The Rockets are reportedly working on a deal to hire Mike D'Antoni as the next head coach. It's a big splash, but doesn't address their defensive issues at all. The big question is can D'Antoni get the most out of James Harden, when his history with ball-dominant stars suggests otherwise?
The Houston Rockets' lengthy coaching search - which you could argue began after Kevin McHale was fired 11 games into the season - is finally over, per a report from ESPN's Calvin Watkins that the team is working on a three-year deal with Philadelphia assistant Mike D'Antoni. The 65-year-old D'Antoni sports a 455-426 career record with stints in Denver, Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles (Lakers). It's a swing-for-the-fences move by Houston, who will be hoping D'Antoni can recapture his Suns magic, where he went 253-136 over five years with two 60-win seasons.
D'Antoni is an offensive pioneer, who helped make Steve Nash a two-time MVP running his "7 seconds or less" offense. He deserves credit for revolutionizing the way NBA teams play in 2016, with emphasis on pace, versatile big men and lots and lots of 3-point shooting. The Rockets - a top-10 offense last season - are doubling down on that side of the ball. This hire on its face does nothing to improve Houston's putrid defense, which suffered from both bad personnel and effort. As soon as D'Antoni rumors started, the Twitter comedians came out to speculate about just how much worse they'd become defensively.
It's a fair observation. Not only does D'Antoni's system lend itself to opponent flurries, he doesn't seem to be the hard-nosed coach that will hold James Harden accountable. There were reports that GM Daryl Morey was focused on finding a defensive-minded head coach. So much for that. Watkins did also report that the Rockets are looking to add Grizzlies assistant Jeff Bzdelik to the staff to run the defensive side of the floor. Bzdelik has a solid track record - I liked him when I lived in Colorado and watched him coach the Nuggets. If he accepts the role, he may go crazy trying to make D'Antoni's system less sieve-like.
The bigger question is how Harden fits into "7 seconds or less." At first glance it seems like the perfect partnership. Offensive-minded coach with offensive-minded player, right? But though Harden is the Rockets' primary ball-handler, he is not Nash. Last season, Harden was a turnover machine, leading the league in that dubious metric. He tallies big assist numbers since defenses collapse on him and he's good at finding wide-open teammates. But Nash always had a pass-first mentality. He'd probe with the dribble to get defenses disorganized, with the intention of finding an open shooter, a lob or a backdoor cut. Even if Harden buys in and adopts more of this philosophy, there's a danger that he'll end up turning the ball over even more. Also, Harden has a tendency to pound the air out of the ball as he looks for an angle to attack or shoot a step-back jumper. Per NBA.com Harden averaged 4.43 seconds per touch last season. My rudimentary understanding of math tells me that's more than half of seven! D'Antoni clashed with the ball-dominant Carmelo Anthony in New York because his offense revolves around movement and quick shots. Anthony and Harden can be anathema to that line of thinking.
It's certainly easy to imagine Harden scoring 30+ points per game under D'Antoni. I just don't know if that will mean team success, since 5+ Harden turnovers and continued lazy defense also seems probable.
This Rockets team also doesn't have the pinpoint shooters or Swiss Army knife big men that D'Antoni's Phoenix teams thrived on. But as I wrote here, the Rockets' roster will look much different next season. The front office has a chance to get D'Antoni-type guys in there, something that the Lakers and Knicks were unable to do in his stints in those cities. If Dwight Howard's TNT appearance didn't seal his fate, then the hiring of D'Antoni certainly did. There's no way he's signing on to coach Dwight again after the Lakers debacle. So that frees up plenty of cap space and gives Morey a chance to retool the center position around someone more versatile. As I've written before, Hassan Whiteside would be an interesting fit if he can be pried away from Pat Riley, on both sides of the ball. There are plenty of shooters available that D'Antoni would love to get his hands on - Nic Batum, Kent Bazemore, Harrison Barnes, Ryan Anderson and Mirza Teletovic come to mind right away. Marvin Williams would be a great fit for a D'Antoni offense after his best pro season under Steve Clifford in Charlotte. He brings size and ability defensively as well as an outside shot that is deployable in an up-tempo scheme. Mike Conley is also a free agent and can be "Nash light," an unselfish point that will make sure the ball is moving.
One thing's for sure, it won't be boring in Houston next season. After interviewing 12 candidates, the Rockets opted not to change their team identity at all, betting on the big name coach with an offense-first approach to get them back to contention. Can the 2004-05 Coach of the Year fix the team chemistry that Harden helped undermine last season? D'Antoni's teams in Phoenix tended to get along, although Shawn Marion often felt under appreciated. His track record in instilling harmony in New York and L.A. was, um, not ideal.
Give them credit for taking a big swing. The thing about big swings is they can turn into embarrassing misses.