Houston's firing of coach Kevin McHale was a quick move, but not a rash one.
Make no mistake, it's surprising that McHale is the first NBA coach to be dumped this season. Earlier this month, oddsmaking service Bovada released a list of the most likely coaches to get the axe and McHale wasn’t one of the top eight candidate. Why? Because the Hall of Famer is just one season removed from fighting off “hot seat” talk to earn a multi-year contract extension as he guided the Rockets to the West finals and placed sixth in the 2015 Coach of the Year voting.
To qualify as a rash firing, though, this move would need to be an emotional response, or one based on shaky logic. A quick rundown of the central questions facing any NBA coach makes it clear that the Rockets had their reasons—good reasons—to move forward.
• MORE NBA: Rockets' effort issues lead to McHale's firing
1. Was Houston living up to expectations?
Unequivocally no. The 4–7 Rockets have actually been worse than their record, posting a -7.7 point differential that’s the fourth-worst mark in the league. Houston lost three games by 20+ points and 14 games by double digits during the entire 2014–15 season; this season, Houston lost three games by 20+ points in its first three games (!) and has already suffered five double-digit defeats. Here’s all that really needs to be said: the Rockets’ point differential is worse than the Lakers’.
When GM Daryl Morey told reporters Wednesday that how the Rockets were losing influenced his decision more than just the team’s record, this is what he meant. Houston arguably overachieved by winning 56 games last year (their point differential had them closer to a 50-win team) and sneaking into the conference finals (the Clippers certainly helped their cause), but this year’s group bears little resemblance to that squad, even though the vast majority of the rotation returned.
Is it possible that the Rockets aren’t as good as their management thinks they should be? Certainly, but they should be way better than this. The most important defining qualities of the 2014–15 Rockets—MVP-level play from James Harden, superior and selfless defense, pluckiness in the face of injury adversity—have all been absent this season. League-wide, the only team that can fight the Rockets for the title of “biggest disappointment” has been the 1–10 Pelicans, however they entered the season with a new coach in Alvin Gentry and without serious thoughts of contention.
2. Was Houston playing with consistent effort?
No. There are signs of slippage everywhere. Most notably, Houston’s defense regressed from No. 6 last season to No. 29 this season, with the Rockets ranking among the league’s worst teams in rebounding, protecting the rim and transition defense.
While the inconsistent presence of Dwight Howard certainly made McHale’s life more difficult, the Rockets dealt with that all of last season. In 2014–15, the Rockets posted a 102 defensive rating without Howard. This year, that’s slipped to 106.7.
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What’s more, Houston has been getting lit up by everybody: below-average offenses like Denver, Brooklyn and Boston have all managed 105+ points and double-digits victories at the Toyota Center. The tape (check here and here) doesn’t lie.
McHale was pushing the “effort” button hard in his recent statements, and the Rockets themselves were fairly open about their need to play harder before they ominously called a players-only meeting earlier this week.
The offense has been pretty lazy, too. Houston has regressed from the No. 12 offense last season to No. 24 this season, as Harden has been both unwilling to share the load and unable to perform as efficiently last season. What should be a fast, fun and relentless attack has too often been deflated by Harden’s individual play and forced shots. The Rockets rank second in three-point attempts but 29th in three-point percentage, a clear sign of fat in their collective shooting diet.
3. Was Houston's best player finding success?
No. This should go without saying: if Harden has been playing like an MVP—or even a “Players’ Choice MVP”—candidate, McHale would still have his job. Unfortunately, 2015–16 Harden has been a major step backwards from last year’s model. He’s shooting just 37.2% on 20.3 shots per game, he’s shooting just 26.2% while jacking more than nine threes per game, his usage rate is at a career-high 33.2, Houston’s defensive rating is nearly eight points better when he’s off the court, and his Player Efficiency Rating has dropped by more than five points from last year.
From the outside, Harden has looked like a player who has settled for something short of pushing himself towards consistent greatness. He faces a dilemma familiar to many star players: he’s the best player on his team, his teammates are often incapable of making plays that he can make, and he’s being asked to walk a fine line between doing it all and doing too much. When adversity hits, it’s common for stars to bemoan their lack of support, publicly or privately. After spending months campaigning for himself as the game’s best player, Harden needs to be past such finger-pointing. McHale’s departure should serve as a wake-up call that it’s “look in the mirror and lead” time.
4. Was Houston's most important acquisition fitting in well?
No. Sometimes a slow start for a good team can be attributed to the gradual integration of new pieces. For McHale, the biggest preseason challenge was finding the right fit for Ty Lawson, who arrived in Houston from Denver after an offseason trade. As SI.com noted before the season started, this was a boom-or-bust scenario given Lawson’s off-court issues: he could either emerge as a Harden complement and a key driver in Houston’s electric offense, or he could struggle to find a fit given that he and Harden share a ball-dominant, offense-first profile.
The Harden/Lawson partnership just hasn’t worked out of the gate. Too often, Lawson rots off the ball as Harden does his thing. Too often, their pairing hasn’t set the right tone—or any tone—while defending the point of attack. Together, the Harden/Lawson duo has posted a -9.4 net in 304 minutes, vastly underperforming on offense (98.6 rating) while playing demoralizingly bad defense (108 rating). All of last year’s combinations were better: Harden/Patrick Beverley enjoyed a +3 net rating, Harden/James Terry posted a +6.8, Harden/Isaiah Canaan was +12.7 and Harden/Pablo Prigioni was -0.6.
McHale shouldn’t bear all the blame for these hiccups out of the gate—both Harden and Lawson are capable of playing better—but he also couldn’t point to the handling of Lawson as a reason for patience. The old “These guys are figuring it out, give it some time” spiel was particularly hard to swallow after the Rockets’ four-game losing streak.
5. Did Houston have time to work through these issues?
Yes, but not all that much. Morey directly addressed the ticking clock faced by the Rockets on Wednesday. At 4–7, they’re still in the mix in a Western Conference with a glut of teams hovering around .500. But this is a team with home-court aspirations, and that door can slam shut quickly given the quality at the top of the West. The vast swings in quality of play—a win over the Clippers and then a loss to the Nets, 46 points from Harden one night and 8-for-22 shooting the next—combined with the public grumblings from both coach and player gave management every reason to act proactively.
The message emanating from the locker room seemed to be, “We’re ready for a new voice.” Although it’s a surprising development, given how the Rockets went to the wall for McHale last year, the “overachieving through trials and tribulations” approach has a shelf life. How many times can the same group be expected to gut out victories through unexpected contributions and one player’s late-game heroics before the sustainability of that approach comes into question?
Houston will look to inject a little life with interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, hoping that he can inspire the Rockets to regain their form defensively and that he can facilitate a renewal of effort from Harden. The change is worth a shot and now was as good a time as any.
McHale is an affable, straight-talking, title-winning basketball lifer who oversaw the Rockets’ steep rise in recent years. This season, though, he had no answers for the most important questions facing a coach: his team was struggling, its effort was lagging, its superstar was dragging, its shiny new toy wasn’t unboxed and its margin for error was shrinking with every loss. His dismissal was therefore justified, regardless of how Bickerstaff fares down the stretch.