Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Following a failed extension negotiation before the 2019-20 NBA season, Mike D’Antoni was always going to move on from the Houston Rockets—at least, that was the buzz from several executives around the league. The official decision may have come after the 4-1 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, but it was inevitable.
What we also know is the Rockets have a top-heavy roster with $119.6 million committed to their five starters next season: Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker and James Harden. Will the next coach get at least a No. 4 seed and another second-exit out of the same group, or was that limited success a product of D’Antoni’s system?
It appears as though general manager Daryl Morey will have a chance to answer that question.
“Daryl Morey’s job is safe, and I’m sure he’s going to pick the right head coach,” Rockets governor Tilman Fertitta said on CNBC on Tuesday (h/t Tim MacMahon of ESPN). Fertitta gave Morey a five-year extension in 2019, which could be influencing the governor’s decision to retain him.
“Fertitta isn’t going to pay [both Morey for the next four years] and a replacement,” a former Western Conference executive said. “But this will be Morey’s last coaching hire [in Houston]. I promise you that.”
Marc Stein of the New York Times reported “there have been rumbles in coaching circles for weeks that the Rockets will strongly consider Jeff Van Gundy” to replace D’Antoni.
“James [Harden] ain’t playing for [Van Gundy],” the former executive said. “It’s a player’s league … [Van Gundy] is going to want to practice every day.”
Los Angeles Clippers assistant Sam Cassell still has tremendous goodwill in Houston from his title-winning playing days. Alvin Gentry, who took over as Phoenix’s head coach soon after D’Antoni, may be the closest in style.
“I don’t think Gentry is [as] extreme as [D’Antoni at coaching small ball],” an Eastern Conference executive said.
NBA sources also suggested other candidates including Kenny Atkinson, Chris Finch, Ime Udoka and David Vanterpool.
“I remember they mentioned wanting more of a defensive-type coach before hiring Mike,” a second Eastern Conference executive said.
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
That’s probably a step further than the Rockets are willing to go. Harden keeps the Rockets on national television and in the playoffs. Several teams believe Westbrook is available, but they’ve received no indication from Houston that Harden is anything but untouchable.
“Everything should be on the table, including moving Harden,” said the second Eastern Conference executive.
But separating Harden and Westbrook is anything but simple.
The Golden State Warriors are looking to return to contention next season, but would they improve by acquiring Westbrook in a package starting with Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney? Outside shedding the three years and $132.6 million remaining on Westbrook’s contract (the last season is a player option at $47.1 million), would that do anything for Houston?
“I think we all realize that Harden and Westbrook aren’t the perfect fit for one another,” the first Eastern Conference executive said. “But I think they might just have to move forward with those two and continue to try to build the roster around them.”
“The [New York] Knicks might be one of the only teams that could be a fit for Westbrook,” the executive continued. “Not sure if there are any others.”
New York has significant flexibility this offseason, be it with cap room or veterans to trade like Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock, along with young prospects like Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox. The Knicks could give Houston depth, while the Rockets could give New York a headliner in Westbrook.
Other teams might consider Westbrook too. Perhaps the Indiana Pacers would have interest if they blow up their big-man pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Houston could add size in the middle with Turner, who isn’t afraid to shoot from deep (with Jeremy Lamb and Doug McDermott attached for salary-matching purposes).
Indiana will need to decide on Victor Oladipo’s fate soon enough. Is Westbrook’s massive salary through 2022-23 a better short-term investment for the Pacers than Oladipo on a four- or five-year max contract starting in 2021-22? Does Oladipo intend to stay in Indiana as an unrestricted free agent after next season?
David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Everything is tied together in the NBA. The entire league is waiting on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s fate with the Milwaukee Bucks. Few teams will likely consider Westbrook until they know they have no shot at Antetokounmpo. At that point, they may look at Oladipo as the next-best target.
Even then, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul is likely a more desirable trade target than Westbrook. Paul, who is owed two years and $85.5 million (including a $44.2 million player option in 2021-22), “has played himself back into being a commodity,” one Western Conference executive said.
The Rockets have several decisions to make. Morey has both a long-term contract and a passionate basketball philosophy. Losing to James and the Lakers isn’t likely to shake his convictions. Westbrook’s future is uncertain, but Morey may need to make incremental changes in the short term given his contract.
As far as blowing it up and trading Harden?
“[Harden] has a great track record. He makes the playoffs every year, usually at least the second round. That revenue is priceless,” the former Western Conference executive said. “He wins 35 games by himself. Other than LeBron, who does that? [Kevin Durant] healthy? Steph [Curry]? Maybe four other guys.”
Most teams would be thrilled to be as competitive as the Rockets are each season, even if they keep falling short of a Finals appearance. It may not be easy or ultimately successful, but Morey will likely have more time to perfect his Houston experiment.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.