Trevor Ariza

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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta: ‘Our time is going to come’

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This past summer (and during the season), Rockets’ owner Tilman Fertitta’s front office made some money-saving moves that kept the team from paying the luxury tax. The most prominent of those was not bringing back Trevor Ariza and replacing him with James Ennis (who didn’t fit for Houston but has blossomed these playoffs in Philly), plus taking a flier on Carmelo Anthony. Fertitta himself said the team needed to be careful with the league’s luxury tax, which he called a horrible hindrance. The moves worked, the Rockets shed payroll and will not be taxpayers this year.

The impact of those moves on the court was felt in the six games it took the Warriors to eliminate the Rockets from the playoffs this season.

After Houston’s punch-to-the-gut loss to Golden State Friday night, Fertitta sounded fired up and said the Rockets will be back.

“I’m upset right now. They kicked our ass on our home court. They beat us by 10 points in the fourth quarter. It’s unacceptable, OK? We just have to be better. I know that we’re going to rise to the occasion and our time is going to come. You know James [Harden] is 30 years old [Note: He will be in August]. Michael [Jordan] didn’t win his first championship until 30 [Note: Actually, 28]. Hakeem [Olajuwon] didn’t win his first championship until 30 [actually 31]. I can promise you, we’re going to win some championships with James Harden, because we are not going to sit here. We will go to battle every year. We’re going to have a strong offseason, and we’re going to do whatever we need to do to be a better team. We are not going to sit on our hands, I can promise you that.”

Fertitta added this, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I’m a fighter,” said Fertitta, who has owned the franchise for two seasons. “That’s my culture, and I think the longer that I own this team, they’re going to pick up more of my culture. We had [the Warriors]. We should have stepped on their throat the other night and cut their throat. It’s not, ‘Let’s make a few shots and win.’ It’s step on their throat and let’s take it back to Houston and end it in six. We’ll pick up a few Tilman-isms along the way in the next few years.”

That sounds good, it’s what Rockets fans wanted to hear, but actions will speak louder than words.

The Rockets don’t have much cap space to work with this summer, basically just the mid-level exception. The reason is Harden and Chris Paul are maxed out, while Clint Capela will make $16.4 million and Eric Gordon will make $14 million. Rockets GM Daryl Morey will need to get creative, and he is one of the best in the league at that. But can he spend into the tax?

There have been some Rockets fans calling for the team to move Chris Paul, who at age 34 seemed half a step slower this season. The problem is CP3 is owed about $124 million over the next three seasons (the last season a player option at $44 million you can bet now he will pick up), and not many teams would be willing to take on that salary. The Rockets might have to throw in a sweetener.

Igor Kokoskov joins unfortunate ranks of head coaches fired after first NBA season

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Igor Kokoskov worked 18 years as an NBA assistant coach. The Serbia native worked tirelessly to convince teams he was more than just a mentor for European players. Finally, the Suns hired him as their head coach.

“It’s a dream job,” Kokoskov beamed. “And it’s a special day for me.”

Less than a year later, Phoenix fired him.

What a tough business.

The Suns gave Kokoskov a roster ill-equipped to win. They were comically thin at point guard. They had one of the NBA’s least-experienced teams. Even rising star Devin Booker still has significant flaws that inhibit his ability to win. Veterans like Trevor Ariza and Tyson Chandler appeared apathetic in Phoenix.

And now Kokoskov will pay the price for the Suns’ 19-win season.

His time as an NBA head coach is over already, and he might not get another opportunity. Kokoskov is the first coach to get fired after his first season as an NBA head coach since Mike Dunlap with Charlotte in 2013.

Here’s every coach to get fired after only one season, or less, of his first head-coaching job since the NBA-ABA merger. Interim seasons count only if the coach was retained the following year.

Season Tm Coach W L Future jobs
2018-19 PHO Igor Kokoskov 19 63
2012-13 CHA Mike Dunlap 21 61
2010-11 GSW Keith Smart 36 46 SAC
2008-09 DET Michael Curry 39 43
2007-08 CHA Sam Vincent 32 50
2003-04 PHI Randy Ayers 21 31
2003-04 TOR Kevin O’Neill 33 49
2000-01 WAS Leonard Hamilton 19 63
1999-00 WAS Gar Heard 14 30
1999 DEN Mike D’Antoni 14 36 PHO, NYK, LAL, HOU
1997-98 DEN Bill Hanzlik 11 71
1996-97 PHI Johnny Davis 22 60 ORL
1995-96 TOR Brendan Malone 21 61
1993-94 DAL Quinn Buckner 13 69
1992-93 SAS Jerry Tarkanian 9 11
1987-88 PHO John Wetzel 28 54
1983-84 SAS Morris McHone 11 20
1980-81 CLE Bill Musselman 25 46 MIN
1979-80 LAL Jack McKinney 10 4 IND, KCK
1977-78 SEA Bob Hopkins 5 17
1976-77 BUF Tates Locke 16 30

Of the 21 coaches fired in or following their first season as an NBA head coach, only five – Keith Smart, Mike D’Antoni, Johnny Davis, Bill Musselman and Jack McKinney – got another head-coaching job. Kokoskov faces long odds.

At least he got to finish the season. Phoenix had a late 5-2 stretch that included wins over the Bucks and Warriors. That could be a selling point for Kokoskov.

Randy Ayers (2003-04 76ers), Gar Heard (1999-00 Wizards), Jerry Tarkanian (1992-93 Spurs), Morris McHone (1983-84 Spurs), Bill Musselman (1980-81 Cavaliers), Bob Hopkins (1977-78 Seattle SuperSonics) and Tates Locke (1976-77 Buffalo Braves) all got fired during their first seasons as NBA head coaches. Jack McKinney (1979-80 Lakers) lost his job due to a bicycle crash during the season, and Los Angeles officially fired him after the season to keep Paul Westhead, who guided the team to a title in McKinney’s absence.

The Suns weren’t necessarily wrong to fire Kokoskov. Under his watch, they were sloppy and undisciplined and had chemistry problems – areas where the head coach usually gets credit or blame. General manager James Jones deserves a chance to hire his own coach.

Kokoskov might be a good coach. Even if he’s not, he could grow into one.

But he didn’t do enough to secure his job, as tall as that task might have been.

The above list is filled with coaches who had awful records. McKinney is the only one with a winning record, and his situation was complicated by the bike crash. Michael Curry (2008-09 Pistons) is only first-time head coach to take his team to the playoffs and still get fired since the merger, but Detroit had a losing record and got swept in the first round.

In many ways, it’s unfortunate Kokoskov didn’t get a better chance to prove himself. His job security took a major hit when the Suns fired the general manager, Ryan McDonough, who hired Kokoskov before the coach’s first season even began. Kokoskov survived rumors of a potential firing in February, but that was clearly only a stay of execution.

The Suns’ problems go way above the head coach, and Kokoskov’s experience in Phoenix could dissuade potential candidates from replacing him.

But there are only 30 NBA head-coaching jobs. Except for the most-coveted candidates, many coaches would rush to take this job.

As precarious as it can be.

Five teams that can knock off Golden State Warriors

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There’s going to be a parade this June in Oakland. It’s all but set, city officials quietly have started the planning already. The Golden State Warriors are going to win the NBA title and there is nothing anyone can do about it…

Or can they?

The Warriors are the favorites to with the NBA title. Again. As they should be. However, there are teams that can challenge the Warriors, this is not going to be a cake walk. And unlike the past couple of years, the Warriors biggest challenge will be in the Finals.

Here are the five teams that have a shot at beating the Warriors this season.

Raptors small icon1) The Toronto Raptors.

Don’t get stuck in the “the Raptors are not a playoff team” past, this is by design a very different Toronto roster heading into the playoffs. And it’s a team that matches up well with what Golden State — they are long and switchable on defense, they know how to get buckets, and they now have a clear closer.

Nobody is going to stop Kevin Durant, but Kawhi Leonard can slow him, make KD work, and be left on an island against him (relatively) allowing other defenders to stay home with their guys. While I don’t put much stock in regular season games as postseason predictors, way back in November Leonard and Durant had a back-and-forth showdown that was one of the more entertaining games of the year.

Danny Green is a strong defender who can be put on the hotter of Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry, then Kyle Lowry can do a solid job on the other. Pascal Siakam can get Draymond Green and help off him while daring Green to shoot jumpers, and Siakam can be the five when the Warriors go small with Green at center. Marc Gasol will likely start on DeMarcus Cousins, but Serge Ibaka can get time, too. Then the Rockets bring Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet as needed.

Toronto’s fifth-ranked offense this season is still going to score points against the Warriors. They can score inside and out. And when the game is on the line Leonard will get the chance to show why he was once Finals MVP.

The Warriors would and should still be favorites in this potential Finals matchup, but the Raptors are poised to make it work.

Bucks small icon2) The Milwaukee Bucks.

A team needs long, switchable defenders and an elite offense to beat the Warriors. The Bucks had the fourth best offense in the NBA this past season, led by MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo. So check that box. As for long, switchable defenders, the Bucks are built around the Greek Freak, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and the physical at the point Eric Bledsoe. Check.

The Bucks are one of the few teams that can take and make threes at the pace of the Warriors and they may be willing to play that way. If Warriors defenders have to slide out to arc to stop shooters — especially Cousins chasing Brook Lopez out of the paint — it opens up the lane for Antetokounmpo’s drives, and nobody is stopping those.

What the Bucks need is Brogdon back and healthy to put on Klay Thompson. Also, Milwaukee would need to find a way to keep playing their base defense, which has Lopez dropping off picks to clog the paint, without giving up too many threes to the Warriors. Finally, when the Warriors go small the Bucks can go with Antetokounmpo at center lineups.

It would be a big step for the Bucks to challenge the Warriors, but on paper they have the tools.

Rockets small icon3) The Houston Rockets.

This is the same team that was ahead at halftime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals on their home court less than a year ago….

Well, they’re not the same team exactly. But they are playing closer to that level than they have all season — Chris Paul looks more like his old self, Clint Capela looks in shape, Danuel House Jr. and PJ Tucker have found a groove as role players, and since the All-Star break the Rockets have the second-best defense in the land and the best net rating (+10.7).

The Rockets still have James Harden and nobody — on the Warriors or on the planet — can stop him. If he has other guys knocking down some shots around him and the Rockets keep defending, they are the only team in the West with a chance. The Rockets do not have Trevor Ariza or the same depth that made them a genuine threat to the Warriors, a Rockets team that might have a ring if CP3 had stayed healthy. But the Rockets are still the second best team in the West and the only team with a shot at the Warriors.

If the Rockets and Warriors meet it will be in the second round — and that could be good for Houston. What has slowed the Rockets in recent seasons was Harden just running out of gas from the load he has to carry, or Paul getting injured. Does meeting in the second round make it less likely either of those things happen, meaning the Rockets have a better chance? Maybe. The Rockets will have to fight their way past a very good Jazz team to find out.

Celtics small icon 4) The Boston Celtics.

The preseason favorites in the East have shown flashes this year where you can’t help but think “that’s a contender, they can push the Warriors.” Boston just hasn’t been able to sustain it.

The matchup on paper is interesting. Kyrie Irving has battled Stephen Curry to a standstill in the Finals before. Al Horford can be effective against Golden State whether Cousins is in the paint (Horford is a better post defender than people think, and on offense he could pull Cousins out to the three-point line to defend his shot) or if the Warriors go small and Green is at the five. Horford blows up the mismatches Golden State banks on.

The Celtics would need Marcus Smart back and healthy. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier all need to play as well as they did last playoffs. A lot of things need to go right and the Celtics have not been able to sustain that this year.

But Boston has the pieces to be a potential threat to Golden State.

Sixers small icon 5) The Philadelphia 76ers.

Philly being on this list comes down to one thing: They have the second best starting five in the league. The one starting five that can challenge the Warriors best lineups.

Joel Embiid (who can outplay Cousins, but didn’t play well against the Warriors this season), Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and sharpshooting J.J. Redick have a ton of potential. When on the court together, the unit has been dominant on both ends.

The problem is they haven’t been on the court together that much and there are chemistry questions. Plus, behind this five there is little depth.

Philadelphia has a long way to go to really be a threat to the Warriors, but if they make it out of the East they may be that team by June.

Report: Daryl Morey signs five-year extension as GM of Rockets

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General managers who build contenders usually get contract extensions (Cleveland excepted).

The Houston Rockets are contenders. They came within a game of making (and after that, winning) the NBA Finals last season, and right now look like the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors

GM Daryl Morey did that this season while trimming payroll. Which is why it makes sense second-year owner Tilman Fetitta is giving him a contract extension, as first reported by Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

With the Rockets surging back toward contender status, general manager Daryl Morey has agreed to a five-year contract extension to remain with the Rockets….

“I’m super happy,” Morey said. “I’d love to be with the Rockets for life. This obviously solidifies us for a little while. I’m just really thankful to Tilman Fertitta for having the faith in our team. And really, it is about us having a team of people that makes this all work; Coach (Mike) D’Antoni, (vice president) Keith Jones, (vice president) Gersson Rosas, (trainer) Jason Biles, (assistant general manager) Monte McNair, (assistant general manager) Eli Witus, (assistant general manager, Vipers GM) Jimmy Paulis.

“We have too many people to mention, but I’m only as good as the people behind me.”

Last summer, Morey was given the opportunity to speak to Philadephia about their vacant GM position, but he ultimately chose to stay with the Rockets.

This is a smart for the Rockets. Not only is Morey one of the best GMs in the game, but also because Fetitta has shown a hesitancy to pay the tax — letting Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute walk last summer (replaced  by cheaper players), then money-saving trades at the deadline — and Morey is very good at finding hidden gems and getting the most out of less money.

This season’s Rockets have won nine in a row and seem to be peaking at the right time.

Report: Rockets trading James Ennis to 76ers

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The Rockets downgraded from Trevor Ariza to the cheaper James Ennis last offseason.

But even Ennis’ minimum salary has proven too costly to the Rockets.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This puts the Rockets in line to save $3,009,236 – $2,432,123 in luxury tax and $577,114 in Ennis’ remaining salary. Now just $2,669,057 over the tax line, Houston could try to dodge the tax altogether.

More likely: The Rockets will remain in the tax and sign bought-out players. Unloading Ennis via trade rather than releasing him just makes opening the roster spot cheaper.

Ennis has been OK for the Rockets, but their trade for Iman Shumpertprimarily about cutting costs – made Ennis expendable. He’s more likely to contribute in Philadelphia.

The 76ers already made their big move by trading for Tobias Harris. They also added Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott in that deal. But Philadelphia badly needed depth, and Ennis – a versatile forward – adds more.

Philadelphia will likely waive Malachi Richardson, who was just acquired with a second-round pick in a Raptors salary dump.