What to make of Mike D'Antoni's extension talks breaking down
Before the 2018-19 season started, it was almost assumed that Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni would be receiving a contract extension by the end of it. The Rockets had just come off a 65-win season in which they fell just short of toppling the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, D'Antoni had developed a strong rapport with the players in the locker room, and it became clear that the Rockets had made the right hire in the summer of 2016.
However when the Rockets started off 11-14, talks of possible extension had quickly become worried murmurs of D'Antoni's job security. Those murmurs became almost laughable when Houston turned it back around by winning 10 of their next 11 games and several players pointed to D'Antoni's even-keeled demeanor as a reason for the turnaround. "He gets us going, he motivates us. When things aren't going great, he tells us that we're going to turn it around," said Rockets star James Harden at the time. Though the Rockets went on to being eliminated by the Warriors for the second straight season, pointing the finger at D'Antoni was irrational and it still felt D'Antoni would receive an extension.
The weeks that followed foreshadowed that perhaps extension negotiations weren't going as smoothly was originally thought. Assistant coaches Jeff Bzdelik, Mitch Vanya, and Irv Roland were let go, talks of D'Antoni's uncertain future with the team became public through the mutual departure of Roy Rogers, and details of a performance-based contract offer were also made public. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta also came out and told the Houston Chronicle that he wouldn't be opposed to the idea of D'Antoni coaching the last year on his contract without an extension.
These events painted a picture that perhaps the organization wasn't as enthusiastic to get an extension done as Mike D'Antoni himself, who told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that wants to coach at least three more seasons and wishes to win a championship in Houston.
Then Wojnarowski reported Friday afternoon that extension negotiations with D'Antoni have ended and that he would coach the remaining year on his contract before moving forward.
So, what exactly does this means for the Rockets?
Well, there are a couple of layers to peel away at. One misconception about 'lame duck' coaches is that just because a team failed to extend their contract, the likelihood of a new deal is now slim to none. More likely, it means the team is uncertain about extending the coach and they want to keep their options open in case they decide to pivot. Paying a coach millions of dollars in guaranteed money and being forced to eat that money due a a premature exodus isn't exactly an ideal situation. As long as both sides are comfortable playing out the old contract (which it seems D'Antoni is perfectly fine in doing), a deal could be worked out the following summer, but the team wants more time before making a definite decision.
Also, as Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressed to the media Friday afternoon, sometimes both sides want a deal to get done and it doesn't happen. This seems to be the case here because it really does seem like Houston wanted to extend D'Antoni, but negotiations didn't go the way they planned. It doesn't mean D'Antoni isn't the voice they want to move into the future with, it just means both sides have effectively kicked the can down the road until next summer.
"I know coach D'Antoni is fine," said Morey. "He would have preferred to work something out, but we didn't. We'll work something out after the next season. It's fine."
From what the Rockets have said publicly, it also seems like Houston wanted to go with a short-term extension whereas D'Antoni's camp preferred a long-term contract as the short-term contract would not have been fully-guaranteed. According to Fertitta, the Rockets had proposed a $5 million one-year extension with incentives of $1 million per playoff round won. ESPN's Wojnarowski reported that D'Antoni's camp wanted a more traditional guaranteed deal instead of one fraught with incentives.
With all that being said, if both sides are truly comfortable with D'Antoni coaching his final season out before another possible round of negotiations, it may not be the worst idea to play it safe and let things play out. Looking back, it definitely seems the Rockets rushed into an extension for former head coach Kevin McHale and they had to eat the final three years, $12 million of his salary. D'Antoni does really feel like an ideal organizational and cultural fit for Houston, but if a deal couldn't be worked out this summer, there's no sense in fretting about it as there's still plenty of time next year during the season or in the following summer to get one done.
A big remaining problem the Rockets face is filling out the holes left on the coaching staff around D'Antoni as Houston suits up for another competitive 2019-20 campaign. If Roy Rogers left due to uncertainty about D'Antoni's future, it's fair to ask whether or not other coaches would be scared off by D'Antoni returning on his last year.
Whatever the case, it's shaping up to be yet another interesting offseason for the Rockets.