It’s April 1st and the Rockets currently sit at 51-24, good for third in the Western Conference (and overall). The Rockets have all but secured the 3-seed and home court advantage in the first round. But how did they get there?
Prior to the season, the general consensus was that the Rockets would struggle to finish with a .500 or better record, and likely could miss the playoffs altogether. The pairing of James Harden and newly appointed head coach Mike D’Antoni was met with “Hm, interesting.” and not “Wow, that’s really a great move.”
The skepticism wasn’t unreasonable. D’Antoni had coached 2 ball-dominant players prior in Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, both ended with D’Antoni resigning from his duties. Both tarnished the legacy he had made in Phoenix. Nevertheless, the Rockets have found great success under the head coach formerly known as Pringles, and D’Antoni is a favorable, if not leading, candidate for Coach of the Year. Here’s his case:
Generally speaking, the bar for Coach of the Year is set at 50 wins, as 14 of the last 15 winners have reached that mark. It may be that 50 wins is a nice, round number that looks good, and it may be that 50 wins typically means you are a top 4 seed and have home court advantage. Either way, this one’s in the books for the Rockets.
Next, previous winners seem to be coaching teams that exceed expectations or do something out of the ordinary. The Rockets were projected by most media outlets to win about 41 games. In fact, “Vegas” set the over-under at 41.5, which is the equivalent of a coin flip. Guys like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Nene were seen as marginal players were brought into the team that just lost Dwight Howard. There were questions about Clint Capela being a full time center, and the biggest question of all was “Can James Harden get along with Mike D’Antoni?”
This far into the season, the answer to that question is a definitive yes. The chemistry that the two share is something that’s not often found. At one point, Harden even called his head coach his “best friend”. Not only has their chemistry been great, the on-court product is showing it. The Rockets currently have the 2nd highest offensive rating in the NBA, and they’re hovering around the middle of the pack in defensive rating at 17th. Under D’Antoni, James Harden became the first player in NBA history to score 2,000 points while also assisting for 2,000 points. The coach has unlocked a new level of James Harden’s game and the result is The Bearded One being a frontrunner for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award.
Beyond that, the team has shown an absolute turnaround in attitude from a season ago. There are no heads hanging after a missed shot. There are no players quitting when the team is down. As a matter of fact, several team members have said that the biggest thing they’ve taken from D’Antoni is to shoot your shot, and if you miss it, shoot it the next time it comes to you. The coach’s calm, cool, collected temperament acts as a buoy in the water, keeping the team always afloat. He’s the type of coach that a superstar like James Harden needs and he has the Rockets far exceeding any expectations for the team.
If none of that is enough, the Rockets are revolutionizing the way basketball is played. This isn’t the first time D’Antoni has done this. His Suns are the reason basketball is played at the pace it currently is. His Rockets are doing things that have never been done. They’re attempting more 3-point field goals than any team in history, and they’re making them. The Rockets recently broke the record for most 3-pointers in a season, with a handful of games to go. They are taking nearly seven more 3-point attempts than the next highest team, and they’re connecting on more than 14 per game.
One might posit that the Rockets don’t have an interior game based on these stats, but the Rockets actually rank 2nd in field-goal percentage from inside the arc. They aren’t taking a ton of shots there, but they’re making them.
You could realistically give San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich the award every year. He’s coached a team that lost potentially the greatest power forward of all time in Tim Duncan to what will be another 60-win season. But has he really exceeded expectations? He’s got continuity within his roster, a superstar of his own, and a supporting cast that is tailored to his coaching skill set. Pop is the 10-year old server that’s still running Windows 98 in a closet somewhere that never goes down or gives you any trouble.
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has turned around his team after an 11-30 start. The team now sits at 37-39, and the seventh seed in the playoffs. But there hasn’t been a Coach of the Year winner since 1966 that finished under .500, and since 1980, only two winners coached their team to less than 45 wins. Yes, the HEAT have exceeded early season expectations and have been a great story, but history would suggest that the coach down in South Beach will not be taking home the award.
What seems to be D’Antoni’s biggest competition comes from the District of Columbia. Brooks had a rocky start with the Wizards, who were 7-13 in their first 20 games, but has his team playing some of the best basketball in the league right now. He’s made John Wall even better, created a budding star in Otto Porter, and has his team on track for a potential 50-win season.
Why D’Antoni over the field?
The Rockets have the combination of wins, the story, and exceeding expectations. Mike D’Antoni came into a situation that could have been volatile and made it stunning. The Rockets have one of the best offenses in NBA history and they’re doing it in a revolutionary way. Mike D’Antoni has reinvented the wheel, again. Many NBA minds believe the Rockets are one of the only teams capable of knocking the Warriors off in the playoffs, which speaks to the level of play that D’Antoni has the Rockets playing at.
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