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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Jalen Green is poised for a breakout season. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

NBA Training Camp is upon us. That also means media day for NBA has taken place as well. Teams and their fan bases are all excited about the prospects for the upcoming season. Anticipation for what's to come is high. Teams will always keep their minds on the task at hand. It's the fans that need to stay engaged. They also can tell when a season isn't going to go well and will check out quickly if things are off the rails.

The Rockets come into the 2022-23 season with more promise than the previous couple of seasons. They have some young talent ready to breakout. They also have some vets on hand to help those young guys out. While I'm not expecting a playoff run, it wouldn't surprise me to see them challenge for a play-in spot. Here are three reasons Rockets fans should be excited for this season:

Jalen Green's continued growth and development: Green had a coming out party towards the end of his rookie year. Over his last 10 games, Green failed to score more than 23 points twice. Six of those games he scored 30 or more. His efficiency went up as he learned shot selection and choosing his spots. He started allowing the game to come to him and/or forcing the action when necessary. This kid loves the game and truly wants to get better. I believe we'll see a more polished version of Green this season. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he took a leap in every major statistical category. A first time All-Star? I think it's a possibility.

Jabari Smith Jr. will be everything Christian Wood should've been and then some: Wood gained a rep for being a bit aloof. He wasn't very self-aware, and seemed to be more self-absorbed than a team player. While his play as a stretch four was good, Smith Jr. can be that much better. Wood wasn't a consistent defender and his efforts showed. Smith Jr. seems to take pride in his defense. That alone is worth the change. Having a former NBA player as a dad and growing up around the game has given him the desire to be great. He's seen what this life has to offer. He knows what it takes to be great and appears poised to take the league by storm. Personally, I think he's the perfect fit for the Rockets. Future All-Star player for sure.

A playoff appearance isn't out of the question: With the NBA sticking with the play-in format for the final two playoff spots, it gives 10 teams in each conference a chance to make the playoffs. If 20 of the 30 teams make it and the Rockets can't make at least a push to get one of those final spots, I'll be shocked. These guys are young, hungry, and eager to make their marks on the league. Never underestimate a guy looking for an extension such as Kevin Porter Jr. Throw in Tari Eason, Green, Smith Jr., Alperen Sengun...and you have the makings of a feisty young squad with hunger that can only be spelled by winning.

Gone are the 20-win seasons. Heck, 30-win seasons may be a thing of the past as well. Brighter times are ahead for this team. If they show signs of being a viable contender, who's to say general manager Rafael Stone doesn't use some assets to make a trade for a superstar player they believe can help get this team to make a run in the playoffs? Armed with young talent and a bevy of picks, this team is poised to win at some point. Maybe it's this season. Don't be shocked if they end up playing past the play-in games.

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