Yahoo Sports reports that the last available NBA coaching position is set to be filled, as former Suns, Knicks, and Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni has agreed to a deal to become the next coach of the Houston Rockets. D'Antoni had most recently served as assistant coach to Brett Brown in Philadelphia. The Rockets had considered Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson, and Frank Vogel among other candidates, reportedly.
The decision will not come without controversy, but D'Antoni was still the best available coaching candidate of the "proven" options available. The questions will surround D'Antoni's management of the defense and if he can mesh with ball-dominant James Harden.
D'Antoni last coached the Lakers to a 27-55 record, which many thought was the low point of franchise history before Byron Scott showed up. He also was the mastermind behind the "Seven Seconds or Less" approach that brought the Suns to a revolutionary style of basketball that was later emulated by the championship Spurs and Warriors, who directly credited D'Antoni after their title last year.
D'Antoni has a career 455-426 record in 12 seasons as an NBA coach. Here are the three big things to consider as Mike D'Antoni takes over as coach of the Houston Rockets.
1. The relationship between D'Antoni and Harden is going to be crucial: Harden is a ball-dominant guard who likes to pound the ball. That is antithetic towards everything that D'Antoni's philosophy preaches. On the other hand, Harden is a brilliant transition guard and playmaker with his passing, which molds perfectly with what D'Antoni preaches.
Harden has to buy in for this to work. Carmelo Anthony didn't, and the Knicks suffered for it. Dwight Howard didn't buy in in L.A. and that didn't work (Kobe Bryant was fading, and Steve Nash was hurt, and Pau Gasol hated D'Antoni with the fire of a thousand suns). D'Antoni can push Harden to a higher level, but the guard has to trust D'Antoni to set him up to succeed.
On the other hand, D'Antoni has to empower and trust Harden to make the right play, and not constantly fight against Harden's decision-making. He's going to ISO sometimes, and D'Antoni is going to have to live with that. Any attempts to overrule Harden are only going to result in a George Karl-DeMarcus Cousins type situation. D'Antoni has to create a bond with Harden, which could be tough, given D'Antoni's reputation with stars.
2. Dwight Howard is all but done in Houston: Howard has a player option and has been coy about his decision to use it, but everyone expects him to opt out and enter free agency after discord with Harden and frustration with the team created a constant source of tension between the former All-Star and his locker room. But those wounds could have been healed.
Not with D'Antoni at the helm.
Howard hated playing for D'Antoni, with a burning passion, and wanted the team to hire Phil Jackson back after firing Mike Brown in November of 2012. He and D'Antoni never saw eye-to-eye and while D'Antoni uses quite a bit of guard post-ups in his system, he never feeds the big down low. It's all pick-and-roll action, which Howard despises, despite it being his greatest offensive strength.
There is a less than 10 percent chance Howard remains in Houston after this decision.
3. The defense is always the question: Since Phoenix, every team D'Antoni has coached has finished in the bottom half of the league in defensive rating, and often in the lower third. Players have constantly referenced the fact that D'Antoni doesn't spend any time on defense at practices and it has simply never really mattered to him.
This could be a disaster with the Rockets, whose defensive effort last year was basically watching a plate of spaghetti fall in slow motion.
The Rockets are reportedly looking to hire a primary defensive coordinator and surround D'Antoni with great defensive minds, but if D'Antoni doesn't start with defense and then build his offense around it, it's going to be the same results. And those are always bad.
It can work. The Warriors showed that you can have the best defense in the league with the fastest pace last year. But it takes a commitment on that end to make it viable. If the Rockets don't balance that, all the 3-point shots and hyper-analytic prioritization of pace isn't going to win them more games. You have to start with defense, then run off misses.
All that said, D'Antoni is still a brilliant offensive mind who has won a lot of games. There are just real questions about defense and how he melds with starpower. No matter how this works out in Houston, it's a divisive hire and how this goes could determine the rest of D'Antoni's career. This may be his last chance to show that he can still win games in the NBA.