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Who will lead the next great Rockets team?
Most readers of this newsletter know how I feel about Stephen Silas, but for those who don’t, here’s a longer story from January about why the Rockets needed to move on. It’s callous to say something like this is a positive when a man just lost his job, but there’s little doubt that Silas will land on his feet and get an opportunity to do this again. He’s also a millionaire, so perhaps he doesn’t need the sympathy of basketball writers online who didn’t watch more than 20 Rockets games these past three years.
(I’m just saying.)
This does raise the question though: How will the Rockets fill this vacancy?
The timing here is going to be very important. If the Rockets plan to pursue a highly-coveted coach like Nick Nurse, they need to make an aggressive offer as soon as possible. This may seem obvious, but Houston has a history of dragging their coaching searches out longer than they need to be. The last coaching search this organization embarked on was their lengthiest since 1982.
If they plan to go with someone not as high-profile, they can afford to take their time. It’s interesting that they decided to let go of Silas as soon as Game 82 was over. That seems to indicate that they want to get the process started immediately. This could be shrewd for two reasons:
As stated earlier, if you want Nick Nurse, you better be one of the first teams at his doorstep.
It takes the possibility of bad optics on lottery night off of the table. Houston, San Antonio, and Detroit have equal odds at Victor Wembanyama at 14% respectively. This means there’s an 86% chance of missing out on a generational draft prospect.
One could argue that leaving the vacancy could be a selling point to a free agent like James Harden. After all, Harden had a voice in Houston’s last two coaching searches. The counterpoint is “Well you could just hire someone you know Harden already likes/has a relationship with in the first place.” That’s completely fair, but it was worth mentioning.
According to Kelly Iko and Sam Amick of The Athletic, the Rockets intend to evaluate a pool of eight coaches before making their selection. Iko and Amick reported a list of six coaches and Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports gave two other names in his reporting last week.
Side note: I had to screenshot this tweet, because Elon Musk is an asshole.
So let’s evaluate/rank these candidates, shall we?
Tier 1: The “Get a contract in front of him ASAP” tier
Nick Nurse is among the very best head coaches in basketball today. In addition to modernizing what had been an archaic, isolation-heavy offense under Dwayne Casey, Nurse popularized the strategy of mixing in zone defenses with standard coverages. He’s won at the highest levels, he gets the Raptors to overachieve every single year, and he’s well-liked among his players. And to top it all off, Nurse got his NBA start with the Rockets organization as the head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
It’s a mild surprise that Nurse is even available, but it’s no surprise at all that Houston would be interested.
I’ve been on the Frank Vogel bandwagon for a very long time, so it was nice to see him get his flowers after the Lakers won their championship in 2020. Vogel’s just an all around great coach. He always manages to gets his teams to buy-in on the defensive end of the floor and his teams have always defied win-total expectations (like Nurse). If there’s anyone who could use that pedigree, it’s Houston.
He got a raw deal in Indiana and it was a shame to see him get that same treatment in Los Angeles when the problems were clearly at the feet of management.
Tier 2: The “Has a credible resume” tier
I’ll say it: Scott Brooks gets a bad rap. Brooks has kind of become a caricature on the internet, but the man actually has a credible coaching resume. It starts with Brooks’ ability to connect with players on a human level and foster their talents. Sam Presti is often praised for drafting Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, but Brooks seldom gets credit for developing them. Some of the criticisms of his often elementary-styled offense is warranted, but I challenge anyone to find a coach that’s been able to successfully steer Westbrook towards moderation.
He’s not a miracle worker.
Under Brooks, the Oklahoma City Thunder became an absolute juggernaut. This year-to-year progression is kind of incredible:
Scott Brooks first season:
46.8% in the regular season/missed playoffs
Scott Brooks second season:
28.0% in the regular season/missed the playoffs
Scott Brooks third season:
60.1% in the regular season/lost in the 1st Round
Scott Brooks fourth season:
67.1% in the regular season/lost in the Conference Finals
Scott Brooks fifth season
71.2% in the regular season/lost in the Finals
Critics of those Thunder teams fail to recognize the terrible injury luck they suffered after the Harden trade. And for that matter, Brooks didn’t catch any breaks with John Wall and Bradley Beal in Washington either. Is this to suggest Brooks doesn’t have any shortcomings as a coach? No.
But the guy has the equivalent of five 50-win seasons under his belt and all of his former players swear by him. That has to count for something. What should also count for something are his ties with the Rockets organization and James Harden. I imagine this is the kind of hire that looks controversial at first blush, but ages well.
Unfortunately, recency bias makes head coaches fluctuate in value like a stock. Ask Kings fans how they felt about Mike Brown before the season versus how they feel about him now. Or better yet, remember how most Rockets fans felt when Mike D’Antoni first got this job in 2016.
Speaking of raw deals, Kenny Atkinson’s firing serves as a great reminder that the Brooklyn Nets were a slow moving car accident caused by Kyrie Irving and by proxy, Kevin Durant. Simply put, Atkinson got fired because he didn’t play DeAndre Jordan enough for Irving and Durant’s liking. He steadied a tremendous rebuilding effort, brought the Nets back to the playoffs, and was instrumental in the development of Caris LaVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jarrett Allen.
We never got time to see Atkinson test his mettle at the highest levels, but a hiring like this reminds me of the Nuggets giving Michael Malone his second chance.
From a basketball perspective, Ime Udoka’s lone season as head coach of the Boston Celtics is arguably more impressive than anything Atkinson has done. However, for reasons both obvious and mysterious, the next team that hires Udoka is going to face a fierce PR backlash. To their credit, the Rockets have a history of ignoring public sentiment in regards to their basketball decision making. In this case, I’m not really sure what the right call would be.
Because the Celtics were incredibly vague about what led to his suspension, few of us can really make the moral judgement as to whether or not he deserves a second shot. It’s noteworthy that Brooklyn cooled their jets on hiring Udoka. This is why it’s imperative that the Rockets do their due diligence before making a hire like this.
Tier 3: The “Stephen Silas” tier
Much like Stephen Silas, James Borrego is incredibly hard working and well respected around the league. On paper, Borrego has all the qualities and institutional knowledge required to lead a rebuild effort like this. However, he’s kind of been a middle-of-the-road head coach since he left the nest in San Antonio. The Hornets moved the ball a lot, but like the Rockets, they lacked a team identity and put up no effort on the defensive end of the floor.
He finally started getting his legs under him that last year in Charlotte, but it also coincided with the signing of Gordon Hayward and major leaps from LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges. It’s tough to tell how much to attribute that progress to Borrego. I suspect he would fare much better coaching a ready-to-win roster where roles are already clearly identified, but you could also say the same thing about Silas. This frankly feels like it would be a lateral move for the Rockets.
Tier 4: The “Too risky at this point” tier
7 and 8. Rex Kalamian and Adrian Griffin
The Rockets have been interested in Rex Kalamian and Adrian Griffin for years. Kalamian in particular has a well-noted relationship with James Harden. I say that to say this:
The Rockets should only hire a first-time head coach if they know it will lead to a star player like Harden.
I personally believe that you can only gamble on a first-time head coach once during a rebuild. This juice isn’t worth the squeeze anymore. In fact, the Rockets should make experience a prerequisite when they actually make their final decision. With that said, there’s no harm in interviewing Kalamian and Griffin.
Hell, you can even expand that group to guys like Ettore Messina, Igor Kokoškov, and Sam Cassell. You just shouldn’t formerly offer any of them the job. The last time Houston had an opening, I thought an experienced hand like Jeff Van Gundy was needed to stabilize the organization. That instinct has only hardened after watching Silas’ tenure play out and reading the recent reports of front office meddling.
We’re in Phase 2 of this rebuild now. The time for experimentation is over.
(I’m obligated to end by saying Mike D’Antoni should also get consideration here for obvious reasons.)
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