Rockets focusing on phase two after addressing elephant in the room

The Houston Rockets are on to phase two, and no they are not about to release a handful of movies like Marvel’s The Avengers, but instead have a new goal in mind — returning to the playoffs.

Houston officially introduced Ime Udoka as its 15th head coach in franchise history on Wednesday. Before Udoka uttered a single word, Rockets governor Tilman Fertitta made it clear they feel like they have a great pool of young talent that is ready to take the next step.

When combined with the plethora of cap space available to use in the offseason, the goal is to get back to the postseason, he said.

“There is nothing like cap space, which we have approximately $60 million available,” Fertitta said. “When you mix these new stars, new young stars with the free agents, I’m expecting a lot from these guys here [pointing at Udoka and general manager Rafael Stone]. That’s exciting and it is time to get on the right path.”

The Rockets have missed the NBA Playoffs for three straight seasons, and have won less than 22 games each year. Fertitta said when Houston lost James Harden in 2021, the organization made the decision to go young and stockpile talent instead of hovering in the middle of the pack of the league.

Now three years later, Fertitta and Stone believe the Rockets are ready to make a jump to competitiveness again, and Udoka is the right coach to lead the team.

Udoka, who led the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals in his first and only season with the franchise in 2022, comes from Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio coaching staff. He spent seven seasons on the Spurs’ staff, the 2019-20 year with Brett Brown’s Philadelphia 76ers staff and 2020-21 with Steve Nash’s staff in Brooklyn.

Udoka’s coaching style will revolve around being upfront and honest with his players, he said. While Houston is one of the youngest teams in the NBA, he does not want that to be used as an excuse for bad habits and poor play, he added. His job is to expedite Houston’s development.

“Whether it is making the same mistakes, not making the right defensive assignments, poor shot selections, all that stuff has to be addressed, but also improved on,” Udoka said. “Understanding that we are going to take some lumps with our age and our youth, but my message to them is that is not an excuse.”

The elephant in the room on Wednesday was Udoka’s tumultuous exit from Boston. He was ultimately ousted from the Celtics organization for having an improper, intimate and consensual relationship with a female member of the team’s staff, which was a violation of the franchise’s code of conduct.

Udoka, Stone and Fertitta all addressed the situation.

Fertitta said Houston did its due diligence when deciding to hire Udoka. It was important for him to feel good about Udoka, and the NBA told him they saw no issues that would arise if the Rockets indeed hired him, Fertitta stated.

While on hiatus from the NBA, Udoka said he spent time taking leadership and sensitivity training, and he also went to therapy with his son to address the trust issues stemming from the improper relationship in Boston.

Ultimately, Fertitta, Stone and Udoka felt strongly about committing to each other.

The biggest message coming out of Udoka’s eventful news conference, which included Fertitta accidentally revealing the Rockets are working on opening a new $70 million practice facility in the Galleria area in the near future, was that all three parties are aligned with the vision of what needs to be done to turn the Rockets around.

For Udoka, alignment is essential for long-term success.

“I think it is the most crucial piece honestly,” Udoka said. “I came up for most of my NBA career as a player, and then obviously as a coach in the San Antonio system. I saw the symmetry between front office, ownership, and coaching staff down to the players. I think that is the only way it can truly work.”

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