If there is something that was consistent throughout this roller-coaster NBA season for the Rockets, it is the fact that Mike D’Antoni’s contract is up now that the team’s season is over. And the assumption all along has been that, with D’Antoni failing to agree to an extension last offseason, his tenure with the Rockets would be over when this season ended.
But after Saturday’s loss to the Lakers—the second straight game in which Houston appeared mostly lifeless—D’Antoni did not rule out a return to the Rockets on a new contract. And what’s more, his star player vouched for his return. That was before one final turn of events, however.
Here’s what D’Antoni told reporters on Saturday after Game 5:
We’ve got a great organization, great city, great fans, team’s great. I mean, everything’s good here. So we’ll see what happens, but I couldn’t ask for a better situation, I had for four years. Hopefully it keeps going, but you never know. But everything is good on this side, for sure. …
What stands out mostly is great city to work with, great fans, and players. It was fun. It’s still fun. You always hate to lose. You’re always a little bittersweet, but I couldn’t ask for better people to work with and better players to work with. A lot of things stand out, a lot of little things, but I had a great four years, for sure.
On Sunday, though, D’Antoni removed any doubt about his future–he will be a free agent. He and his wife, Laurel, released a statement to the people of Houston, stating that, “our incredible journey in Houston has ended.”
Mike and Laurel D’Antoni statement to ESPN on departure from Rockets pic.twitter.com/XypyT8bgC0
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 13, 2020
James Harden: ‘Of Course’ Rockets Want D’Antoni to Return
James Harden wanted D’Anotni back and for good reason. Under D’Antoni, Harden has led the league in scoring three consecutive years, averaging 33.7 points in that span. D’Antoni has emphasized Harden’s unique ability to attack the rim by installing an offense that spreads the floor and relying more heavily on isolation offense than any other coach in the league.
“Of course,” he said. “Mike has done some unbelievable things here.”
Does James Harden want Mike D'Antoni to return to the Rockets? "Of course. Of course. Mike has done some unbelievable stuff here."
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) September 13, 2020
Harden went on: “The experience has been great — moving me to point guard primarily, the ball handler and just coming up with different schemes and basically changing the game,” said Harden, who had 30 points and five assists in the Game 5 loss. “It’s been an unbelievable experience. Tough season for us. Obviously, it didn’t end like we wanted it to. We’ve just got to figure it out.”
The one thing he was unable to do, though, is get the Rockets to the NBA Finals. Despite a .682 winning percentage in his four years, D’Antoni’s teams failed to break out of the conference semifinals in three of those four years. They went to the West finals once but blew a 3-2 series lead to the Warriors.
D’Antoni, Rockets Had Bitter Contract Negotiations Last Year
There was significant bitterness between D’Antoni and the organization a year ago, when D’Antoni’s camp and owner Tillman Fertitta could not come to an agreement on a new contract. The Rockets did replace most of D’Antoni’s coaching staff, a rare move for an organization to make.
It was rumored, too, that D’Antoni would be a candidate for the Pacers job if he winds up leaving Houston.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni — in the final year of his contract — will be an Indiana target should he become available, sources tell ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 26, 2020
This week, in a sign that maybe the relationship could be repaired, general manager Daryl Morey asserted that bringing D’Antoni back was high on his to-do list.
“It’s probably No. 1. That’s a fair way to put it,” Morey told USA TODAY’s Mark Medina. “We have all our key players signed. I think him coming back is super-important.”
Alas, D’Antoni did not see it that way. He has said he would like to keep coaching, but it won’t be for the Rockets.