Biggest questions facing Rockets this offseason: Who replaces Mike D’Antoni? One last chance for Daryl Morey?

For the Houston Rockets, the 2019-20 campaign didn’t end as they had hoped. After trading for Russell Westbrook, the Rockets entered the season with title aspirations, but they only made it to the Western Conference semifinals before they were eliminated in five games by the Los Angeles Lakers. Now, after a disappointing season, the Rockets could be poised to make some major changes. 

The first major move was made shortly after the season came to a close, when the Rockets and coach Mike D’Antoni parted ways. D’Antoni’s contract expired after the season, and the two sides didn’t come to an agreement on an extension. D’Antoni was with the Rockets for four seasons, and he had them two wins away from an NBA Finals appearance in 2018, but ultimately he couldn’t get the team over the top. The Rockets are now in the midst of a search for a new coach, led by general manager Daryl Morey, whose job is safe, for now. 

Who they will select as D’Antoni’s successor is just one of the many questions looming large over the Rockets this offseason. Here’s a look at a few of the most pressing. 

1. Who will be Houston’s next coach? 

For the first time since 2016, the Rockets are in the market for a new head coach, and whoever they ultimately select will face extremely high expectations immediately. D’Antoni led the Rockets to the Western Conference semifinals three times, and to the conference finals in ’18, and whoever succeeds him will be expected to surpass that. In other words, an NBA Finals berth will be expected. That’s a lot of pressure, and it leads one to believe that the Rockets will likely look for a coach with NBA experience — especially postseason experience — as opposed to a college coach or a career assistant. There’s no shortage of solid options for the Rockets to consider, and the front office will likely take its time when it comes to selecting D’Antoni’s successor as the magnitude of the decision can’t be overstated. Whoever is selected will be tasked with setting the tone for a whole new era of Rockets basketball, and leading them somewhere they haven’t been since 1995: the NBA Finals. 

2. Is the extreme small ball experiment over? 

The extreme small-ball style employed by the Rockets throughout the regular season and playoffs was D’Antoni’s pet system. Houston doubled down on this system in February when it traded away Clint Capela and began to use Robert Covington and PJ Tucker at center. One would assume that this style would be out with D’Antoni, but the team is built so specifically as currently constructed that it would take some major moves to build a better-balanced roster. Given the roster they inherit, perhaps Houston’s next coach will keep at least some aspects of the small-ball style, especially if James Harden and Russell Westbrook remain the team’s two main pieces. This leads us to the next question: 

3. Could they look to trade Harden or Westbrook? 

After a season that saw them fall well short of expectations, could the Rockets look to trade one of their two superstars? Houston has shown a willingness to make major moves in the past, as the organization traded for Chris Paul in 2017 only to flip him for Westbrook two years later. Speaking of Westbrook, he would probably be the more likely candidate if the Rockets were actually going to trade one of their stars. He proved to be a questionable fit next to Harden, as he doesn’t provide the consistent floor spacing to be an ideal complement to Harden. Running mate-wise, Harden would fit better with a big man capable of spacing the floor so that the two could run a lot of pick-and-roll. Though he may have lost half a step, Westbrook is still one of the league’s most explosive players, and he has a lot of good basketball left in his tank. Thus, the Rockets could probably get a decent return in a trade. At the very least they should due their due diligence and listen to offers. 

And what about Harden? He’s been in Houston since 2012 and he’s never been able to lead the team to the Finals. Maybe the front office will decide that it’s finally time to move on. His value would still be extremely high league-wide. At least one league executive thinks a potential Harden trade should be on the table for Houston. In reality, the Rockets probably won’t trade one of the best players in franchise history, as players of his ilk don’t come around often. But again, there’s nothing wrong with at least listening to offers. 

4. One last chance for Morey? 

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta hasn’t hidden his desire to win — and to win quickly, and that led some to speculate about the security of general manager Daryl Morey’s job after the Rockets were bounced from the playoffs in the second round. Some thought that Fertitta would look to replace Morey after he built a roster that was unable to get the job one. However, Fertitta shot down that idea earlier this week. 

“Daryl Morey’s job is safe,” Fertitta said. “I’m sure he’s going to pick the right head coach.” 

Exactly how long Fertitta will remain patient with Morey remains to be seen, though. It’s quite possible that Fertitta is giving Morey, who has been in his role with the Rockets since 2007, one last chance to get it right. If the Rockets aren’t any closer to a title at the conclusion of next season, perhaps Fertitta’s patience will run out. Knowing that he doesn’t have infinite time to assemble a championship-level roster, Morey will be operating under some major pressure this offseason. 

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