Firing Kevin McHale was the Houston Rockets’ attempt to sound the fire alarm after a disastrous start to a season filled with expectations, but it really just comes across as a startling admission of defeat. After signing McHale to a three-year, $13 million contract extension in December of 2014, the franchise is dismissing its now ex-head coach less than one full year later. The only things that have changed are the expectations of the front office that believes it has a realistic chance to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the patience of an owner who wants to win right now.
During his tenure, McHale had to deal with constant roster change while trying to build continuity in the process. General Manager Daryl Morey’s penchant for wheeling and dealing backfired this offseason with the trade for Ty Lawson. Although the maligned point guard was brought in for pennies on the dollar, his arrival never made sense for a group that was ready to take off without him. James Harden dominates the ball, Dwight Howard still wants it too often and Houston was a better team with Patrick Beverley as a member of its starting five.
On top of being handed a flawed roster that is still going to be broken until it’s properly addressed, the Rockets have been ravaged by injuries to begin what turned out to be McHale’s final season in charge. Donatas Motiejunas, who emerged last season as a very critical part of Houston’s plans, remains without a timetable to get back on the floor following offseason back surgery. Fellow big man Terrence Jones, who has dealt with a litany of injury issues in his short career, has already been in and out of the lineup through the season’s first batch games. Beverley, who just recovered from a concussion, is currently sidelined with a sprained ankle. Howard (back, knees, rest) still isn’t cleared to play in back-to-back contests and first-round pick Sam Dekker is going to be sidelined indefinitely after he has his back surgery on Friday.
If the Rockets didn’t feel that McHale was capable of leading this club to its intended destination, why wait until now to make a move? Houston simply needed a scapegoat. Firing McHale is was the first sign of the Rockets sweating in a fiery situation that requires a cool approach. Houston definitely has a list of problems, but McHale’s ability to coach this team and lead the group wasn’t anywhere near the top.
I understand that someone has to be held responsible when expectations run awry and underperformance is a consistent theme, but it shouldn’t have been McHale. Falling on a sword that was laid at his feet by another before the real battle had begun, the veteran head coach never had a chance of coming out on top. That’s not being put in a position to succeed—that’s a clear setup for failure.
“We were starting to address some of the issues that were the reason I was let go,” McHale said. “We just weren’t playing with any juice, with any rhythm. We haven’t been able to get the problems solved.”
That’s what McHale told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle after the move, and what else was he supposed to say? He got all of 11 games to turn around a ship that departed into choppy waters without a destination and is now without a captain. This was never about McHale, who should have kept his job, but someone had to take the blame and Morey couldn’t fire his players. Playing in a Western Conference where Houston can’t afford to get buried, the Rockets will now have another challenge to try and overcome in setting aside this distraction while simultaneously adhering to the new voice—36-year-old J.B. Bickerstaff—in charge. You can’t magically heal Howard back to full health, make the Lawson-Harden pairing a better fit or prevent injuries from happening. A new head coach won’t change any of that. The tendencies of the players on the team aren’t changing, and neither are the sky-high expectations.
Houston’s giant problem was never about McHale, and until that’s realized, the heavily distorted picture of what the Rockets are supposed to look like is going to remain the same.