In an offseason filled with attractive coaching jobs, perhaps none offer the immediate potential for winning that the Houston Rockets can boast. No team came closer to toppling the unbeatable Golden State Warriors at their peak, and while some of the names and faces have changed, the Rockets remain one of basketball's most innovative franchises. If a new coach plays his cards right, he could win a championship in his very first season in Houston.
He could also torpedo his own career by committing to one of the most dangerous experiments in NBA history. As promising as Houston's "no big men" approach looked in the regular season, it was torched by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Now James Harden and Russell Westbrook are a year older, the team has fewer trade assets to work with, and the specter of the pandemic looms large over a franchise that has recently avoided the luxury tax and has an owner heavily invested in hard-hit industries (particularly restaurants).
Any coach interested in this job would need supreme confidence in his ability to identify and correct the issues that plagued Mike D'Antoni's Rockets, because if it isn't done immediately, there likely won't be time to do it at all. Houston will cast a wide net for the job, but these seven candidates stand out on paper as the best possible fits.
Jeff Van Gundy
Van Gundy has flirted with plenty of teams over the years. He was a finalist for the Pelicans job in 2015, and his name pops up every time the Knicks job opens. But never has a return to the sideline made more sense for the ESPN broadcaster than it would with the Rockets. Van Gundy spent four seasons in Houston, the last two of which coincided with Daryl Morey's arrival, and he still lives in the area. He's the sort of big name that newer owners prefer, and according to Marc Stein of the New York Times, the Rockets are interested.
Still, Van Gundy hasn't coached an NBA game in 13 years. He hasn't exactly been absent from the sport, as his broadcasting work keeps him plenty busy, but his only recent coaching track record has come with Team USA, leading the World Cup qualifying team to a 15-2 record. The Rockets will surely study those games to get a sense of how Van Gundy's coaching philosophy has grown over the years, but in truth, he was always broadly aligned with Houston's ideology. His Rockets were sixth and seventh in 3-point attempts in his first two seasons at the helm, before Morey even joined the organization.
That said, Van Gundy is still something of a mystery even to a Rockets organization that knows him as well as any other. There is no track record for sitting out 13 seasons and then winning a championship. The longest absence a post-merger championship-winning coach has ever followed up with a title is a bit more than two seasons. That was Pat Riley, who was still the president of the Heat. Morey has never been afraid to think outside of the box, but even his standards, this would be a risky hire.
The Athletic's Shams Charania reported that, after Houston's Game 4 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Rockets players yelled at one another in the locker room. The topic? Accountability. Everyone is accountable under Ty Lue. He was known to yell even at LeBron James when the situation warranted it, including the middle of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. A coach who can stand up to LeBron can stand up to anybody.
Discerning too much of Lue's philosophy based on his Cleveland tenure would be difficult given LeBron's outsize influence on every team that he plays for, but dedication to shooting and offensive creativity is beyond reproach, especially when he has time to draw up plays on the fly. Cleveland finished second and third in offensive efficiency after timeouts in Lue's two full seasons alongside LeBron.
Lue's defensive track record isn't quite as sterling. He made a point in both 2017 and 2018 of hiding his true schematic intentions until the playoffs, a strategy that backfired tremendously. Cleveland finished 11th in playoff defensive efficiency both seasons, and while roster talent played a big part in that, so too does common sense. Good defense relies on good habits. Asking players to switch every screen in the playoffs when they've barely done any switching in the regular season is unrealistic. Just ask the Milwaukee Bucks, whose second-round loss to the Heat was based in large part on this principle.
The Rockets offer no such versatility, though. Their size forces them into a single defensive philosophy, and that makes Lue's offensive and locker room credentials all the more appealing. If he wants to coach the Rockets, there's a good chance he gets to. But with Philadelphia and New Orleans also hot on his trail, Lue will probably have his pick of this offseason's best jobs, and with the Rockets already in a fairly precarious financial situation, there's no telling whether or not they'll be willing to pay a coach of Lue's stature.
Finch has become a head-coaching candidate largely based on his work as a top lieutenant to Mike Malone in Denver and Alvin Gentry in New Orleans, but his Houston candidacy was born over a decade earlier, when Finch helped develop the analytics laboratory known as the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Finch coached Houston's G League team to a championship in 2010, and a year later, his Vipers took 184 more 3-pointers than any other team in the G League. So impressed were the Rockets with Finch's work in the minors that they called him up to the big leagues. He worked on Kevin McHale's staff for five seasons from 2011 to 2016.
That unconventional path holds plenty of appeal in light of Nick Nurse's rise to coaching stardom. Finch's road to the NBA hit several similar beats. Both coached in the G League stateside and the British league abroad, and Nurse even served as Finch's assistant on the British National Team. Finch has stints in Germany and Belgium under his belt as well. If the Rockets want a creative coach, they probably won't find a better one than him. Finch has seen everything the basketball world has to offer.
But can he gain the respect of stars like James Harden and Russell Westbrook without an NBA track record? Nurse certainly did so with Kawhi Leonard, but Leonard is among the easiest players to coach in basketball. Harden and Westbrook come with significant postseason concerns that D'Antoni never really addressed. Asking a first-year coach to convince Harden to move off the ball seems like a tall order, but the upside may well be worth it.
Cassell has a strong combination of the traits that make the first three coaches on this list desirable. Like Van Gundy, there's a hometown appeal here. Cassell won two championships in Houston early in his playing career. He likely wouldn't have trouble holding the Rockets accountable. He'd be a first-time head coach like Finch, but comes with fewer question marks. Like Lue, he is a former point guard who played with a number of superstars and was still considered a leader on his teams.
He's a soon-to-be graduate of the Doc Rivers finishing school for future head coaches, and there might not be a better environment for a young coach to develop within. Lue won a title after starting his coaching career under Rivers, Tom Thibodeau followed his time under Doc in Boston by building a consistent winner in Chicago. Rivers himself is a champion of Cassell's candidacy. "He's got an incredibly high basketball IQ, and I just hope he gets a shot," Rivers told reporters Thursday. "He's paid every due that's possible. When they talk about paying dues, he's paid every due that is possible and he's yet to get a job. So, I'm hoping that happens."
But Cassell is the only coach on this list with no head-coaching experience at any level. That's an enormous bet to make for a team that is built to win now and only now. Houston's two best players are in their 30s. The Rockets control only two of their next seven first-round picks. They can't afford to wait out growing pains. It's now or never, and while there is mutual interest, according to ESPN's Tim MacMahon, Cassell will need to sell Houston on his ability to win right away if he hopes to get this job.
There's no such thing as a Russell Westbrook whisperer, but if the Rockets are dedicated to getting the most out of their aging superstar, it should be noted that Billy Donovan coached him to an MVP award and within one game of the NBA Finals. That doesn't necessarily make him the right coach for Westbrook, and there's no guarantee he would even be interested in a second ride on the Westbrook-go-round, but mutual success tends to lead to mutual interest in a reunion. Kyrie Irving reportedly wanted Ty Lue to coach the Nets for that exact reason.
Donovan's priority is to win right now. That much was made evident when he left the uncertain Thunder willingly, and the Rockets can grant him that opportunity. But given the ages of Harden and Westbrook, it's uncertain how long that window will remain open. Would Donovan want to put himself in position to leave another team when Houston inevitably pivots into a rebuild, whether that's in one year or four? In all likelihood, he'd probably prefer a more stable situation, and the Rockets would likely lean on a coach that, historically speaking, leads teams that shoot more 3s.
Oftentimes coaching changes lead to over-corrections. If a team fires a coach based on a few specific flaws, it will seek out a coach strong in those areas. McMillan is, in almost every way, D'Antoni's exact opposite. D'Antoni's teams almost always lead the league in 3-pointers. McMillan's just finished dead-last. D'Antoni never uses his backups. McMillan never plays fewer than nine, even in closeout games. D'Antoni is a player's coach. McMillan holds everyone in his building accountable on both ends of the floor. A year under McMillan turned T.J. Warren, one of the worst defenders in basketball with the Suns, into a downright respectable defensive presence. Bojan Bogdanovic underwent a similar transformation.
But Morey has never been one to make panic hires. He stuck to his guns in choosing D'Antoni and Rick Adelman, and while Kevin McHale didn't have quite their offensive track records, he quickly got with the program and had his teams hoisting up 3s. He wasn't philosophically opposed to the idea. McMillan might be. He might not. He tried to nudge the Pacers into more shooting through the media, but if he was ultimately the one designing plays, the onus falls on him to demand the right shots. If Morey thinks McMillan can run a sufficiently modern offense, the over-correct might make sense. McMillan fixes many of the problems D'Antoni created. He just comes with a few of his own that the Rockets need to investigate.
Atkinson had a cup of coffee with the Rockets as their director of player development for a year early in Morey's tenure, and the Houston influence was evident watching the Nets play. Atkinson's Brooklyn teams were almost always near the top of the league in 3-point attempts and pick-and-rolls run (though, in fairness, Houston lacks rollers right now), but they rarely sacrificed ball movement to do it.
After a playoff loss in which the Lakers neutralized Harden by exposing his unwillingness to move off the ball, that will be an important consideration for the Rockets. All it took to shut down D'Antoni's offense was carefully-timed trapping. The Nets, under Atkinson, tended to be far more willing to adjust and experiment. His player-development track record matters here as well. With so few draft picks over the next several years, the Rockets need a coach who can find diamonds in the rough. That's Atkinson in a nutshell.
But Atkinson lost the Brooklyn job over his inability to connect with Irving and Kevin Durant. Why would Harden and Westbrook be any different? For now, Atkinson seems like a better fit with a younger team that he could develop at its own pace. The respect of Harden and Westbrook is a prerequisite here, and considering both played with Durant, Atkinson would likely have to fight an uphill battle in earning it.