Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
We’ve all heard this quote before, nobody knows where it actually comes from (it wasn’t Einstein), but nothing could describe the current process of the Houston Rockets better.
With 40 games in the books, the Rockets are on-pace to finish with the worst record in basketball for the third season in a row. In that time, players have gotten better, the organization has drafted more talent, and yet, the on-court product is as bad as its ever been.
Stephen Silas is a very likable figure. He’s sharp, respectful of the media, and has the energy of a coach 20 years younger. He’s also been around forever and developed relationships within the NBA coaching community. Silas’ deep roots date back to his assistant coaching days in the early 2000s under his late father, Paul Silas. By 2005, he had escaped the shadow of his father and worked his way up the coaching ranks on his own accord.
When Silas was given the head coaching job for the Rockets, many rejoiced as this was correctly seen as a long overdue opportunity for the Brown University alum. But Silas got handed the job at the worst possible opportunity - as they were shifting to a rebuild. His first year was in flux as James Harden was jettisoned to a different team by January and the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged his roster. Because of this, he’s been given a lot of sympathy and leeway for how the on-court product looked in his first season.
(Those sympathizers seemed to disregard the fact that most first-year head coaches take over rebuilding teams and the best jobs tend to go to seasoned coaches.)
But even if Silas didn’t have an idea of what he was getting himself into that first year (unlikely), we are approaching the two-year mark of the James Harden trade. He’s had two full training camps to prepare for a rebuilding season and the Rockets look as disorganized as ever - culturally and on the court. It’s also critical to point out that neither side of the floor appears to be Silas’ calling card right now. This means this isn’t something you could fix with additional offseason hires. Also worth noting; Silas has turned a good bit of his coaching staff over to his preferences as opposed to that first season.
Firing a coach in the NBA is extremely disruptive and generally makes the organization look faulty if the next coach doesn’t work out. That’s why the key question an organization must ask themselves before making a change is: “Is this absolutely necessary to make a step forward or are we just making a change for the sake of making a change?” For good teams, taking a step forward means getting closer towards title contention. For rebuilding teams like the Rockets, taking a step forward means player development and team culture.
So Houston has to ask themselves: “Has Silas built a team culture that can translate to winning soon and is he at all impeding on player development?”
In this respect, he’s failed at both objectives. Ask anyone who seriously analyzes basketball for a living and you’re going to get the same rhetoric about the Rockets - that they lack structure and accountability. These are core tenants for coaching not just basketball, but any team sport. And you don’t have to talk to a paid analyst or scout to understand these things about Houston.
With respect to structure, it’s unclear what the Rockets are trying to achieve on either end of the floor. On offense, there’s very little ball and body movement and it’s evidenced by the fact that they’re bottom five in assisted field goals per game and top five in isolations per game. And that’s fine if you have Luka Doncic (1.13 points per possession) or James Harden (1.07), but Houston is trying to pull this off with Kevin Porter (0.99) and Jalen Green (0.82). Both Porter and Green are attempting 3.0 isolation field goals per game and turning the ball over just as much in a very “Your turn, my turn” fashion while Houston’s best statistical isolation player (1.39 - Alperen Sengun) is attempting 0.5 field goals per game. There’s no rhyme or reason to this and it’s resulted in the 29th ranked offense in basketball.
On defense, the Rockets have essentially decided to allow their opponents to shoot as many three-pointers as they want (1st in threes allowed at 39.5 per game) resulting in a bottom three defense. What’s even more damming is Houston’s actually gotten worse in this respect. In Silas’ first year, the Rockets were 12th in three-pointers allowed - not great, but not disastrous. Then it was 10th and 1st respectively the following seasons. It’s baffling how Houston spent their entire offseason collecting athletic defensive prospects and yet saw no defensive improvement as a team (and in this case, regression).
Accountability appears to be selectively enforced. There are players that have total leeway to do almost anything they want on the court and then there are players that have very little wiggle room. Some players on the Rockets regularly make mistakes on both ends of the floor and receive no in-game repercussion. If you’re not getting benched or having your minutes reduced for turning the ball over or jogging back on defense, your bad habits get reinforced. What incentive is Houston giving players to curve bad on-court behavior?
It’s great to be a nice guy in a profession that is becoming more player-friendly, but the very nature of the job requires some laying down of the law.
As to how Silas is failing on the player development front, it starts with Alperen Sengun. Nobody is perfect at talent evaluation, but the best talent evaluators have an ability to correct course on past mistakes. It does not appear that Silas’ has at all changed his opinion on Sengun even as the Turkish center has further displayed his gifted offensive prowess. His tempered public remarks about Sengun from two years ago don’t look too different from his quotes today. If anything, he doubled down on his stance by starting the regular season with Sengun on the bench.
We’ve reached the point of Sengun requiring an advanced look as one of Houston’s tent poll offensive talents. His on-court play has demanded that Houston give him more responsibility and the unwillingness to do that from Silas has bled into the rest of the roster. It’s dangerous territory because these are Sengun’s formative years as a player. Even if the Rockets don’t impede on his progress, they’re failing to collect valuable data that might come back to bite them down the road.
If the Rockets decide to move on from Sengun at some point because they view him as insignificant to their rebuild and he shows All-Star potential for his next team, the organization will kick themselves for years. They would’ve had a chance to find out his top-end potential and failed. At the very least, this data will come in handy when Sengun is up for his rookie contract extension.
But let’s put Sengun aside for a second. How else has Silas impeded on Houston’s player development? Simply put, their game-to-game rotations make very little sense and seem to change at the drop of a hat. There’s no reason 12-13 players should regularly see playing time for an NBA team. The data you’re collecting from the guys playing less than 15 minutes per game is terrible. Those minutes could be better allocated to the best 8-10 players on the roster.
If the intention is to keep players at the end of the bench happy, it’s an ill-fated venture as most NBA players would rather not play at all than play 2-5 minutes during garbage time. Considering how robust Houston’s G League program is, it would make more sense to have these players regularly play 20-30 minutes per game with the Vipers. Head coaching is all about making tough decisions and Silas is obfuscating his responsibility to make those decisions by trying to play everyone.
When you combine his failures as a coach with the fact that Houston has max cap space this summer and doesn’t look all that more attractive as a destination than last year, it’s a jeopardizing level of incompetence. Factor in the real incentive to improve next year due to Houston not controlling their own pick and it could turn into a destructive amount of incompetence.
Firing a coach mid-season is about the most drastic thing you can do in the NBA. However, one could argue that Houston’s current situation necessitates drastic measures. Contrary to popular opinion, this isn’t the sort of thing a “hard-nosed veteran player” will be able to come in and turn around. Team culture starts at the front of the bench, not the back. If anyone is suggesting that Houston look elsewhere for it, they’re acknowledging that it’s lacking where it matters the most.
Now is it at all possible that Silas learns from this experience and finds his footing as a head coach somewhere else in a few years? Absolutely. Contrary to what many Rockets fans may believe, Silas is a bright guy and more than qualified for a job in the NBA. He’s doesn’t appear to be ready for this job though.
Perhaps this is merely a fit issue? Some of the best head coaches in NBA history have struggled in rebuilding situations. Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr, and Doc Rivers come to mind. It’s generous to assume he will turn out to be one of those guys though. I sincerely hope Silas can look back at this criticism in 10 years and laugh.
But harkening back to earlier - we are firmly at the point of insanity for the Rockets. Something has to change.