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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