The Houston Rockets are engulfed in what is expected to be an all-out battle against the Los Angeles Lakers in the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs. Although the franchise's focus is on the here and now, there are lingering thoughts about what direction this team will be headed after this year, especially when it comes to head coach. Prior to the start of this season, Mike D'Antoni and the Rockets failed to reach an agreement on a contract extension, which led to speculation that this could be his final year in Houston. Unless, of course, the team were to win a championship.
After staving off a first-round scare at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder and making a statement in a Game 1 win over the top-seeded Lakers in the second round, the chances of D'Antoni remaining in Houston appear to be in increasing. In fact, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey emphatically said that signing D'Antoni is at the top of the franchise's list this offseason.
"It's probably No. 1, that's a fair way to put it," Morey told USA TODAY Sports. "We have all our key players signed. I think Mike coming back is super important."
In four seasons under D'Antoni, the Rockets have reached the playoffs four times, including a trip to the Western Conference finals, where, if it hadn't been for an unfortunate injury to Chris Paul, Houston may have beaten the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 to advance to the NBA Finals. Under D'Antoni's stewardship, the Rockets consistently have one of the top-ranked offensive teams in the league. This season, he's bought completely into small ball, which so far has done wonders for his two star players in James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
The concern prior to the start of the 2019-20 season was that D'Antoni hasn't been able to get Houston over the hump of getting to the Finals, and with both Harden and Westbrook on the other side of 30, the championship window for this team closes with each passing season. Another sticking point against D'Antoni was the lack of defense his teams typically play. Aside from one season where Houston ranked seventh in the league in defensive rating, it is typically a middling defensive team that has a tendency to let opponents put up huge numbers on them.
This postseason, though, the Rockets have been incredibly locked in and committed on that side of the floor, and rank first in the playoffs in defensive rating (101.4). Another sign pointing to Houston's improved effort on defense came in Game 7 against the Thunder. In the closing seconds of the game, it wasn't a Harden 3-pointer or Westbrook drive to the basket that sealed the Rockets the win. Instead, it was Harden getting out on the perimeter defensively, and blocking Luguentz Dort's 3-point attempt to secure the win.
Morey outright saying that re-signing their head coach is a top priority this season is truly an encouraging sign if you're D'Antoni, but Morey isn't the only one making the decision here. D'Antoni's chances of remaining in charge in Houston may still rely heavily on if he can deliver a championship to this franchise, and while the Rockets are looking good right now, it's still a long, difficult road to the NBA Finals.