The most important offseason decision

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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Here's what to make of the Rockets free agency moves. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No NBA team with title aspirations entered the offseason with more questions than the Houston Rockets. Ironically, Houston's situation got more precarious as the offseason went along. From head coach Mike D'Antoni walking away after the season to general manager Daryl Morey following suit shortly after that, the Rockets have been a sinking ship in desperate need of stability. They found some of that once new head coach Stephen Silas was hired, but the boat took on more water when star players James Harden and Russell Westbrook demanded to be traded a couple of weeks later.

It's been a giant roller coaster and it was unclear how Houston would approach their free agency. Would they double down on contending for a championship to try and convince their star players to stay or would they be forced to rebuild?

It looks like Houston tried to thread the needle and accomplish both: They appear ready to rebuild if they can't convince James Harden to stay, but also addressed roster needs and acquired better fitting pieces for their stars. It's hard to say whether or not they got better, but they're certainly a lot younger and look to play a lot different. Let's take a look at each player and how they fit into the framework.

Christian Wood

Contract:

3 years, $41 million

Grade:

B+

If there's a signing that embodies Houston's offseason, it's Christian Wood. For obvious reasons and some subtle ones, Wood is the exact kind of player Houston had to acquire this summer. Let's start with the obvious: Wood is the perfect player to have alongside both James Harden and Russell Westbrook because of his unique set of skills. Wood can hit threes at a high clip for someone his size (36.8% for his career) and stretches the floor for the moments you want Russell Westbrook barreling to the rim or James Harden trying to break a trap.

Lob threat

The Rockets didn't have a big man with that capability on the roster last year, so they had to resort to trading for Robert Covington and going small so they could properly space the floor. However, in doing that the Rockets lost their best lob threat and limited themselves on offense even further. This is where Wood solves the second problem: He may not be as good of a lob threat as Clint Capela, but he's damn close.

Over the past few years, the Rockets have slowly phased out pick and roll out of their offense and resorted to isolation. Part of it is because of how teams have defended the pick and roll, but part of it is also them not having the option anymore. James Harden is too good of a pick and roll ball handler for it to not be a part of the Rockets' attack. Adding more pick and roll to Houston's offense should be a priority next season, regardless of what else Silas decides to do.

Clint Capela was the perfect center for James Harden. P.J. Tucker was the perfect center for Russell Westbrook. Christian Wood is the perfect center for both.

Defensive rebounding

Another weakness Houston needed to address this offseason was their defensive rebounding (26th in NBA last season). It got to the point where it was a rarity that Houston would win the rebounding battle against good teams. This was partly by design and partly because of roster weakness. Houston was so porous at rebounding in the beginning of the season, they decided to emphasize turning over opponents to even the possession battle. If Houston were to even marginally improve in defensive rebounding, it could have a drastic positive impact on their defense.

Per 36 minutes:

22.0 PPG

10.6 RPG

1.5 BPG

65.9% True Shooting

Houston also replenished their coffers in the process of acquiring Wood. By flipping Robert Covington to the Blazers, the Rockets netted two draft picks back after losing two the prior offseason in the Westbrook trade. It may not matter in the grand scheme of next season, but these assets could be especially useful if Houston pivots to a rebuild. They could also be useful to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline if Houston gets Harden's buy-in. (As an aside, the series of transactions that led to Wood are impressive and reflect well on new GM Rafael Stone's ability to get deals done.)

The subtle reason Wood embodies their offseason is his age, 25 years old. Wood would immediately become the youngest starter on the team and be a building block piece on the next iteration of the Rockets. He's also old enough to make an immediate impact should Houston acquire a ready-made blue chip prospect in a James Harden trade. With the 76ers rumored to be a team interested in Harden's services, it probably isn't a coincidence that Ben Simmons (24 years old) falls neatly into Wood's age group. It also probably isn't a coincidence that the ideal team for Simmons has always been imagined to be a team that can spread the floor at the four other positions on the court. Having Wood is great start to try and accomplish that.

David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, and Jae'Sean Tate

Contracts:

Negligible

Grade:

B-

Nwaba, Brown, and Tate are all being placed in one category because it's quite clear what the Rockets are trying to accomplish: Take bets on young, cheap wings on the market and hope one pans out enough to make the final rotation for Stephen Silas.

While David Nwaba technically wasn't signed this offseason, he's essentially a free agency signing because the Rockets signed him up a few months ago with the knowledge he wouldn't be able to play in the first year of his deal. He's the oldest of this group (27 years old), has the largest wingspan (7'0"), and has logged the most NBA minutes (3295). Because of all this, he's probably the safest bet to make Houston's final rotation. However, just because he's the 'safest bet' doesn't mean he's a 'safe bet' per se.

Nwaba suffered a season-ending achilles injury on December 9th of last season and has spent the past year rehabbing. It's unclear how he will respond from this, but before the injury, Nwaba had found a nice role in Brooklyn as a combo forward who could shoot well enough from beyond the perimeter (34.4% for his career). The Rockets have desperately needed competent perimeter defenders off the bench since their 2017-18 campaign and a healthy Nwaba was just that.

Sterling Brown, 24, found his way on the fringes of the Bucks' rotation the past few seasons and gained the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer enough to play nearly 15 minutes a game. Brown is a pesky defender and average three-point shooter (34.5% for his career) and like the other wings in this category, he doesn't need the ball. He's probably the second most proven wing here and if he cracks the rotation, it's unlikely he will have to play more than he did in Milwaukee.

Jae'Sean Tate, 25, is probably the most intriguing prospect of this bunch as he's never played in the NBA before. Tate played under new Rockets assistant coach Will Weaver on the Sidney Kings and averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on 66.0% shooting from the field last season while earning first-team All-NBL honors. He's 6'4" with a 6'8" wingspan and was considered to be one of the top basketball prospects outside the NBA before signing with Houston. The Rockets appear to be quite high on him considering they used part of their mid-level exception to sign him to a three-year deal.

The Rockets already have much of their rotation locked in:

James Harden and Russell Westbrook will likely play at least 35 minutes a piece, P.J. Tucker will probably play around 32 minutes, and finally Danuel House and Christian Wood will likely play around 30 minutes each. That leaves 78 minutes for a bench that already has Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore. Also, Houston will probably sign another center before the season starts. Now, the Rockets may try to ease the load off of some of their older starters, in which case there might be more time available. However, whatever way you slice it, they really only need one of these wings to crack the rotation for regular season purposes.

It's unlikely all three signings end up backfiring for them, but we'll see. Stranger things have happened.

It's also convenient that all three of these players are 27 years or younger should the Rockets decide to trade Harden at the trade deadline. Like Wood, these signings give Houston the option to pivot in another direction. Because of Houston's lack of room under the apron, they didn't have the option to use their full mid-level or bi-annual exception. Ring-chaser types also weren't going to sign with the Rockets for the minimum given the uncertainty surrounding their stars. This was a nice way for Houston to hedge their bets while also filling out the roster with possible contributors.

The Rockets aren't done making moves yet, but they're close. Understanding the circumstances, it's hard to be too critical of what they did in free agency.

Overall Grade: B

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