Less than 24 hours after Damian Lillard's game-winning three sent the final blow to his season, Kevin McHale received some much-needed good news: He'll be back to do it all again with the Houston Rockets in 2014-15.
A source close to the situation told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle that Houston's front office has decided to retain McHale for another season.
McHale has compiled a 133-97 record over his three seasons with the Rockets, including a 54-28 mark this past regular season. Houston has made the playoffs each of the last two years, losing in Round 1 both times. Lillard hit a three-pointer as time expired in Friday night's Game 6 to give the Portland Trail Blazers a dramatic 99-98 victory and a 4-2 win in the best-of-seven series.
While back-to-back playoff berths and the team's ever-changing roster gave McHale some leeway within the Rockets organization, that did not stop speculation about his future throughout the series. McHale's at times strange rotation decisions and questionable late-game play-calling decisions were the source of criticism, as was his inability to coax consistent effort out of a talented roster.
Lillard's game-winner was the microcosm of McHale criticism. With only 0.9 seconds remaining, McHale strangely kept James Harden—arguably his worst perimeter defender—on the floor over a defensive replacement. Harden subsequently called for the switch of Chandler Parsons onto Lillard, taking Patrick Beverley, the team's best perimeter defender, out of the play. When Parsons was unable to swing through the double screens set up for Lillard and no Rockets player switched, the Blazers guard was wide open to end Houston's season.
“You just have to go play basketball,” McHale told reporters after the game. “I tell you what, we are not going out and building nuclear weapons. You have to play basketball, holy smokes. Everybody acts like we are building a nuclear reactor. We are playing basketball. It’s not that complicated.”
Nate Duncan of BasketballInsiders.com was one of many to share his thoughts on McHale:
I have to be honest that I think the Rockets will not win a championship with McHale as the coach. D just won't be good enough.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 3, 2014
With criticism mounting, it seemed possible that the Rockets would go in another direction. The fourth year of McHale's contract was non-guaranteed, meaning Houston could have let him go without additional payment. It's unclear whether the Rockets plan on merely picking up that 2014-15 option or engaging in extension talks. Veteran coaches do not typically like working on expiring contracts, as their "lame duck" status can sometimes affect the respect they command inside the locker room.
At the very least, McHale should expect an influx of new talent if not a new contract. The Rockets will have their mid-level exception available this summer—something they did not possess after signing Dwight Howard last July. According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Houston has also been rumored as one of the top free-agent destinations for Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, who could follow the Howard blueprint and leave money on the table to exit a sinking franchise.
Adding Anthony or another star-level player comes with complications. The Rockets have no cap flexibility heading into the summer. They would have to make major overhauls—namely, trading the contracts of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik—to fit a third All-Star into the fold.
McHale can in large part thank the current uncertainty for his retention. When a team is constantly overturning its roster, there needs to be a persistent voice out ahead leading the franchise. Howard and Harden are the faces at the moment, but with more changes coming, the more stable environment general manager Daryl Morey can present, the better.
McHale is a far from perfect coach. Until the Rockets make it past Round 1 with this core, he's only going to continue hearing the chorus of criticism—especially if he continues with the constant barrage of Howard post-ups and Harden isolations in crunch time.
But, for now, he'll have a chance to do it again. We'll have to see if the Rockets are as forgiving if the result is similar next season.
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