The most important offseason decision

12 logical head coaching candidates for the Rockets

12 logical head coaching candidates for the Rockets
Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images.

Well, it's official.

However you feel about Mike D'Antoni, he was widely respected from top-down in the Rockets organization and had an emotional intelligence that resonated well with star players like James Harden, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook. This is Houston's most important offseason since they hired D'Antoni back in 2016. Hiring D'Antoni in 2016 started the trajectory in what ended up being a very successful summer. The same applies here.

The Rockets, armed with 31-year-old James Harden and an aging core, have to nail this hire. Not just because of the position they're in relative to Harden's prime, but because they had a capable coach in-hand that fit well with how they want to play and they let him get away. This next coach is likely to be Harden's last one in Houston, so they have to make it count.

Already linked to Houston:

Jeff Van Gundy

I suspect this will be the name most linked to the Rockets until they finally hire a coach. Jeff Van Gundy obviously has a history with the franchise dating back to the early 2000s and was a candidate for the job in 2016. Van Gundy also coached the New York Knicks from 1996 to 2001 and led them to an NBA Finals appearance in 1999. Branching from the Pat Riley coaching tree, Van Gundy was a good coach in the NBA.

Van Gundy made the playoffs eight out of the nine seasons he coached for the Knicks and Rockets. He's probably the most accomplished defensive mind on this list. Here's an insane stat: Jeff Van Gundy has never been the head coach of a team outside of the top six in defense. Offensively, Van Gundy wasn't stellar, but he was a little ahead of his time in that he was an early believer in pick and roll offense.

The problem teams run up against with Van Gundy is he's been out of the league since the Rockets let him go in 2007 and nobody quite knows how he'd succeed in the modern NBA. For what he's worth, he coached the United States men's national basketball team in the 2017 FIBA AmericaCup and led them to a gold medal and qualified Team USA for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. He lives in Houston and his relationship with Daryl Morey remains strong which should only help his prospects.

As a reminder, Morey had to make the decision to part ways with Van Gundy two weeks after landing the head general manager spot in 2007.

Tyronn Lue

If the Rockets were to go in this direction, Tyronn Lue makes a lot of sense from a personality and X and Os perspective for the Rockets. Lue has experience dealing with big egos and coaching star players from his time in Cleveland which will surely help in Houston. He also has an abundance of experience on Doc Rivers' bench from his time in Boston and Los Angeles and probably doesn't get enough credit for how good of an offensive coach he was in Cleveland. The Cavaliers were a top five offense every year he coached them.

Sam Cassell

Rockets fans don't need an autobiography on this man. Along with Lue, Sam Cassell has been a mainstay on Doc Rivers' benches for the last several years and many in the league feel he has earned his first head coaching opportunity. His history with the Rockets gives him an inside track with the organization, so it would be fitting if Houston gave him his first real opportunity.

Jason Kidd

If you were ranking the most intelligent basketball players to ever play the game, Jason Kidd would undoubtedly belong on that list. It's not crazy to believe he may become a good head coach one day. However, Kidd is clearly the guy with the most red flags on this list. Intrapersonal dynamics will be an important part of the job in Houston and Kidd doesn't exactly have a spotless record in that arena. Kidd has more head coaching experience than some of the people on this list, but he remains by far the most risky of the bunch.

Linked to Houston in the past:

Stephen Silas

A finalist for the last head coaching vacancy Houston had, Stephen Silas is one of the brighter assistant coaches in the league. In addition to being the son of former head coach Paul Silas, he's also one of the more experienced on this list. Silas has been in the league since 1996, working his way up the ranks to currently Rick Carlisle's top assistant in Dallas. He's coached under some awesome head coaches including Larry Brown, Don Nelson, Steve Clifford, and now Carlisle. Silas is the kind of assistant that's ready to walk into a head coaching job right away, but it'll be interesting to see if the Rockets prefer someone with head coaching experience.

Silas made such an impression on Houston in 2016 to the point where the team brought him in for a second interview and was considering making him Mike D'Antoni's top assistant.

Dave Joerger

There's a portion of the fanbase that's yearning for a young coach and is dismayed at the idea of bringing in a retread. However, Dave Joerger is one of the best tacticians in basketball today. That's not an exaggeration. Over the last several years, Joerger has led the league in fascinating and effective out-of-timeout designs. Coaches around the league steal plays from him and talk about how smart he is all the time.

Joerger has a similar problem to Jason Kidd in that he can get in his own way at times. At every stop, he always seems to butt heads with management before angling for a better job somewhere else. It's what got him fired in Memphis. Similar to the rest of this list, he's not been linked to Houston, but he remains a hot commodity this summer.

Ime Udoka

If you would like to read more about Ime Udoka, I would point you to an article written by Jabari Young of The Athletic from last summer. In short, he's a promising assistant coach who worked for Greg Popovich for seven years before becoming Brett Brown's lead assistant this past season in Philadelphia. Houston interviewed him in 2016 and he's since gotten more time under his belt.

"He exudes a confidence and a comfort in his own skin where people just gravitate to him," Popovich said of Udoka in 2016. "He's a fundamentally sound teacher because he's comfortable with himself, he knows the material and players read it."

Adrian Griffin

Another seasoned assistant to interview for Houston's vacant coaching job in 2016 is Toronto's Adrian Griffin. Griffin worked for Tom Thibodeau for five years in Chicago and was hired by Team USA in 2014 during the FIBA World Cup so there's a chance James Harden and Griffin already have an established relationship. He's been a lead assistant now for several head coaches including Billy Donavan and currently Nick Nurse.

"Great, great," Thibodeau said of Griffin in 2014. "I am hopeful that he'll get more consideration, head-coaching opportunities. He has done a terrific job, he is strong in all areas, he is a great communicator, leader, and a great teacher. I'm hopeful, I'm hopeful for him, I think he's deserving."

Houston natives:

Brett Gunnings

If you've watched Rockets games long enough, you'll notice a guy at the end of the bench diligently looking over plays on his tablet. That's Brett Gunnings. Other than a brief stint in Orlando, he's been with the team since 2008 - back when Rick Adelman was coaching. He's received several promotions over the years. He's essentially been one of the best offensive minds on Houston's payroll over the past decade - even someone Mike D'Antoni was able to turn to.

It makes all the sense in the world for Houston to give Gunnings an interview this summer. If you haven't learned his name by now, you should. Kelly Iko of The Athletic actually wrote a great piece on him two years ago if you're interested.

Chris Finch

By now, most NBA diehards know who Chris Finch is. He's earned a sterling reputation around the league and is essentially now a head coach in-waiting. Finch was the lead assistant to Michael Malone in Denver in 2016 before becoming the lead assistant in New Orleans alongside Alvin Gentry in 2017. Before all that however, the Rockets discovered Finch coaching in Germany and made him the head coach for their G-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, in 2009. Finch accomplished a lot in the G-League, including winning the franchises first championship and earning Coach of the Year honors.

Finch was quickly promoted to the Rockets staff in 2011 and was promoted to Kevin Mchale's lead assistant in 2014. Finch is regarded as one of the league's best offensive minds and a really creative thinker. He's already interviewed for several head coaching vacancies and it's only a matter of time before he gets his first crack at bat. Given that he already has an established relationship with the franchise and James Harden from his time in Houston, it makes a lot of sense for the team to explore this option.

Kelvin Sampson

If you want to know why Chris Finch was promoted to lead assistant, look no further than Kelvin Sampson. Sampson took the position of head coach of the University of Houston men's basketball head coach in 2014, leaving the opening for Finch. Sampson was with the Rockets for three years and developed an extremely strong relationship with James Harden and Eric Gordon from his Indiana days.

"He's a real players coach," said James Harden in 2019. "I think that's why they're so successful over there. He teaches them, he coaches them, and he can relate to them and that's the biggest thing nowadays. Like I said, he's done an unbelievable job and I can't wait to see them keep going."

The connections here are obvious. Sampson has history with the franchise and turned the basketball program around for the University of Houston, a program that Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has invested significant funds to. We'll see if these connections can land Sampson a head coaching job.

Kenny Atkinson

Kenny Atkinson coached under Jeff Van Gundy in Houston before leaving the franchise for other opportunities in 2008 with the New York Knicks. His ties with the current Rockets franchise are limited, but it's probably true that Atkinson wasn't given a fair shake in Brooklyn and might want to put his hat in the ring for other vacancies this summer.

Assistant names to watch:

Jerry Stackhouse, Nate Tibbetts, and Jarron Collins,

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Jose Abreu looks lost at the plate. Composite Getty Image.

It’s a long baseball season, sure the Astros have started 4-8, and there are plenty of fingers to point around. But there’s no need to push the panic button.

Not yet.

Last year, the Astros didn’t start much better – they were 5-7 after a dozen games. It just seemed different, though. Nobody was wringing hands over the slow start. After all, the Astros were the defending World Series champions, coming off a 106-win season and figured to make mincemeat of the American League West again. Business as usual.

This year is different. The Astros are losing games in very un-Astros-like fashion. While the starting pitching has been surprisingly fine, at least the starters healthy enough to take the field, the bullpen has been a mess. The back end relievers, supposedly the strongest in all of baseball, have been disappointing. Bryan Abreu’s earned run average is 5.79. Ryan Pressly’s ERA is a sky-high 11.57 and closer Josh Hader, the best shutdown in the bigs, is at 6.00. The Astros are losing games late.

The Astros starting rotation is comprised mostly of seat-fillers. The Astros are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room for Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers to be declared fit for battle. McCullers’ contribution to the team in recent years has primarily been confined to H-E-B commercials.

Impatient fans and copy-hungry media need a target to blame for the Astros’ slow start and they’ve zero’d in on first baseman Jose Abreu.

For good reason. Abreu, 37, a former American League MVP, is being paid 19.5 million this year and next. He is having a miserable time at the plate. Originally slated for No. 5 in the batting order, now dropped to No. 7 and sinking in the west, Abreu is hitting a paltry .088. But that number actually is deceptively positive. He has three hits (all singles) in 34 at bats, with 12 strikeouts, no home runs and no RBI. Frankly one of Abreu's singles was a pity hit from a friendly scorekeeper who could have given Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. an error on Abreu’s weak grounder Tuesday night.

We can go all-analytics and brain-busting stats to explain Abreu’s troubles at the plate. But let’s use simple baseball language: Abreu is horrible. He’s done. Maybe it’s time for the Astros to cut bait. He is untradeable.

Abreu had a disastrous 2023 season, batting .237, the lowest average of his 11-year career. But after 12 games last year, he was hitting .271, not bad at all. Or as Larry David would say, pret-tay, pret-tay, pre-tay good.

This year he’s fallen off the end of the Earth. Fans groan as he swings meekly at breaking balls outside the zone. Or he fails to catch up to 95 mph-plus. Or he can’t connect on low inside pitches. Look, when you’re batting .088, it’s all bad.

Last year, the Astros actually had two, as Little Leaguers put it, automatic outs in the lineup. Abreu hit .237 and catcher Martin Maldonado blasted .191.

This year, it’s a tight battle between who’s the worst of the worst. Maldy is hitting .091 with two hits in 22 at bats and no RBI for Abreu’s old team, the Chicago White Sox. Abreu is hitting .088 for Maldonado’s old team, the Astros. This could go down to the last week of the season.

If Abreu is still with the Astros at season’s end. The Astros are no longer the high exalted dominant force in the American League West. They can’t afford an .088 hitter in the lineup. They can’t play eight against nine.

It didn’t help when manager Joe Espada recently said, “I got a ton of confidence in Abreu. I'm not going to talk about strategy. José Abreu has been a really good hitter for a very long time, and I have 100 percent confidence in José that, at some point, he's going to start hitting.”

How long is at some point? Didn’t Astros fans go through this last year with manager Dusty Baker refusing to sit Maldonado despite Maldy killing rallies in a tight pennant race?

The Astros don’t have a strong support system, especially backing Abreu at first base. But there are options. Mauricio Dubon is a jack of all trades. He could play first. Despite the funny line in Moneyball, first base statistically is the easiest position to play in baseball. Backup catcher Victor Caratini can fill the gap until the Astros sign a free agent first baseman.

Or the Astros could do something that would light a fire under fans: call up rookie Joey Loperfido, who’s belted five homers and driven in 13 RBI in 10 games for the Sugar Land Space Cowboys.

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