Harden] is," D'Antoni said. "We'll try to figure it out together. That's one thing I learned about him. He wants to play this way. We can win this way."
On the defensive side of the ball, D'Antoni will rely on longtime NBA and college head coach — and most recently an assistant in Memphis — Jeff Bzdelik as his defensive assistant. While D'Antoni's priorities are clear — he made multiple mentions about how scoring is imperative in today's NBA — he did address defense on Wednesday.
"It jumps out real quick. You have to play better defense," D'Antoni said. "I've always found when people are comfortable offensively, if they like their roles on the team, their energy goes up on defense and you become a better defensive team. There's no secret strategy about how to defend somebody. There's heart and soul and work. We will push those buttons as much as we can. At the same time, it's going to be up to me as a head coach to get people comfortable with their roles."
Harden and D'Antoni have a relationship going back to their time together with Team USA, and Harden is reportedly excited about the hire. One thing is very clear from the press conference — the Rockets are treating all of their decisions with their having Harden in his prime on their roster as the basis. He is the nucleus right now, and it is viewed that way in the building from ownership on down.
Along those lines, when D'Antoni was asked about center Dwight Howard, the Rockets' other "star" player, he indicated that he would welcome Howard back, but it is widely assumed that the seven-footer will opt out of his contract before free agency and test the market, likely winding up elsewhere next season. In fact, when D'Antoni was listing players that he thought fit what he wanted to do, he listed Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela and (at Morey's beckoning) Corey Brewer, but no Howard.
The fact of the matter is that, for what this team needs out of the center position, it can likely get most of that out of Capela (who has reportedly put on 15 to 20 pounds of muscle this offseason) at a small fraction of the cost it would take to keep Howard.
For his part, Alexander was somewhat defiant with the media, referring semi-good-naturedly to the "naysayers out there," and expressing his concern over negativity amidst a 41-41 season. He also shared that D'Antoni's experience and style of play were the keys to hiring him, going so far as to say that D'Antoni's running style is exactly how he's wanted the team to play.
To that end, at a bare minimum, this team should be far more watchable stylistically than the 2015-16 edition, which looked uninterested on defense and discombobulated on offense. By the time they were done losing to Golden State in the playoffs, the offense had withered down to a slew of Harden isolation plays, and when Harden would go to the bench, the Rockets would look like a clueless high school team.
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At the very least, this should be a team that appears to have much more of an identity and an idea of what it wants to do at the offensive end of the floor. In the Western Conference, that's not nearly enough to get to the NBA Finals, but after last season, it's at least a start.
Courtesy of ClutchFans.net, you can view the entire press conference here:
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