On Tuesday November 17, the Houston Rockets relieved Kevin McHale of his coaching duties, after a slow 4-7 start to the 2015-2016 season. The move came as a surprise. Coming off a 54-28 season, McHale got a contract extension in December of 2014. Then, the Rockets went 56-26 and reached the Western Conference finals, where their series against the NBA champion Warriors was competitive on a game in, game out basis despite the 4-1 score.
In one sense, the move served as a reminder that in an era where some fans are so quick to group team as believers in analytics, nonbelievers, or something between, that when push comes to shove, all organizations, at both ends of the spectrum, can act from the same impulsive places (as human impulsiveness is often unrelated to analytics). The McHale firing is certainly not a referendum on the alleged flaws of analytics (did you watch the NBA finals?). In fact, it was the opposite. It showed that when push comes to shove, all organizations are run by people, and people sometimes make self interested decisions based upon preserving their own self image, by scapegoating others for their problems.
The Rockets went 56-26 last year. Expectations were and are high, internally and externally. The Rockets marketed the upcoming season as one to watch. And they fell flat early. They could have worked through their problems; could have taken a close look at the roster, their core players, and what is going wrong. But self reflection is hard. The easy alternative: blame McHale for their slow start and avoid questions about problems with the roster, poor leadership, and bad locker room attitudes.
In short, as the saying goes, you can’t fire the players, so you fire the coach. The McHale firing was truly that simple.
It’s ironic how the perception of McHale has changed so quickly. Houston had the sixth best defense in the league last year. When down 3-1 to the superior looking Los Angeles Clippers, McHale made dramatic lineup changes to turn the tides. Harden blossomed under him as an individual player, as did Patrick Beverley, Donatas Montejiunas, and Terrence Jones. Dwight Howard also played better under McHale than he did in Los Angeles. Where were all the complaints about McHale last year?
The problems in Houston run way deeper than McHale. And the concern with firing him so quickly is that the Rockets, in blaming most everything on McHale, may be avoiding the real issues they have (and, sitting at 1-3 since the firing, it is not as though the tide has turned).
Reports surfaced from USA Today shortly after the firing that Harden is aloof, and distant from his teammates. Is that McHale’s fault, or is that just the way Harden is? Harden and Dwight are certainly talented, but the Rockets have significant leadership issues with that core, and it remains an issue. Harden being criticized for his lack of leadership is a bad sign, and while much Dwight criticism since he left Orlando is unfair, he is not in the class of LeBron, Kobe several years ago, or some of the game’s other great leaders, even taking the most optimistic view of his career. In looking at the Warriors, Cavs, Spurs, Bulls (in Noah), Thunder, and other elite teams, you can make the case the Rockets have worse leadership than all of their contending counterparts.
For all the talk of Harden and Lawson having to learn how to play together, Harden is third in the league with a 34.1% usage rate, while Lawson is 219th in the NBA at 15.8% and behind players like Adreian Payne and Festus Ezeli — low usage bigs. It appears that in Harden and Lawson learning how to play together and adjusting their games, Lawson is the one doing all the adjusting.
That raises a bigger concern with Harden’s leadership — it appears that devaluing the contributions of supporting players is a big part of Harden’s M.O.
When Chandler Parsons left Houston, Harden used that as an opportunity to take shots at his teammates, beyond just Parsons, and essentially stated that anyone on the roster besides him and Dwight is just an interchangeable role player, whom the Rockets may plug in and out at will. How does Harden think that makes his teammates feel: that the team does not get better or worse with changes in the three players surrounding himself and Dwight? In this era of short contracts and high player movement, why would anyone run through a wall for Harden, instead of playing selfishly, to boost their own future payday? Why would anyone defend for Harden — whose defense is so bad that it’s a running gag at this point.
Harden’s comments make his role playing teammates saving his season last year when McHale benched him in the Clippers series comeback all too ironic.
The Rockets have devolved into a bottom six defense thus far this year, and bottom seven since McHale was fired. That’s McHale’s fault? Owner Leslie Alexander noticed what we all did, that the players haven’t been giving any effort. Is that McHale’s fault. Some would say it is, that coaches should inspire players to play hard, but that is a problem. When push comes to shove, no athlete will succeed unless the athlete is self motivated, and wants it. Nobody has to tell Michael Jordan or LeBron James to want to be good, to want to see their teams win. They just want it. Rockets players not giving full effort is not McHale’s fault. It’s on the players for not wanting the games more. McHale can lead a horse to water, but can’t make it drink.
With all this, it’s no wonder one opposing GM is not surprised McHale got the axe, as Sam Amico reported:
Opposing NBA GM: "A team with James Harden and Dwight Howard as the stars had to fire the coach? Gee, shocking."
— Sam Amico (@AmicoHoops) November 18, 2015
None of this is meant to say that a coach is never at fault for a team’s struggles. The Warriors were average offensively under Mark Jackson, and became a juggernaut upon firing him, hiring Steve Kerr, and replacing an isolation heavy offense with a free flowing system that maximized the roster. Surely, Steve Kerr is a better coach than Jackson, who can be blamed for holding the offense back. A coach can be blamed for installing a poor system, because that is his job as a coach. But, blaming a coach for player effort? A lack of effort falls squarely on the players.
There still is hope for the Rockets. They’re clear an extremely talented group, and are better on paper than their record. The season is young. And J.B. Bickerstaff may very well become a great coach.
But if the Rockets truly believe McHale is the root of all of their problems, they have another thing coming.