Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and the reports of chemistry issues in the locker room with James Harden, Chris Paul, and the Rockets’ other players are too numerous to be a case of mere disagreements and that everything is hunky-dory. But there have been chemistry issues before, and some of the reports – namely, that Chris Paul demanded a trade – have definitely turned out to be as close to baseless as a mainstream report can get. The leaks from the front office about star-hunting can’t be good for locker room camaraderie, either, and the players themselves are likely to have been on pins and needles for the few weeks.
But as the free agency dominoes are getting laid down, and it looks like the Rockets are primed to run it back, the players themselves should be the least of the Rockets’ worries right now. Mike D’Antoni’s status in the organization, unfortunately, should now be considered a much more troublesome sign.
Former D’Antoni assistant Jeff Bzdelik is currently being courted by the New Orleans Pelicans following a mass layoff of D’Antoni assistant coaches after the season ended. Reports leaked that D’Antoni’s job status was itself in jeopardy, and that the decision to let the assistant staff go was made by Daryl Morey. D’Antoni may have been involved somewhat in that decision process, but he certainly was not front and center defending the direction that the organization is taking with the coaching staff.
And, of course, talks broke down between the coach and the front office over an extension, despite D’Antoni’s stated desire to continue coaching.
The case can be made that D’Antoni is the second-best coach in Rockets history to Rudy Tomjanovich. In only three years with the team, he has the second-most playoff victories, and the best overall playoff record than any other coach. He has the best regular-season winning percentage in Rockets history. His three-year tenure is better in terms of winning percentage than any three-year span that the team has ever had. I personally was skeptical of the decision to bring D’Antoni in to a team that had seemingly few problems on offense and huge glaring holes on defense, but the hire has paid huge dividends for the team.
The “but” here is huge: but James Harden. D’Antoni is blessed with one of the greatest players in Rockets history and one of the greatest players in the NBA. Of course he should be winning. Winning is not enough with a talent like Harden: the goal is nothing less than a championship. We’ve seen three years of James Harden’s prime, including some of the greatest statistical seasons the NBA has ever seen, end in playoff disappointment and widespread prognostication about whether D’Antoni’s “style” is not adaptable to the playoffs.
There’s a “but” on the other side of this equation, too, however: but the Warriors. D’Antoni’s three years with the Rockets have seen them face by far the greatest collection of talent in the 21st century, if not the entire history of the NBA. Being competitive with a single All-Star against the Warriors is an achievement in and of itself. No, they don’t give participation trophies for competitiveness, but evaluating a coach’s success is not and cannot be a pass/fail between a championship and falling short, particularly against a team that opened every season of the Durant era with betting odds above 50% for a title – an absolutely insane facet of competing in this era.
The other part is that it’s possible James Harden would not be the world-destroying transcendent talent that he has become under other coaches. The marriage of Harden and D’Antoni has been made perfect. It was oddball and almost laughable when D’Antoni said he was shifting Harden to point guard and that Harden, who had never cracked the top five leaders in assists in a season, would lead the league. But he did just that, turning Pelicans castoffs and non-lottery players into a powerhouse team. The trade for Chris Paul gave D’Antoni two world-destroying point guards with which to run his offense, and he delivered the best regular season in Houston Rockets history. D’Antoni transformed James Harden from a Kobe-like wing isolation scorer into a spread-the-floor do-everything monster that the league has had to invent new and absurd ways to try to defend. Does that happen under Kevin McHale? Rick Adelman? Jeff Van Gundy?
The Rockets are in win-now mode with James Harden in his prime and the Warriors now having been broken up. The fact that there has appeared to be such a divide between the front office and the coaching staff, far more than the interpersonal drama in the locker room, is most concerning for the future of the Rockets.