The Houston Rockets and coach Mike D'Antoni failed to come to an agreement on a contract extension last summer, which has led to a "Last Dance" of sorts between the two parties. With the Rockets failing to advance to NBA Finals despite strong performances in each of the last three seasons, many feel that D'Antoni may be on his last legs with the organization in the final year of his contract.
That feeling was confirmed by The Athletic's Sam Amick, who said on the "Brodie and The Beard" podcast that if the Rockets don't win the title this season, it's unlikely that D'Antoni will return as head coach.
"Barring a championship, if they do save the season, I do not get the sense that Mike D'Antoni is going to be back," Amick said. "They've had a major divide in the contract negotiations. I'm always cautious when it comes to reporting. So, I'm going to throw in the never say never. Pro sports is a crazy thing. You know what I mean? But the information that we've constantly heard is that that bridge, for the most part, has been burned, and now they're just kind of mutually agreeing to make the best of the time they have together."
Amick also reports that Jeff Van Gundy has been discussed as a possible replacement for D'Antoni. After coaching the New York Knicks for six-plus seasons, Van Gundy coached the Rockets from 2003-07, compiling a record of 182-146 in Houston. Another name that has been mentioned is Tom Thibodeau, who was an assistant under Van Gundy with the Rockets before head coaching stints with the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves.
"Jeff Van Gundy's name is the one that I had heard consistently as a very possible replacement for Mike," Amick said. "Van Gundy and [Thibodeau] being from the same tree, whatever happens next I think you are starting to get a sense of what might be prioritized -- obviously defense first, discipline. Try to juxtapose that and reconcile that with James Harden, in particular, with Thibs or Van Gundy barking at him on the defensive side."
Amick makes a good point about Harden, one of the game's most prolific offensive players, but also one of the most unique in NBA history. With the Rockets, D'Antoni completely abandoned the "seven seconds or less," quick-hitting, ball movement-oriented offense that led to so much success with the Phoenix Suns, instead employing an isolation-heavy attack to accommodate Harden's incredible efficiency in that area. D'Antoni made further adjustments this season by incorporating Russell Westbrook's singular talents into the fold, which led to the Rockets having the second-best offensive rating in the NBA at the time of the hiatus at 113.4 points per 100 possessions.
Will a coach like Van Gundy or Thibodeau be willing to adjust to Harden and Westbrook, who are signed through 2021-22 (with lucrative player options for 2022-23), or will they try to get their superstars to fit into their pre-existing systems?
It will also be interesting to see how a new coach adapts to the small-ball style the Rockets have embraced this season. With Clint Capela traded to the Atlanta Hawks, the Rockets have few serviceable big men on the roster. If ownership and management are looking for a defensive-minded coach, does that mean they go hunting for a big man this offseason to shore up the middle, and how does that affect the offense?
There are certainly a lot of questions in Houston, but it appears that we're pretty close to having at least one answer: Mike D'Antoni probably won't coach this team next season, despite compiling a 213-97 record with the Rockets.