In the loaded Western Conference, the Houston Rockets have one of the very best collections of talent. But they're still a cut below the top of the standings and have looked quite inconsistent at times.
At what point do we start to point our fingers at their coach, Kevin McHale, for the seeming discrepancy between their abilities and their results?
The nature of their defeats suggests that McHale's performance is, indeed, a potentially significant part of the Rockets' struggle to ascend to the next level.
The team’s slew of losses to inferior opponents—Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz, Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers—are a poor reflection of their motivation, a quality never lacking in squads headed up by unquestionably superior coaches like Tom Thibodeau or Frank Vogel.
Comparing McHale, a former player, to career coaches like Thibodeau and Vogel is, of course, a bit unfair. Few clipboard holders in the league can compare to what those maniacal men offer their teams, and such leaders are surely not readily available for the hiring.
But when we stand McHale next to these perennial Coach of the Year candidates, it tells us a lot about what he’s not doing. His players are without the machinations, the intricate team structures, that give a supreme edge to the very NBA best squadrons.
Where is McHale’s playbook?
In a move of undue arrogance, he has thrown it out the window, eschewing such organization for a handful of aggressive court principles. The Rockets assume they can beat anyone by out-voluming them in open-court opportunities, via high-return shots near the basket and from behind the arc.
Against many teams (most of them, actually), this approach is enough.
Luckily for the Rockets, they have in James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones a collection of guys tailor-made for such running and gunning. They've even been able to overwhelm and defeat the incumbent conference champion, the San Antonio Spurs, twice with their pressing style.
But blowout losses to the Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder prove just how limited their style is. The Clippers and Thunder outmatch Houston in terms of firepower, so opening up the court for them is dangerous and unwise. The Pacers, inversely, are simply too disciplined to allow the Rockets their preferred pace.
The onus is on McHale to create an alternate modality for them. And his solution is much too large not to see: it's Dwight Howard. He's the best center in the Western Conference, and as such, he's the most significant advantage the Rockets may wield against their foes in the postseason.
The time to establish a slower, more half-court-centric collection of sets—and overall philosophy—is now.
Something more sophisticated than merely dumping the ball to D12 in the post will be necessary to reliably challenge top-shelf defenses. The more the team can run high-low sets with Howard and Jones or Omri Casspi, or screen-and-rolls near the arc with Lin, Harden or Patrick Beverley, the better.
Of course, any playground regulars know these plays, and they're also not entirely foreign to what the Rockets do when they're forced into the half court—when they're smart enough to not lean on Harden's isolation heroism or Howard's post work, that is. But McHale needs to bolster this action by creating more complicated yet comfortable lines of motion for his bevy of shooters to follow without the ball.
The Spurs offense should offer an appropriate vision for what the Rockets can achieve—setting up for the breakdown of a first option and learning to make more and more extra passes just might make this crew unstoppable against any opponent.
Why the transition into this look hasn't yet begun is somewhat mind-boggling. While the game theory in their current operation does point toward some likely and intriguing developments in the NBA at large as the game evolves, it's clear that the Rockets being at the forefront of the frontier does not behoove them and their chances of advancing in the playoffs.
Many have also scratched their heads over McHale's extreme handling of players' minutes. Jones, once buried down the bench, became a starter and indispensable rotation piece over night. Jeremy Lin gets the minutes of a superstar in some stretches, but those of a sixth man through others—the rhyme or reason to why is beyond most of us.
McHale has been thrown into the fire in Houston, as only one of his starters (Chandler Parsons) was on the team prior to last season. Like any coach leading a franchise in flux, he should be given time to make the correct calibrations.
But the effort to adapt to the field as the Rockets’ initial approach is proved to be flawed—this must begin soon, in earnest.
If it doesn't, we’ll have to start asking more serious questions about who should be coaching this team.