James Harden Relationship Top Priority for Next Rockets Coach

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There seemed to be as little friction as possible between Mike D'Antoni and James Harden in their four seasons together, and there's little question as to why. 

D'Antoni consistently heaped praise on Harden–often classifying him as the greatest scorer of all-time–and the Rockets' offense often resembled a one-man band. Harden was allowed to take the era of isolation to unseen heights, racking up three scoring titles in the process. It's hard to imagine a coach empowering Harden to a greater degree than D'Antoni. 

"Of course. Of course," Harden said last week when asked if he wants D'Antoni to return. "Mike has done some unbelievable things here."

Houston's head coach was certainly rewarded for his faith in Harden. The Rockets reached the playoffs in four straight years with D'Antoni, looking like legitimate championship contenders in stretches for each of the last three years. Harden and the Rockets were one win away from the Finals in 2018. They sat tied 2–2 with the Warriors in the 2019 playoffs, and this season featured a 1–0 lead on the Lakers before Houston lost its way. D'Antoni and Harden formed quite an effective partnership, even in (at times) adverse conditions. There's no guarantee the next Houston coach can replicate that success.

D'Antoni may have been the one to announce his break-up with the Rockets, but owner Tilman Fertitta certainly played a significant role. Contract extension negotiations between Houston and D'Antoni ended without a deal in May 2019, and the Rockets never appeared willing to commit to D'Antoni beyond 2020 despite a period of sustained success. That uncertainty led D'Antoni to seek greener pastures, even if it meant leaving the 2017-18 MVP. 

Perhaps Fertitta will rue the day he let D'Antoni go, but it's unlikely the Rockets owner currently feels that way as Houston kicks off its coaching search. A potential splash hire could be on the horizon, and Fertitta should have no shortage of candidates eyeing the job. Houston's sheer talent likely makes it the most appealing destination on the market. 

So what should Fertitta look for in a new coach? A strong relationship with Harden remains a top priority. D'Antoni is one of the great offensive minds of his time, and he was flexible enough to welcome Houston's small-ball experiment. But that's not the driving force behind D'Antoni's success. The trust and development of Harden led Houston to Finals contention. D'Antoni effectively ushered in the Chris Paul era, and he molded Russell Westbrook into a more effective player for long stretches of the season. D'Antoni's successor will need to continue the work of his predecessor in managing Houston's superstars.

Let's sift through some potential candidates. Houston appears to be considering the former player route, and both Tyronn Lue and Sam Cassell have been noted as potential candidates. Each of the Clippers' assistants could bring instant credibility. Cassell launched his career with the Rockets' title teams in 1994 and 1995, and he's been a fixture in the NBA for over two decades. Lue won the 2016 Finals with Cleveland, effectively managing a rocky partnership between LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Lue could do the same with Houston's pair of superstars.

Cassell and Lue are far from the only candidates, and Houston projects to cast a wide net. Perhaps Kenny Atkinson could return to the Rockets–though he seems more suited for a younger team–and current Lakers assistant Jason Kidd may also be a candidate. Current assistants Stephen Silas and Ime Udoka are worth keeping an eye on, and then there's Jeff Van Gundy, whose potential return to Houston has been noted for multiple years. 

Each candidate brings his own style, both schematically and managerially. But it's unlikely the Rockets reverse course on the small-ball era as long as Daryl Morey is in charge. Houston's personnel is locked in, and its style is largely ingrained. Getting the most out of Harden is the top task of whomever Fertitta hires to replace D'Antoni.