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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Martin Truex Jr. won his 2nd race of the season last week. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

NASCAR returns to the Commonwealth of Virginia for the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. This is the first of two races here at this track as they will race on Sunday afternoon. This will be different from the normal night race they usually have here as this will definitely affect the racing surface considering how much the sun could make the track slick. It should be a fun race come Sunday.

Last week, Martin Truex Jr. passed Denny Hamlin to capture his second win of the season after rain moved the race to Sunday. He became the first driver to win multiple races after a fierce battle with his teammate Denny Hamlin. The race was filled with tons of wrecks including a fifteen car pileup including Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. It was one of the better races of the season as there was lots of beating and banging.

The race was not without controversy but not the kind you would expect. Early in the race Rick Ware Racing teammates Cody Ware and James Davison were involved in an altercation. The two were battling towards the back of the pack when Ware decided to drive through his teammate in turn four. The race got much worse for Cody Ware as he was involved in three more cautions all throughout the race. Many people around the sport were quite perturbed by his antics including broadcaster Mike Joy as he was audibly annoyed after Ware spun out later in the race. Many have questioned if the fifth-year driver should even be in the car and overall I can understand why some of those people think that. In his five years of driving, he has finished on the lead lap one time. I hope that he is able to figure it out and find success in the future, but this was not a good look.

The slump continues for two-time champion Kyle Busch

Throughout the race, Busch was running okay for the most part but towards the closing laps of the race he and Chris Buescher got together triggering a fifteen car pileup. Despite all this, he was able to rebound to a respectable tenth place finish. This has been more than likely the toughest stretch of his career since his championship in 2019. Many would say that the omission of Practice and Qualifying has really affected his performance. Whatever the issue is, this team really needs to find some speed, or he could be in danger of missing the playoffs. I look for this team to bounce back considering how talented he is.

Prediction

The driver that I have winning this week is Kyle Larson. This has been an incredible rebound season for Larson as he currently sits fourth in points. He is also second in laps led only to Denny Hamlin. Richmond has been a great track for him as it fits his driving style perfectly as he can run the outside line and find grip where others can't. This track is also rather sentimental to him considering he won his first pole award here during his rookie season in 2014. While he may not have the results he would want he has always been extremely fast here and even won back in 2017. I look for him to capture his second victory of 2021 come Sunday.

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