D'Antoni Not Returning First Step in Long Rockets Offseason

Coach Mike D'Antoni's time with the Rockets is over. Who is next?
Coach Mike D'Antoni's time with the Rockets is over. Who is next? Photo by Eric Sauseda
On Sunday, Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni announced he would not be returning to the team he helmed for the past four years including the best season in team history and four straight trips to the postseason. In a statement, D'Antonio, whose contract expired at the end of the season said, "It's with tremendous sadness and gratitude that my wife Laurel and I announce that our incredible journey in Houston has ended for now and that we'll be moving to a new chapter."

The long-time NBA coach was responsible, along with GM Daryl Morey, with the team's conversion to the somewhat controversial small ball lineup as well as the transformation of James Harden from talented shooting guard to a point guard who has led the league in scoring three straight years including his 2018 MVP season.

It was in the midst of this past season, however, that D'Antoni and the Rockets went all in on small ball, trading young center Clint Capela to Atlanta for Robert Covington after trading Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook in the offseason. After a hiatus due to the coronavirus, the Rockets entered the postseason as the four seed, beating Paul and Westrbook's former OKC team in seven games before falling to the Lakers in five in the Western Conference Semifinals.

If there was a knock on D'Antoni, it was the team's inability to convert in the postseason despite rousing regular season success. At times, his short rotations were questioned by those who thought he might be wearing out players who were already playing an uptempo form of basketball.

This is but one move in what promises to be a complicated season for owner Tilman Fertitta's Rockets. Morey will undoubtedly be scrutinized by the team's owner and there will be a ton of discussion not just about what happened this season, but how to correct it.

Both Harden and Westbrook are in their early 30s. It is certainly possible they are at the end of their shared career peaks. The team is saddled with a Eric Gordon's long-term contract, which, considering the rough season he had, looks to be an albatross rather than a benefit. Additionally, as many as eight Rockets could be eligible for free agency including Austin Rivers and Jeff Green. And P.J. Tucker, entering the last year of his deal, will most likely be looking for an upgrade.

Then there is Danuel House, who was forced from the NBA bubble for violating virus protocol for allegedly having a female guest in his room. His team friendly deal notwithstanding, the Rockets will need to address his behavior, which has clearly drawn the disappointment if not outright ire of his teammates.

If you are thinking the team could just go out and sign some players or perhaps be helped in the draft, think again. They are well over the cap and have no first round draft picks for the next few years thanks to deals that they have made including the one that landed Westbrook.

Given their lack of youth and cap inflexibility, there will be some very hard choices that have to get made. The team needs more shooters. It needs length and athleticism. It also needs youth. Finding even some of that in the offseason will be difficult, leaving them with few options heading into what is likely to be a shortened 2020-2021 season.

Expect the team to act quickly on whether or not Morey will return (he probably will) and what they will do about a new head coach — you'll hear Clippers assistant Tyronn Lue's name a lot. Fertitta isn't going to allow much time to pass given the abbreviated offseason and the decisions that need to be made soon.

D'Antoni was just the first domino to fall. There will be many more before the offseason is over.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke