There’s A Leadership Vacuum In Houston

When you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat (Ronald Reagan)

Hours before Kevin McHale was fired, something was happening thirteen hundred miles away. In a hallway, dressed in black, LeBron James was talking about his team. Honest and quietly analytical, James listed the faults. The Cavs thought they were entitled because they were in the NBA Finals a few months ago. Because of last year’s success- which by the way is over- the Cavs weren’t hungry. His teammates fell into two groups, according to James. The ones with the mental toughness to finish games all the way through and the ones without toughness.

The Cavaliers have the third best record in the NBA. Yet LeBron James level of satisfaction with his team skewed towards the negative.

Two years ago, the Lakers entered the playoffs with Dwight Howard as their de-facto leader because Kobe Bryant ripped his Achilles. It was an opportunity for Howard to practice what he had continually whispered behind Bryant’s back- he deserved to be the leader of the team. But when he had his opportunity to pull the team away from the Bryant strangle-hold and assert himself as the one next in line, he couldn’t guide the team to win one playoff game. In the last game of his Lakers career, in an elimination game, Howard was ejected on a pretty routine play in which he complained to the refs, not remembering he already had one tech. The leader led by being clueless.

And so here we are with the Houston Rockets firing their coach. Kevin McHale is the scapegoat as all coaches are when they are fired before the season can even take shape. No one disputes the Rockets didn’t play hard as they racked up 20 point losses and made Ray Felton seem legitimate. McHale has to take responsibility for the Rockets numbness and mediocrity. At times, McHale appeared to be a deer-in-the-headlights.

The Rockets problems asserted themselves on opening night, the curtain was pulled back. It was not because of Kevin McHale. The truth is the Rockets have no on court leadership.

Howard has proven his style of leadership is to always say the happy thing no one will slam him for and then, reflexively, he gets slammed for not being honest. Howard believes positivity is motivational, negativity is counterintuitive. And yet he has no empirical data to base that on. He lost 4-1 in the NBA Finals six year ago and the closest he has come to getting back to the Finals was last year when he lost 4-1 to the eventual champion Warriors. His positivity schtick may make him feel better at the end of the day but is it extracting the best out of his teammates? Or to put it another way, are the Rockets following Howard? Or, are they appeasing Howard?

When Howard left L.A. we knew it was because he and Kobe Bryant could not co-exist. Howard wanted what Kobe had but was unwilling to wrestle it away from him. Howard views leadership as an entitlement program. He should be anointed the leader because he’s Dwight Howard and it is his turn. But he would never say that in public so he said the next best honest thing. He had a better chance to win in Houston than in L.A.

He was right. And he was wrong. In Houston, he was faced with the same sort of shooting guard he had in L.A. minus the harsh rebuke. James Harden grew up in L.A. with Kobe Bryant as his idol and later as his friend. Harden dominates the ball the way Bryant does, he’s just nicer about it. Harden doesn’t wear people down with his perfectionism and high expectations and instant rebukes. But Harden needs the ball in his hands as much as Bryant.

Bryant may be tyrannical and hard to get along with as he leads by pushing and pushing. But how does Harden lead? Who does he push? What does he demand? When was the last time Harden did what LeBron did, put his teammates on notice that their basketball behavior was unacceptable?

To many observers, Harden should have won the MVP last year. He did the most with less. Every night he had to go out and perform knowing the only thing that was on the other team’s scouting report was to stop him. They couldn’t. He carried the Rockets all by himself. He was as brilliant as he ever had been. But those types of seasons are draining and often are not duplicated. This year he can’t carry the Rockets with his play so he needs to lead them and he is failing. Badly.

You can’t fire the players but Darryl Morey, the Rockets G.M. who came up with this system of three pointers, layups, free-throws or nothing, needs to be put on notice too. When he designed this system it was a novelty. But now every team but Minnesota and Brooklyn take a bunch of threes which means every team, in practice, defends the three and floor spacing. It’s no secret why the Rockets can’t make threes anymore. The rest of the NBA has learned how to defend them. And the Rockets are not a team loaded with a bunch of Kyle Korvers.

No one feels sorry for McHale or any NBA coach for losing their job (except other NBA coaches, cue the outrage). It’s the way the league is constructed. When you take a job, you really are accepting your dismissal sometime in the future. McHale sealed his fate earlier in the week when he said things couldn’t get much worse. Of course they can. He’ll probably wind up back in Minnesota as the G.M. or at some point, taking the interim label away from Sam Mitchell as he will be back on the sidelines again. McHale always lands on his feet.

But the Rockets? They don’t have a 30 minute player that can defend their position who is not injury prone. Patrick Beverly and Dwight Howard will play 60 games, if they are lucky. The rest of the Rockets are bad defenders. The more athletic and perimeter oriented the league is, the more pressure the Rockets are under running an offense requiring them to make a bunch of threes. Otherwise, long rebounds become fast breaks and players they cannot stop.

Ty Lawson was supposed to be an antibiotic. Lawson loves attention but he is good at what he does. He is a quality playmaker with court vision who controls tempo and makes shots. But with Harden, (like with Bryant) a true point guard cannot survive. He’s not going to handle the ball enough. Lawson’s 8.5 PER with Houston is a disastrous slide from his 18.5 PER of last year which is hardly shocking because it is what James Harden will do to you. It’s not a knock on Harden as much as it is the fault of Morey to not recognize what Lawson’s game is. The pieces don’t fit in the system they are playing.

Lawson is undersized so his defense is always going to fall in the mediocre to oh-no range. Two bad defenders in the back court in a perimeter league is a death knell. And yet the Rockets at 4-7 are still able to recover this season. They have 71 games left to try to make it right.

Tom Thibodeau on line 1.

photo via llananba