The NBA is seldom short on surprises — the Timberwolves, after all, are 5-1 on the road but 0-5 at home — but I have to admit the news that the Rockets fired Kevin McHale on Wednesday just 11 games into the season caught me off guard. It’s a move that has some local intrigue as well as league-wide impact, so here are a few thoughts:
1) The move speaks to the heightened expectations in sports these days — as well as the nightmare that is the Western Conference. McHale was in the first year of a contract extension worth $12 million, and he led the Rockets to a 56-win season a year ago. Firing a coach 11 games into an NBA season (with a disappointing 4-7 record) is the equivalent of firing an NFL coach after two games. There is so much season left, yet the quote from Rockets GM Daryl Morey says it all: “There is no time in the West.” The Thunder proved that a season ago, when they came roaring back from an injury-riddled start but still couldn’t make the playoffs with 45 wins.
2) It’s a fantastic opportunity for interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. McHale is, of course, the more famous local connection as a former Gophers star and former Wolves executive (and coach). But Bickerstaff is also an ex-Gopher who spent several seasons as a Wolves assistant. At age 36, he’s getting a chance to be the head coach of an NBA team — one loaded with talent and aspirations.
3) It closes the loop on both ends of a strange swap. McHale was hired in June of 2011 to be the head coach of the Rockets, replacing Rick Adelman. … And a few months later, Adelman was hired as the coach of the Timberwolves, working for McHale’s former organization. Adelman’s time with the Wolves ended after the 2013-14 season, and now McHale’s time is done.
4) What it really comes down to is the players not producing. Morey is a huge “true shooting percentage” guy. The Rockets slid from 2nd in the NBA in that stat two years ago to 8th last season to 20th so far this year. If you give any coach the right players — like Stephen Curry, for example — the system will be fine. Maybe Morey has built a team and has a philosophy that’s great up to a point but can’t beat the elite?
5) The Rockets were in the Western Conference Finals last year, losing to Golden State. This type of letdown is common after overachieving and getting so close (see: 2004-05 Timberwolves; 2001 Vikings; 2010 Vikings; many others). McHale took the fall for it. Still, 11 games in is awfully quick.