HOUSTON – Six months ago, Kevin McHale coached the Houston Rockets to the Western Conference finals for the first time in 18 years.
There are high expectations for the team again this season behind James Harden and Dwight Howard, but McHale won't be around to see where the Rockets end up: Houston fired McHale on Wednesday with the team off to a puzzling 4-7 start.
"The team was not responding to Kevin McHale, and we had to make the tough call," General Manager Daryl Morey said a few hours before the Rockets took a four-game skid into their game against Portland "And we had to make it soon. There is not time in the tough Western Conference to wait for a turnaround."
Before the game, several players mentioned guilt and said they felt partly to blame.
"I didn't see it coming, I'm not going to lie," forward Corey Brewer said. "We are responsible. The coach can't make us play hard. That's up to us. This has got to be a wake-up call. We've got to get better. Now, it's up to us to start winning."
Three of Houston's losses were by 20 points and two others were by more 12 or more. Morey was asked what indications he saw that the team wasn't responding to McHale.
"I think you just watch our team play and it's not that difficult [to see]," Morey said. "You're a team coming off a Western Conference final run and you're a team with mostly the same group and it was not working. We will change until it's working. We win at the Rockets. [Owner Leslie Alexander] does not accept losing. I do not accept losing. No one accepts losing."
Assistant J.B. Bickerstaff — a former Gophers basketball player, as was McHale before him — took over as interim head coach.
"It's tough because the only reason I'm here is because of [McHale]," said Bickerstaff, who said he was told about the decision shortly after 9 a.m. when preparing for shootaround. "I'm so thankful to him. I'm hurt that he's not here, and I'm hurt that I won't get to see him every day."
McHale was in his fifth season with Houston and is coming off a 56-26 season where the Rockets fell to eventual champion Golden State in the conference championship. The 57-year-old Hall of Fame player went 193-130 with the Rockets.
"Bottom line is we believe in this team," Morey said. "We believe in the players we have. We know this team can win. We know but we aren't in a good place and … we're going to make changes until we win."
McHale spent his entire playing career in Boston after the Hibbing, Minn., native was the third overall pick in the 1980 draft. The power forward helped the Celtics win it all in 1981, '84 and '86. The two-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year was named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players in 1996 and was inducted into the Hall in 1999.
After his playing career, he spent several years as an executive with the Timberwolves before coaching the team for parts of the 2004-05 and 2008-09 seasons after coaches were fired. But his first real shot at coaching came when he took over the Rockets in 2011 from Rick Adelman, who had spent four years with the team.
McHale helped the Rockets improve in his first season before Houston went 45-37 in 2013 and returned to the postseason for the first time since 2009. The Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs that season, improved again in 2014 and returned to the postseason only to be eliminated in the first round again. The Rockets finally got over the hump last season, getting the second seed in the West.