On Sunday, ESPN reported that head coach Mike D’Antoni had informed the Houston Rockets that he did not intend to return to to the team. It was just hours after the team had been eliminated from the 2019-2020 postseason in a disappointing five-game series against the Los Angeles Lakers.
In his stint with Houston, D’Antoni was again eluded of the title that would have cemented his place as one of the great minds in modern basketball history. The pioneer of some of the foundational principals in today’s game, D’Antoni lifted the Rockets to true contention and helped unlock guard James Harden into one of the most dangerous offensive players the league has ever seen.
In four seasons under D’Antoni, the Rockets never had less than a .600 winning percentage. In his inaugural season in 2016-2017, Houston went 55-27, just a season after finishing 41-41. The Rockets then improved to 65-17 the following year in 2017-2018 pushing the eventual champion Golden State Warriors to the brink of elimination in the Western Conference Finals. Under D’Antoni, the Rockets lost three times in the semifinals and once in the conference finals.
During the four years, the Rockets finished second, first, second, and sixth in offensive rating, powered by a system centered around the brilliance of Harden and a philosophy predicated upon a high volume of three-point attempts.
D’Antoni’s crowning achievement in Houston, however, may have been the impact he had in unlocking Harden, putting the ball directly in the guard’s hands from the start of the 2016-2017 season when others scoffed at the notion. Harden averaged 29.1 points per game that year at point guard, but his assists per game ballooned up to a league-leading 11.2. Over the next three years, Harden averaged 33.7 points and 7.9 assists per game.
2019-2020 was the full realization of D’Antoni’s basketball philosophy as the team traded center Clint Capela to open up driving lanes and space the floor for guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook responded by playing the most efficient basketball of his career, averaging 33.4 points per game on 54.9% shooting during the month of February. But a quad strain severely hindered Westbrook in the postseason, and “smallball” unraveled, culminating in an early ouster at the hands of the Lakers. One wonders how things may have transpired had Westbrook been at full health but history will surely remember the outcome as an indictment upon the doctrine.
If returning to Philadelphia, D’Antoni would find himself in a similar situation as Houston with Ben Simmons’ inability as a guard to shoot from the perimeter except that he would have one of the game’s sole elite interior threats in Joel Embid.
D’Antoni spent two seasons in Denver, six in Phoenix, four with New York, two with the Lakers, and then finally four seasons in Houston. A title with the Rockets would have closed the book on his career started in Phoenix and allowed him to come full circle. Alas, it did not happen and now the two parties are going their separate ways.