The Houston Rockets wear their dismay on their sleeve. Just a few months—and 11 regular-season games—removed from their impressive trip to the Western Conference finals, the Rockets have fired head coach Kevin McHale. The reasoning behind McHale's three-year extension last December had apparently grown stale in the eyes of the front office. Inexplicably poor effort from a team in a 4–7 start will do that.
Already the Rockets had lost twice to the Nuggets (once by 20 points in their season opener), given away a game to a Mavs team missing its three best players, dropped one to the then-winless Nets, and lost just this week after trailing the Celtics by 29 in the fourth quarter. Their once-explosive offense now ranks No. 24 in points per possession while their once-swarming defense now ranks No. 29. A coach is, by the definition of their role, accountable for that performance.
Which isn't at all to say that McHale is the primary party at fault for Houston's yawning play thus far. Some will undoubtedly see McHale's firing as an assignment of blame. The reality is far more pragmatic. The Rockets, for as much as they respect McHale, see his position as a point of immediate leverage under desperate circumstances. Assistant J.B. Bickerstaff will succeed McHale on an interim basis to keep the messaging relatively consistent while changing the mode of delivery. Sometimes that alone can be enough to get a talented team back on track.
McHale was never an elite tactician, but he had done well by earning his team's commitment. He convinced players who might never see the ball to sprint the floor and defend hard. He pulled decent defense out of James Harden last season, which seems more impressive by the day. He plugged and played the right players in the right style to survive Dwight Howard's various injuries, Patrick Beverley's torn wrist ligament, and a constantly shifting power forward rotation. The moment he lost that commitment—the glue that kept the Rockets together last season—was likely the moment he lost his job.
It would be difficult to go through the film of Houston's season and see anything other than a team folding on its coach. Ty Lawson confessed openly that the Rockets would hear McHale's defensive calls and ignore them. The stupor of the players on the court ran even deeper, though, infecting every stage of execution on both sides of the ball. Their apathy has been uncompromising. No team in the league so desperately needs a kick in the rear as these Rockets, who have yet to form a lasting response to their reels of embarrassing losses.
McHale ripped into his team but couldn't reach them. There was always something overwhelming about the Rockets at their best—a feeding frenzy of forced turnovers and sprinting scores. None of that is possible without the constant hum of energy. Houston had a wealth of length, talent, and athleticism and still they dropped seven of their first 11 games. Regardless of their coach, the Rockets need to play as if these games and possessions matter. There can be no redemption for them without urgency.
Whether they find that urgency under Bickerstaff is a big question—bigger than any of the strategic issues which could be laid at McHale's feet. In terms of tactics, Bickerstaff is a smart fit. His adjustments to the defense elevated Houston from playoff participant to realistic contender last season and none are better prepared to hold the Rockets to those same standards. McHale, though, was the leading voice of that coaching staff and lost this collection of players all the same. It's on Bickerstaff, in his first stint as a head coach, to find new ways to harp on the same problems.
He should be helped in time by the team's better health. Houston has a deeper roster than most, but thus far has lost Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley for four games apiece to injury, Terrence Jones for five games, and Donatas Motiejunas for all 11. The situation is as such that Marcus Thornton has been starting in place of a proper power forward at times, scrambling the Rockets' matchup dynamics in the process. Getting back healthy bodies will give Houston the flexibility it needs to thrive, provided the players buy into the prospect of saving their season.
That process starts now. McHale's firing should be jarring to a group of players that has become so disconnected from the source of its success. Then again, one would think the virtues of working hard and executing a game plan would already be self-evident to a team of this standing. Contention is demanding. Those that answer its calls give themselves a chance at the title. Those that don't get their coaches fired.