NOTHING IS CERTAIN

Here's why you shouldn't jump the gun on Mike D'Antoni just yet

Composite image by Brandon Strange.

It feels impossible to be writing about basketball during this pandemic, but here we are.

Recently, reports have started to circulate that the Rockets are entertaining new head coaches. From Tom Thibodeau to Jeff Van Gundy, the rumor mill is abuzz about how Houston will eventually part ways with current head coach Mike D'Antoni and move on this offseason.

I'm writing this, not to dismiss reports from respected reporters like Sam Amick or Marc Berman, but to merely offer my perspective, given what we know.

While it is true that D'Antoni is on the final year of his contract, the Rockets have yet to formally give an indication that they're planning to let him go. In fact, Tilman Fertitta and Daryl Morey have both claimed they would love to have him back and that this past summer was just a contract dispute.

But talk is cheap. Morey also said the Rockets would "100%" bring Chris Paul back this season before trading him a few weeks later. I don't blame anyone for not giving the Rockets the benefit of the doubt. Until a new contract extension is agreed to, we must assume things are still up in the air.

However, the first point is still important to note: Houston has yet to dismiss the idea of bringing him back. While pundits have already started to discuss possible replacements, D'Antoni is still under contract and coaching a very good basketball team. The fate of the NBA season has yet to be decided, a champion has yet to be crowned, and people have completely dismissed the veteran coach.

People are quick to discuss what D'Antoni hasn't done in Houston, but seldom what he's been able to accomplish in a short amount of time. D'Antoni's logged four 50+ win seasons, a franchise record 65 wins in 2017-18, two Western Conference semifinals appearances, and a Western Conference Finals birth that came eight points short of the NBA Finals. He holds the franchise record for career winning percentage as a head coach.

When the Rockets looked broken and without an identity, D'Antoni helped repair the structure and give them one. An identity that won hundreds of basketball games and nearly delivered them a Larry O'Brian trophy. He forged a close relationship with James Harden that still endures to this day.

That last point is important because it's very difficult to gain the trust of a superstar player like Harden. The balancing act of egos and talent is very delicate, but D'Antoni's been able to do that quite well with Harden. Harden trusts D'Antoni, but will he be able to do that with a new coach? Will he be able to trust the organization if they let D'Antoni go?

The Rockets aren't naive about all of this. It will go into their calculus this summer and it should be present when others discuss his job security.

There's also the all-important matter of what happens in the playoffs this year (assuming there is a postseason). If the Rockets win the title this year, there's little doubt that the organization will do everything in their power to bring D'Antoni back, but that almost goes without saying. What if they fall short, but still make the Finals? How about the Conference Finals?

Would it make a difference if they made the NBA Finals and got swept or made the Conference Finals, but fell short in seven games?

These are all important questions that have yet to be answered and will likely play a role in if D'Antoni is brought back or not. Assuming he's gone before the playoffs begin feels a little naive given what we know historically about how these kinds of decisions are made. We know the playoffs matter because teams who win at the highest levels don't fire their head coaches and the teams that fall short of internal expectations do.

It's also important to note that the Rockets have completely reshaped their identity as a team over the past six months in D'Antoni's image. Morey cited D'Antoni as one of the primary reasons for acquiring Robert Covington. Micro-ball works because D'Antoni was able to get the players to buy-in to the philosophy from top-down. It's the natural evolution of the way he's always wanted to play the game of basketball. Pace and space in 2020 doesn't require a rim-running center like Clint Capela, it requires a small-ball five like P.J. Tucker.

A new coach would have to embrace this identity in a way that wouldn't be as authentic as it is with D'Antoni at the helm. Then again, the Rockets could just reshape their roster in the offseason and develop a new identity, but is this constant shuffling what you want to do with 30-year-old James Harden on your roster? The Rockets will have to ask themselves all of these questions (and more) when making their decision this summer.

However, more importantly, we all have to take this into consideration when talking about it like a forgone conclusion. These decisions are more complicated than the surface-level analysis you see on Twitter.

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The Rockets selected Jalen Green with the No. 2 pick. Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images.

The city of Houston can finally rejoice as Jalen Green was selected as the number two pick by the Rockets at the 2021 NBA Draft. It was already suspected that the Rockets would draft Green from past reports. Shams Charania of The Athletic already reported that the Rockets narrowed their decision down to Green.

Green is an explosive shooting guard that can get in-and-out amongst the perimeter and paint. With the G-League Ignite, he averaged 17.9 points, 2.8 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. He is an excellent free throw shooter at 82.9 percent. Like James Harden, he is incredibly good at getting to the free throw line. Green has a good trigger from three by shooting 36.5 percent on 5.7 attempts a game. His mature status since high school has prepared him for the NBA.

"His down-hill playmaking is really hard to guard", as Joey Fucca, his ex-coach told TDS. "If he says he's going to get to the rim, good luck. He is very good at getting to the free throw line, he is also very explosive to finish above the rim. When his three ball is on, you're just going to have a long night. I wouldn't be excited to guard him."

Green has blistering speed with outstanding handles to blow by his defenders and score. Spectators have compared Green to a younger Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Bradley Beal, and Zach Lavine, which are superstar players. He is a particularly good midrange shooter underneath the perimeter, as he shot 35 percent on a small quantity of attempts in a shorter season.

"Jalen is a uniquely blessed guy. He's a transcendent athlete," as Rockets GM Rafael Stone said. "He can handle the ball, and he can shoot. Normally, people that athletic aren't as skilled. We think that combination of tools makes him an extraordinarily exciting prospect."

During his press conference on Thursday night, Green emphasized the achievements he wants to accomplish with the Rockets. Green even discussed his desire of being a better defender, as he wants to continue to get better. He has a great wingspan and lateral movement to stay with opposing players on defense and be disruptive in the passing lanes.

"They're going to say it's a great choice," Green said. "Rookie of the Year, All-Star, All-Defense, max contract. We're doing it big."

"Yeah, I think I can be that piece. I think I'm going to bring that dominant mentality, that defensive mindset…They already got a lot of star players"

As the draft continued, the Rockets sent future draft picks from the Wizards to land the 16th pick in the draft, which was 6'10 Alperen Sengun from Turkey. The 16th pick did belong to the Oklahoma City Thunder until Rafael Stone executed an interesting deal with Sam Presti.

"We did not think he would fall to us at 23, so we were really aggressive to try and move up all throughout the first round to acquire him," as Stone said.

Sengun's abilities on the court revolve around his post ups and skillful passing. He even maintains good feet along the baseline. In his press conference, he mentioned his passing skills can become better. There are clips of him looking impressive on shovel passes, passing the ball behind his back, and finding the cutting man towards the basket. Sengun looked good in double teams by showing he can still find the open man with his back turned.

While playing in the Turkish Super League, Sengun was an MVP at 18-years-old, averaged 19.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.5 assist, 1.7 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game. He could be another huge figure next to Christian Wood on the court, and a safety blanket for the Rockets if they cannot bring back Kelly Olynyk.

Usman Garbua is similar to former Rocket Luc Mbah a Moute. He is 6'8 with a tremendous wingspan at 7'3 and can guard anyone on the court, which is 1-5. Garbua was seen guarding Kevin Durant in the Team USA vs. Spain matchup and had interesting battles. The Rockets will get a ton of energy out of the 19-year-old player. He knows how to run the floor in transition, so he can finish around the rim. As I see it, he could be on a defensive first team in the future as he matures more. Garbua will become a defensive nightmare against opposing players.

"I think he's the best defender in the world outside of the NBA, and he's just 19 years old," Stone said. "I think he potentially could be really, really impactful on that side of the ball."

As the Rockets made their last selection, they selected Green's AAU buddy, Josh Christopher from Arizona State. He impressed a ton of scouts during his draft workouts and scrimmage against other prospects. Christopher had a double-double during his third scrimmage, which was 16 points and 10 rebounds. He is a very shifty guard with a ferocious step back.

While playing with the Sun Devils, he averaged 14.3 points per game and shot 49 percent from the field. Just like Green, he loved the midrange opportunities, as he shot 49.6 percent underneath the perimeter. He is another shifty big body the Rockets will have in their back court at 6'5. Christopher is very good at rebounding and playing defense. Stone loves watching him in defensive one-on-one situations. Christopher has Sixth Man of the Year written all over him because of his stocky body type and upside.

Hopefully, the Rockets have an exciting summer league and training camp along with their season.

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