Parting Ways: The Rockets Strike First

We’re 11 games into the NBA season and we have our first firing.  And in a shocking twist, nurse it wasn’t by the Kings.  The Houston Rockets have fired Kevin McHale after limping to a 4-7 start to tip off a season with Championship expectations.

On the surface this seems premature.  McHale has been the Rockets coach since 2011 and holds the highest win percentage in Rockets history.  4-7 isn’t the biggest hole to climb out of and the Rockets had topped two of the Western Conference’s best teams – OKC and the Clippers. McHale was signed to a 3 year $13 million extension less than a year ago, viagra and drew buzz in the Coach of the Year conversation in June.

So how did he end up out of a job in mid-November?  In reality, illness it wasn’t a total overreaction by the Rockets front office.  The team is in disarray.  The Rockets lost 3 games to mediocre teams by 20+ points before picking up their first win this season.  Dwight Howard has been in and out of the lineup and unable to set the tone for a group of players who seem unaware of what it takes to get to the Finals.  James Harden has shot particularly poorly to start off a season following one in which he believed he was the MVP, on top of his awful defensive effort and alleged general aloofness. It goes without saying but I’m going to say it anyway that the Kardashian effect is way more than a coincidence at this point.

The word is that McHale had lost the locker room to a point of no return, in which case it makes sense to make a quick change.  The talent is there for the Rockets but clearly the chemistry is not.  You can’t fire players on guaranteed contracts, so McHale is the logical target.  There has been buzz about tension between the old school coaching staff and the analytical front office (Bulls fans have seen this movie before), and it came to brighter light during the losing stretch.  Rockets owner Leslie Alexander went as far as to say that this season, he knew his team was going to lose. An awful feeling most fans can relate to, but tough to hear from an owner.

“I’m watching the games, I’m watching us lose by huge amounts and not playing hard. Then I watched the Boston game, and before the game starts, I know we’re going to lose. I knew I was going to lose to Dallas, and I thought we’d lose the game before that. Then we played Boston, and I was 100% sure we’d lose even when we were up, I knew we were going to lose…I didn’t watch the fourth quarter. First time I never watched a quarter of my team’s play, I knew we were going to lose. I don’t like to watch losing. It’s no fun losing.”

Zero. Fun. Sir. So what’s next next for the Rockets?  Alexander named assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff as Interim Head coach and announced that he would stay on for the remainder of this season before the Rockets topped the hot Blazers in overtime last night. A question Chicago fans may be asking – will we see Thibs barking at players from 3 feet in front of the Rockets bench next year?  My opinion?  Highly doubtful.  Thibs strict and demanding system with scripted offense is in sharp contrast to GM Daryl Morey’s poster boy status for analytics and progression.  I don’t see Thibs resting Dwight Howard and saving him for the playoffs, or dealing well with such poor defensive effort from the team’s star player.

No matter who is coaching this season or next, it’s pretty clear that there are issues beyond the head coach in Houston.  Whether it’s Dwight Howard’s leadership, James Harden’s effort, Ty Lawson’s fit, or the true effectiveness of analytics in the NBA, it was high time for some non-Clippers or Kings related drama, so bring it on.

About the author: Jamie Litoff. NBA Correspondent. Jamie is an Evanston native and devoted Bulls, Bears, Cubs and Michigan Wolverines fan. A Big Ten girl through and through, Jamie graduated from Michigan before finishing her Masters degree in Sports Administration at Northwestern last year. Passionate about the intersection of sports and technology, Jamie works in digital media and sponsorship at Intersport in Chicago. In her free time, you can find her repping the 300 level of the UC at Bulls games, eating wings at the Birds Nest, laying on a North Side beach or listening to podcasts. Follow her @jamielitoff on Twitter and Instagram.

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