It was just a few months ago when the Rockets were playing in the Western Conference finals, hoping for a shot at a title. James Harden was playing like one of the best in the league. The Rockets were poised to make a couple key offseason additions and be right back in the mix.
Fast forward to mid November, and the Rockets have been pathetic, going 4-7 with multiple blowout losses. The dreaded “players only” meeting followed.
And right after that, Kevin McHale is out of a job.
The Rockets fired McHale on Wednesday, turning the team over to the highly regarded J.B. Bickerstaff on an interim basis.
The timing of the McHale move is odd: Just 11 games into a season for a team barely removed from contending for a title. But it was clear McHale had lost the locker room to a group of unmotivated and at times downright lazy players. Someone had to take responsibility — and the blame.
McHale was never a great Xs and Os coach, but he found success by being one the players respected. Until they didn’t, and everything fell apart quickly.
That it comes on the heels of the players only meeting smacks of the players forcing the issue. That speaks to the character (or lack thereof) of some of the key components on the team, most notably Harden, who has been off to a terrible start. It also says a lot about the organization, none of it good. McHale was never a great coach, but behind-the-scenes wrangling and discord is no way to do business.
The Rockets hop Bickerstaff can change that. Reports indicate he will get a chance to earn the job. If not, there are some big names lurking. Former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy still resides in the city. Ex Rockets assistant Tom Thibodeau could also be in the mix. But those are names that will be in the hunt next year. If Bickerstaff can’t turn things around and the season spirals out of control, expect even more speculation.
The move is strange for the Rockets, because it is something they simply don’t do. But if the players were out on McHale, it was the only thing they could do. But much like changing quarterbacks in the NFL, this is a last resort move for the Rockets. If it works, they could salvage the season. If not? Where do you go next? The problem with that is no one has an answer.
If it seems like a panic move, it’s because it is a panic move. The Rockets of all the Houston teams have been by far the most stable, so it is completely out of character. It also points to potentially deeper issues and dysfunction.
At the center of it all may be Harden, who spent his offseason getting a massive contract from Adidas and and living the paparazzi life with Khloe Kardashian. He hasn’t looked like the same player, either physically or mentally. There are still big nights, but he has been inconsistent. The team around him has followed suit. McHale was unable to get them to perform, and it cost him his position.
Was it the right move? Only time will tell. Firing a coach only works if the next guy does a better job. If not? Then the ensuing collapse will lead to even bigger moves next season. The Rockets have not had a coach depart in-season since 1992, when Don Chaney resigned and was replaced by Rudy Tomjanovich. Owner Les Alexander just does not do things like that. So for it to happen now, things had to be worse than they appeared on the surface, and even worse than what we are seeing on the court.
It shows either panic or a sense of urgency. Maybe both. It certainly screams desperation. Regardless, how the Rockets respond will say a lot about the players, McHale, Bickerstaff and the organization in general. As of right now, they all look lost and incompetent.
And all so soon after one of the best Rockets seasons in years.