The firing of Kevin McHale as the head coach of the Houston Rockets was the ultimate “we can’t fire the players, so let’s fire the coach” move. This team won 56 games, had a top-10 defense, and reached the conference finals last season — McHale didn’t forget how to coach over the summer. Yet James Harden was back to his defensive bad habits, he wasn’t meshing with Ty Lawson on offense, Dwight Howard was in-and-out of the lineup with injuries and inconsistent when he did play, and there was a general listlessness around the team on the court. It was that last thing that made GM Daryl Morey think McHale had lost the locker room, and it was time to move let him go. Even the owner was frustrated with the level of effort.
This is a win-now team, patience was not an option.
Now what happens?
First rising coaching star and Rockets’ assistant J.B. Bickerstaff — son of long-time NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff — will get a chance. He is the guy credited with the improved defense in Houston last season, and he will get an opportunity to revive that mindset and turn the ship around. The Rockets are 4-7 (two of those wins came against the Clippers without Chris Paul and the Kings without DeMarcus Cousins), and while it hasn’t been pretty, that’s a hole the team can still climb out of.
The timing of the firing was not coincidental — the Rockets next three weeks includes games against Philadelphia, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Sacramento, Portland (Wednesday night), and two against slow-starting Memphis. Plus there are a couple stretches of days off in there where Bickerstaff can run practices to install systems and sets he wants.
But this is a win-now team, patience is not an option. Bickerstaff is the interim coach, and his leash will be short.
Adrian Wojnarowski suggested some big-name coaches could be lurking in the wings if Bickerstaff is not up to the task.
Nevertheless, the Rockets are pushing for results now, and several elite coaches with Rockets ties in the past – including Jeff Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau – could lurk as future candidates. Another strong candidate with Houston ties, Charlotte’s Steve Clifford, could be a free agent this summer.
My guess is Bickerstaff will get to finish out the season unless the team goes into a complete tailspin. However, unless the interim coach can demand the job with the performance of his team the rest of the season — like Frank Vogel did in Indiana — expect Morey to go big name hunting next offseason.
This is a win-now team, patience is not an option.