It took the Houston Rockets just 11 games to essentially tell head coach Kevin McHale, “It’s not us. It’s you.” After a disappointing 4-7 start, the club fired McHale and replaced the ex-Boston Celtics legend with assistant J.B. Bickerstaff, son of former NBA head coach Bernie Bickerstaff.
It was a pretty surprising turn of events for McHale, who was just seven months removed from coaching the team to a No. 2 seed and a trip to the Western Conference Finals. McHale also signed a three-year, $12 million extension with the franchise last December.
So, where did it all go wrong for McHale and the Rockets?
According to owner Leslie Alexander, the combination of the team’s lackluster effort and numerous blowout losses caused him to lose faith in McHale being the man to lead Houston to the promised land (via ESPN):
“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 percent sure we’d lose even when we were up, I knew we were going to lose. So, I’m watching the games, I know we’re not playing hard or good defense, not moving the ball well, it doesn’t look like a good team, we look very ragged and then when they got up on us in the fourth quarter when we were up by 15 or so — 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. At that point, a decision needs to be made here.”
General manager Daryl Morey seconded Alexander’s concerns, via the Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen:
Daryl Morey: "It’s not just losing. It’s not just 4-7. It’s the way we’re losing, by how much, by how the team is responding."
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) November 18, 2015
While the Rockets’ 16-point loss to the surprising Boston Celtics on Nov. 16 was the final straw, the writing had been on the wall for McHale’s eventual dismissal. After coming seven wins shy of an NBA championship last season, Houston started the 2015-16 campaign 0-3, losing all three games by a combined 60 points. The team’s past postseason struggles didn’t help McHale’s cause either. Two years ago, the Rockets were eliminated in the first round by a Portland Trail Blazers franchise that hadn’t made it to the second round since the start of the new millennium. Last season, the Rockets were able to overcome a litany of injuries to make it to the Western Conference Finals, but only after the Los Angeles Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead in the conference semifinals.
Injuries have been a factor this season, as well. Dwight Howard has been in and out of the starting lineup due to back problems. Terrence Jones missed five games earlier in the season. Patrick Beverley missed two games with a concussion before suffering an ankle injury shortly after his return. Meanwhile, forward Donatas Motiejunas has yet to make his 2015-16 debut due to his own back issues.
However, the Rockets’ struggles have less to do with who’s off the court and more to do with the lack of effort from the players on it. Defensively, the team is a train wreck despite having a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Howard and one of the game’s better perimeter defenders in Trevor Ariza. After finishing in the top 16 in defensive efficiency each of their first four seasons under McHale, Houston dropped to 26th in that category this year. Every opponent the Rockets have faced thus far have scored in the triple-digits, and only the New Orleans Pelicans are allowing more than the Rockets’ 108.1 points per game:
This clip below from the team’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks is a microcosm of the Rockets’ defensive “intensity” this season:
Unfortunately, the inability to get stops wasn’t Houston’s only problem under McHale. Offensively, the team struggled to find an identity. James Harden is second in the NBA in scoring (28.8 points per game), but he’s shooting just 37.3 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from three. The latter stat becomes even more disheartening when you consider he’s launching a ridiculous 9.8 treys per game. The only other player with double-digit attempts on a nightly basis is Stephen Curry (11.3), who’s arguably the greatest three-point shooter ever and is converting 45.3 percent of his triples this season.
Additionally, the Ty Lawson experiment is getting off to a rocky start. The former Denver Nuggets star is contributing just 8.3 points and 5.3 assists per game despite playing the third-most minutes on the team. In the 419 minutes Lawson’s been on the court this season, Houston has an offensive rating of 95.9, sixth-worst of any Rockets player. The Rockets are also allowing 106.1 points per 100 possessions with Lawson on the floor.
Making matters worse, the team has a defensive rating of 107 when Harden plays. Together, these two were supposed to form one of the best backcourts in basketball. Instead, Lawson is posting a player efficiency rating (PER) of 7.52, which ranks 292nd in the league and is lower than the likes of Raul Neto, Austin Rivers and Emmanuel Mudiay (who replaced Lawson in Denver).
The poor play at both ends as well as the team’s inability to beat even the most inferior of teams led to a players-only meeting earlier this week. While guys like Harden and Lawson claim the sit-down was beneficial, McHale never got to reap any of the rewards as he was fired a day later. In a bit of irony, McHale was blamed for losing a roster that shuffled constantly under Morey.
Hours after McHale’s exile, the team needed a circus shot from Corey Brewer and overtime to beat a 4-9 Blazers team. The win snapped a four-game losing streak and gave Bickerstaff his first W as a head coach, but it didn’t do much to quell the concerns that could plague the Rockets all season.
While McHale may eventually land back on his feet in his old stomping grounds, the tagline for his tenure in Houston will be that a team with championship aspirations gave up on him just weeks into a new season.