Kevin McHale is but one in the line of those questioned in Clutch City these days.
The Houston Rockets seem to have decided, for now, that coach McHale is still their guy. Thrown into the fire of championship expectations the moment Dwight Howard signed on to join James Harden last summer, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reports that Rockets management believes the coach deserves more time with this squad.
This despite a recent, painful first-round exit versus the Portland Trail Blazers.
That’s probably the right decision. Emotional and disappointed as the Rockets and their fans must be, a rational eye tells us that the season was not a failure.
General manager Daryl Morey said as much in a recent Q&A with the Houston Chronicle:
We continued growing as a team, getting more experience I felt the West this year, really anybody could win it. That makes it sting a little more. That said, we took a big leap forward. I think we can take a big step forward again next year and put ourselves in even better position and with a better team. Obviously, there is a lot of work for myself, for the players, for everybody, to win the West.
Morey even tweeted out optimism:
However, McHale’s time on the job is still finite and subject to improvement. If the Rockets don’t take the next step—or two—in the 2014-15 season, it might be time for Houston to make a change on the sidelines.
Just how much progress will be needed for McHale to stay put? How will we measure him?
It goes almost without saying that, for starters, he must push this team beyond the first round next year. If the end goal in Houston is a championship, significant progress can ultimately be measured only in terms of playoff advancement.
Bad luck, lack of on-court continuity and little postseason inexperience—the Rockets were the youngest team in these playoffs—compounded to create enough cause not to shake the team’s foundation.
This is especially true given the brutal nature of the Western Conference, in which the Phoenix Suns won 48 games but still missed the playoffs.
With that said, the Rockets’ talent base is simply too impressive for them to stagnate. McHale can probably still keep his job if the Rockets go as far as one extra round next season. That's the numerical answer to what he probably has to accomplish, but the team will also be judging him according to less quantified measures.
Most notably? His team’s style of play.
The most troubling feature of the Rockets’ first-round effort was easily their crunch-time offense. No number of heart-stopping Damian Lillard replays can hide the fact that, despite a lack of luck, Houston also gave playoff games away.
Red94’s Richard Li broke down a key issue:
After game 4 of the Houston Rockets vs Portland Trailblazers series, Daryl Morey remarked that he was not concerned because his team had essentially lost three out of four coin flips. Perhaps this was a general manager putting on a good face… Yes, the games were close. However, the games were not necessarily close for their entire durations. Their final scores disguise the fact that the Rockets held comfortable leads in most of the games, only to cough up those leads late in the games.
As was the case through the more trying stretches of the regular season, the Rockets offense failed to respond to the demands of half-court basketball when a desperate, aggressive defense forced them into it.
Pick-and-rolls gave way to isolation calls for Harden or Howard, and the Rockets became predictable and stale.
It’s hard to tell exactly why this happens. Harden and Howard may dislike the pick-and-roll—Howard does have something of a history denying the action.
Expected to take off as a roll man in the mold of Amar'e Stoudemire when he joined forces with Steve Nash and the Los Angeles Lakers, such a turn never came to fruition. Instead, Howard continued to rely on his only somewhat efficient moves in the post.
Harden’s isolation tendencies are extreme enough for both the naked and well-trained eye to see he’s got something like an addiction to over-dribbling his team into a savior-or-despair binary.
He plays hero ball, allowing the Rockets' fortune to rest on his ability to make difficult, cool-looking shots.
McHale has distinct challenges in wrangling both of his superstars on offense. The buck isn’t all on his lap for their struggles—and his team’s consistent late-game collapses—but a lot of it is.
He needs to get his whole roster playing better defense, too. Lillard's devastating game-winner wasn't the only time a coverage gaffe undid the Rockets—this was a problem throughout the series.
Harden's defensive woes are well-documented, but Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Terrence Jones have often been just as lackadaisical on that end.
When focus is consistently a problem with a talented team, it's a bad look for any head coach. If Houston doesn't clean up its blunders defending the perimeter—obvious to even the most casual of fans—in big games next season, McHale might have to clean out his desk.
The NBA is a player’s league, and on-court talent the likes of Houston’s is a privilege many head coaches would kill for.
If McHale can’t make this roster move more shrewdly and push into the postseason’s deeper regions, another coach surely will.