Cato Cataldo/Getty Images
Since when does predicting a head coach will keep his job qualify as bold? Since Tilman Fertitta bought an NBA team.
Mike D’Antoni is in the final year of his contract, and his return to the Houston Rockets has, for the most part, seemed as if it hinged on the team winning a title. As The Athletic’s Shams Charania wrote in late December:
Barring a Rockets championship that could spark a kumbaya healing of sorts and inspire Fertitta to open his wallet to meet that sort of moment, a source with direct knowledge of these dynamics expressed serious skepticism that D’Antoni would return after this season. To be more precise, the chances—per the source —are currently seen as ‘slim.’ This shouldn’t surprise anyone considering the context here.
To review, D’Antoni wanted an extension last summer but didn’t come to terms with the Rockets and is now in the last year of his contract. Fertitta, in turn, said his agent, Warren LeGarie, did the Rockets a favor by turning down their offer and that ‘I hope we win a championship and Mike comes and puts a gun to my head.'”
Do not spin this as a “The Rockets are going to win the title!” declaration. It is instead a bet that Houston doesn’t flame out in the first round, and that D’Antoni and the organization find common ground even if the season doesn’t end with a banner.
Microball is at the heart of this gut feeling. The Rockets are 10-3, with a top-three offense and top-eight defense, since PJ Tucker became the starting center. Lineups featuring him at the 5 are straight killing opponents, and they’re even more effective—especially on defense—with Robert Covington as his frontcourt cohort.
Playing small in the postseason could be a different beast. Both the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers are capable of exploiting Houston’s dearth of size, while teams like the Los Angeles Clippers (Marcus Morris at center) and Oklahoma City Thunder (Danilo Gallinari at the 5) are suited to rival it.
Regardless, in every potential matchup, the Rockets will force opponents to make identifying decisions. They’ll have to choose between staying big (or biggish) or going small enough to compete with Houston’s versatility.
Win or lose, the Rockets, in most instances, will have dictated the rules of engagement. That far from guarantees a championship, but barring an early-round implosion, the returns so far warrant further exploration. Russell Westbrook‘s uptick in efficiency alone is enough to mandate Houston give this style more than a partial season to marinate.
No coach is better suited to guide the Rockets through this experiment than D’Antoni. He is the pioneer of small ball, and downsizing even further has been his dream since his Phoenix Suns days. Fences will need to be mended, and Fertitta must warm up to the idea of shelling out a multiyear contract D’Antoni might not finish, but this marriage is quickly becoming one of necessity, even if only temporarily.