One: Make it past the first round of the playoffs, where the Rockets have been eliminated two years in a row, despite major roster improvements.
Two: Keep his job.
McHale deserves a second crack at success with James Harden and Dwight Howard. Developing chemistry between multiple ball-heavy stars is never an easy task—the now-defunct Big Three of the Miami Heat started out 8-7, after all. Even though he’s been given loads of talent, McHale’s job is not an easy one. Ultimate judgment on his performance should still be reserved.
But there are a number of problematic tendencies that general manager Daryl Morey is sure to have his eye on this season.
No Rockets flaw was more obvious than their lack of half-court offense. When the Rockets were able to win close games late, it was because their individual talent bailed them out. That can happen when you’ve got Howard, Harden and the recently departed Chandler Parsons on your team—those guys can ball.
But the Rockets looked strategically lost against tightened fourth quarter defenses. Their points per possession plummeted in the final period throughout 2013-14. Their 108.6 offensive efficiency rating (good for fourth in the league) dropped below 106.0 in the fourth. One particularly extreme instance saw the Rockets score just 17 points in the second half against the Oklahoma City Thunder after scoring 72 in the first two quarters.
The discrepancy between offensive productivity levels was a consistent head-scratcher throughout the year, and McHale’s lack of clear on-court solutions was troubling. Per Rahat Huq of Red94:
[W]hen the stakes are raised, you need a tactician, not a motivational speaker. The Rockets just can’t win like this right now. Even Jordan and Kobe needed the triangle. Even Lebron needed Spoelstra reinventing the Heat offense. You just can’t roll the ball out, clap, and expect to win. You just can’t. This league is too damn hard.
McHale’s got to show something’s changed with his offense this year—just feasting on quick, decisive baskets won’t be enough. The Rockets' offense yearns for something more complicated and layered in the postseason. Elite teams know how to reliably survive closer games, a skill the Rockets have lacked.
They’ll also need more defensive discipline. There were montages of Harden’s missed assignments jumping around the Internet all season. Houston's season ended with a coverage gaffe by Parsons, allowing Damian Lillard space to make a series-sealing three-pointer at the buzzer of Game 6.
These occasions were not coincidental; the Rockets’ perimeter defense was lazy or sloppy all season. Even the ferocious Patrick Beverley was too reckless at times.
The arrival of Trevor Ariza, signed over the weekend by Houston, is a welcome sight for McHale. Ariza will help keep scorers out of the lane and decrease Howard’s massive rim-protecting duties. But one player can’t solve the overall laggardness of last year’s protection.
When Houston’s front office flirted with making Lionel Hollins McHale’s top assistant, it sent a clear message. The Rockets were heating their coach’s seat, telling him to get his men in shape with a more pointed defensive system.
The road ahead is prickly. Neither Howard nor Harden are terribly vocal or engaged leaders. They're great talents, but they're not known for being especially involved in the development and improvement of their squad or in maintaining emotional balance in the locker room.
It may take a coach more overbearing to unite both their talents, along with those of the whole rest of a roster. And the Rockets lost two good locker room personalities in Parsons, now with the Dallas Mavericks, and Jeremy Lin, who was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in a salary dump.
The floor is shifting on McHale in Houston, and expectations are rising. He's been given his transitional grace period, but it's over now. If he can't summon a great coaching performance this season to push the Rockets past the first round of the playoffs, it'll likely cost him his job.