Whomever the Houston Rockets tab as their next head coach had better be exceptional.
Because the challenge of leading that team—loaded with a superstar, laden with expectations and laboring under the weight of wasted potential—certainly is.
There are plenty of squads with talent, but few have a brand as uncertain or unstable as Houston's.
James Harden is treading dangerously close to the midcareer Carmelo Anthony nadir. Fair or not, Harden is gaining a reputation as a selfish player—one who produces statistically but can't provide enough little things or leadership to elevate his teammates.
"Harden is a tremendous player, but he's not bringing it for the team," former Rockets player Robert Reid told KHOU 11 Sports in Houston, via ESPN.com. "I'm sorry, I'm just going to say it. Harden looks after Harden."
Every NBA team is some version of a hierarchy, and the top of the heap is more valuable than the foundation. If the best player on the roster isn't setting a strong example (whether by word, deed, commitment, work ethic or some combination), then the guys beneath him tend not to engage.
Harden's distance from the squad (he frequently skipped team buses, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein), refusal to defend and poor early-season conditioning all contributed to a team that reacted this way when he hit a postseason game-winner:
There's a lot of talent in that video, and little of it seems motivated by success or excited by their top teammate's remarkable skill.
Howard, you'll note, seemed the least enthused (though he later said anyone who thinks the players weren't happy should "shut up"). That ties into Houston's second-biggest talent issue: Some of it might soon be gone.
You can do the rough math on Howard's apparent discontent, the oceans of free-agent cash available this summer and the opt-out clause in his contract. Any coach considering Houston as a destination may have to take the plunge without knowing who his second-best player will be. That's daunting, and the uncertainty surrounding the roster only grows with qualifying offers owed to power forwards Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones.
Point guard Jason Terry and forward Josh Smith will also hit the market.
Managing Harden is one thing with helpful options around him; wrangling him solo is another.
The Burden of Success
Thanks to all that talent, the Rockets' next coach will take the job with a high bar looming overhead.
Remember, Houston visited the Western Conference finals just last season. The Rockets showed remarkable fight in roaring back from a 3-1 deficit to topple the Los Angeles Clippers during the previous round and then gave the eventual champion Golden State Warriors a reasonably spirited run.
Maybe the guy in charge won't be asked to return the team immediately to the league's penultimate stage, but as long as Harden is there, the Rockets will be expected to post something in the neighborhood of 50 wins.
We've seen this team succeed, and even if Howard bolts, enough of the key components involved in that success will remain to warrant similar expectations.
In addition to Harden, there's enough young talent on the roster—Clint Capela, Motiejunas and Jones (assuming at least one of those two hangs around) to forecast improvement.
In fact, Houston was supposed to get better this past season and didn't.
If interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff isn't handed the full-time position, then this will be why.
He inherited the roster from ex-head coach Kevin McHale precisely because the team wasn't meeting those lofty expectations.
Now, maybe it's possible neither McHale nor Bickerstaff was cut out to help the team reach its potential. Maybe this was an issue of two voices simply being wrong for a particular team in a particular season. Maybe Houston fell short of the standard it set in 2015 because neither McHale nor Bickerstaff was delivering the right message.
But it seems likely now that the coach wasn't the reason that the players couldn't measure up.
Bickerstaff, for example, perfectly articulated a simple game plan for limiting Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson (who was playing without Stephen Curry) in Game 5 of the first round. Per my previous Bleacher Report about the Rockets' disastrous year:
They run a ton of stuff through Klay. When Steph is on the floor, they're running those actions on both sides of the floor, so there really is no weak side for your defense. With Steph being off the court, the focal point for them offensively so far in this series has been Klay. ... That gives us a direct weak side for our defense and guys can be in better position to help.
We have to assume he delivered that message to his players...who then promptly ignored all of it as Thompson got a never-ending parade of clean looks in the decisive first quarter of that contest.
If McHale and Bickerstaff fell short of expectations because they lost the team, then we have to consider the possibility that this is a group uninterested in being found.
Next Man Up
Whoever takes over, assuming it's not Bickerstaff, must be qualified, brave, aggressive and confident to the point of delusion. And as McHale's unceremonious ouster proved, experience may not mean much.
"The expectation of many around the NBA is that the next coach of the Rockets will be a prior one–ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy," Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote. "It likely will take someone of Van Gundy’s stature to have the gravitas to take on Harden’s massive personality in Houston’s locker room."
But if a Hall of Famer like McHale, who led Houston to a conference final, couldn't connect, then what are the chances Van Gundy gets through because he had moderate success a decade ago?
Compounding the challenge: Many of the best head coach options aren't options anymore. Scott Brooks coached Harden in his first NBA season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and his time there helped cultivate a reputation for building relationships with stars.
But he'll be in Washington.
Tom Thibodeau would have brought the defensive urgency, demanded respect and, in theory, pushed a team that has long looked in need of a nudge.
But he'll be in Minnesota.
Luke Walton's easygoing nature and youth might have helped him relate to the roster, and he could have imported lessons from the league's winningest culture.
But he'll be in L.A.
So now, the other thing complicating an already knotty coaching search, is timing.
The degree of difficulty in Houston is only getting higher. And as the West improves around them—the Wolves should be better, the Dallas Mavericks might get a boost if Howard joins up, and the Utah Jazz are always next year's team—turning this Rockets group into a big-time winner might soon become impossible.
So, any takers?
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