While the report of Mike D’Antoni exiting the Houston Rockets’ bench surprises no one with a Twitter account, the departure leaves the once-thought-of contender in a meandering state. No matter how you chalk up the past four years, you can’t negate the stats that favor the mind of a modern-day pioneer for today’s NBA.
In the beginning
When the founder of the “seven seconds or less” offense arrived in Houston, D’Antoni’s presence created the possibility of a next-level offensive juggernaut. With the Golden State Warriors in the inception of forming its dynasty, the Rockets began their journey as the supposed next-in-line franchise.
Upon arrival, the reputation coincided with significant results, as the Rockets finished with the second-highest offensive rating in the league for the 2016-17 season. The Rockets, though, didn’t seem impressed with its previous effort, as the franchise followed up with the highest offensive rating in the NBA the next season.
The genesis of the Mike D’Antoni era brought astonishing improvement, as the roster riddled with role players and one star finished third in the Western Conference with 55 wins. The 14-game improvement, with a team arguably less talented than it was the season before, was in part due to D’Antoni’s trust in James Harden.
Based on disparaging comments that former Rockets head coach Kevin McHale aimed at Harden, it’s apparent the two didn’t have the best chemistry. D’Antoni, on the other hand, appeared to instantly hit it off with Harden on and off the court.
Harden grew as a superstar under D’Antoni’s watch. With McHale gone, Harden’s stardom grew, but the Rockets didn’t fully feel like his team. However, D’Antoni instilled trust and responsibility in Harden.
In the first year of the Mike D’Antoni era, Harden was bestowed the authority of the point guard position by his newly signed head coach. Never before had Harden been considered the point guard type. Yet, the envelope-pushing D’Antoni didn’t allow restrictions to be placed on Harden’s greatness.
Mike D’Antoni making the most of the roster
Considering the 2016-17 Rockets didn’t reflect the Phoneix Suns of the mid-2000s, the system worked according to plan, combining Harden’s mind-bending offense and D’Antoni’s against-the-grain approach. The regular-season performance birthed the idea of the Rockets as a formidable opponent.
Looking back at the enigmatic season, it’s a wonder the team finished with such high offensive numbers. The 2016-17 Rockets’ second option was Eric Gordon. Oddly, the second-highest scoring player on the team only started 15 games. Furthermore, using box plus-minus, a metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when he is on the court, not one player, aside from Harden, who had a score of 8.7, averaged a higher score than 1.2. Somehow, that season’s Rockets finished third in the margin-of-victory stat.
The Rockets, without a duo or trio of stars, made their mark on the league. They used an abundance of possessions with Harden as the creator and finisher to dominate the game. Harden’s game within a game with the officials spawned a new weapon. Meanwhile, Mike D’Antoni looked on as the mad scientist, cackling in the shadows as his creation wreaked havoc on the league.
Seeing an absolute spike in assists, among other statistical categories, Harden blossomed in his newfound role as the franchise cornerstone. Although Houston failed to reach the Western Conference Finals in an otherwise incredible season, it crept closer to contender status.
A new superstar duo emerges
Harden, as the point guard of a limited group of so-so talent, although remarkable, didn’t push the Rockets to the team’s expectations. Taking advantage of chemistry gone awry in LA, the risk-taking Rockets general manager Daryl Morey moved his chips to the middle of the table for 32-year-old star point guard Chris Paul.
With a legitimate superstar next to Harden, the experiment with D’Antoni richened. Before the season, doubts surrounded the move. How would Paul and Harden coexist as dominant on-ball presences? Could Harden get along with such a polarizing figure?
Both questions answered in favor of Houston, at least in the short term. Finally, Harden had a running mate worthy of sharing the workload. However, contrary to predictions, Paul excelled in allowing Harden the majority of the possessions.
Mike D’Antoni, the mastermind, somehow managed a roster with Paul as a secondary ball-handler. Honestly, most of the credit goes to Paul in that regard, but it’s worth noting not many coaches garner enough respect to suggest a star point guard relinquish possessions for the greater good.
As the Paul-Harden duo shook up the NBA with a league-best 65-17 record, the talks of championship legitimacy grew. Historically, D’Antoni teams had failed to reach the Finals, despite the transcendent offense he coached.
However, this time around, a D’Antoni team was strong defensively, as the Rockets’ admirable efforts earned them the sixth-highest defensive rating. Things felt different. Houston’s defensive wing, Trevor Ariza, and undersized-yet-not-outworked forward P.J. Tucker enabled D’Antoni to continue his evolution in the league.
Once again, D’Antoni flexed his versatile coaching style in yet another rendition of his version of the Rockets. With Paul and Harden as the two majority creators, the pace of the Rockets’ offense went from third the previous season to 13th place by the end of the 2017-18 campaign. By morphing the Houston Rockets into a methodically paced offense, D’Antoni’s roster played as the anti-Warriors.
The league awarded Harden’s stellar performance with the MVP award, marked the third time a D’Antoni star had won the prestigious honor.
Close but no cigar
The dynamic of the regular season continued to pay dividends early in the playoffs, as the Rockets went 8-2 in the first two rounds, demolishing the Minnesota Timberwolves and outclassing the surprisingly successful Utah Jazz.
Riding high on those victories, the Rockets faced their ultimate obstacle, the reigning NBA champion Warriors. If the Rockets beat the Warriors, the NBA Finals awaited. The 2018 Western Conference Finals exists as one of the memorable “what-if?” series in league history.
With the heavyweight bout underway, the first three games finished as blowouts, with the Warriors up 2-1. D’Antoni, in the most role-reversed playoff performance in quite some time, won the next two games without cracking the triple-digit mark, finishing the contests with 95 and 98 points.
Unfortunately, Paul’s hamstring played a huge factor in the Rockets’ loss to the eventual repeat champions. In addition to Paul’s injury, the 3-point shooting buried D’Antoni and company as the almost-Western Conference champs went an anemic 7-44 from deep.
The sequel but with fewer laughs
In the face of such a disastrous defeat to the Warriors in the previous postseason, the Rockets picked up where they left off, minus the efficient defense. Paul, as aging small guards do, endured injuries and played 58 games. The Rockets missed the defensive efforts of Ariza as he moved on due to financial reasons. Instead, D’Antoni tried Gordon and Gerald Green at the “three” at times.
The Rockets, although a similar team, didn’t feel like the happily engaged rendition from the previous season. The Rockets’ defense struggled to be even average, with the 13th-worst defensive rating. More importantly, rumblings of uneasiness between Harden and Paul grew to the point of Paul addressing the rumors.
Ultimately, the Rockets again failed to defeat the Warriors, this time in the Western Conference semifinals, despite the calf strain suffered by Kevin Durant. Paul and Harden’s future laid in limbo, with the summer ahead to stew over yet another heartbreaking loss to the big-brother Warriors.
Despite Paul’s “happiness” with the Rockets franchise, the odd couple of the NBA ended in an ugly divorce. However, for Harden, this opportunity led him to an old flame, Russell Westbrook.
In a shocking move, which included the departure of two first-round picks and two pick swaps, the 2017 league MVP shacked up with Harden. D’Antoni experienced one of the more sporadic transitions at the point guard position in what seemed like league history. The capabilities of the mad scientist were being tested yet again.
For a coach who has been long ridiculed as one-dimensional, the success despite significant changes to the roster suggests the opposite. Again, the Rockets’ pace spiked back to third-highest in the league with the relentless attacks from Westbrook. D’Antoni went from having a cerebral weapon in Paul to an athletically imposing guard.
Mike D’Antoni, reminiscent of Phil Jackson, managed his star players’ personalities to the best of his ability. Later in the 2019-20 season, Morey made another move that changed the course of the season. He traded starting center Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks, going full small ball.
With Tucker and Robert Covington sharing time at the center position, D’Antoni empowered Westbrook to crash the lane without a big man taking up space in the paint. No matter what Houston’s management threw at D’Antoni, the man countered.
The end is near
After the riveting, narrative-rich seven-game series versus the Paul-led Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers faced the title-contending Los Angeles Lakers. Although narratives tell you small ball killed the Rockets, the game tapes relay a different message.
Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee combined for 46 minutes played. The truth is, the Westbrook experiment didn’t work. D’Antoni, forced to make do with a turnover-prone, inefficient guard, did all he could to empower such a flawed star.
In reality, the roster Morey presented D’Antoni with didn’t have championship potential. The fact that the Rockets reluctantly made it out of the Thunder series was a marvel in itself. If Harden thinks this team is one piece away, then that piece must be a player of Kawhi Leonard caliber or something.
Mike D’Antoni is gone but not finished
The fact still remains that this Rockets team did a lot in pushing the envelope of how a modern team looks and never shied away from the 3-point game. D’Antoni, for all the critiques of his defensive focus, maintained playoff relevancy in an unforgivable Western Conference despite multiple changes at the top of the depth chart.
Unfortunately, team owner Tilman Fertitta didn’t have much interest in bringing back D’Antoni, as he offered an incentive-based one-season extension as well as completely obliterating his coaching staff before the 2019-20 season started.
Mike D’Antoni leaving the Rockets isn’t him quitting on the team. Actually, ownership made this decision long before the Rockets fell to the Lakers. Now, none of it matters; D’Antoni has teams foaming at the mouth to acquire the services of a coach who possesses the ability to adapt at an elite level.
The Rockets, on the other hand, have to figure out how to add another piece even though Morey sacrificed numerous draft picks in exchange for Westbrook. Void of youth or attractive contracts to deal, this roster looks as if it’s peaked.