There may have been some around the NBA who thought Ime Udoka would be happy just to have another head coaching position after losing his job in Boston for off-court transgressions. They may have thought he’d keep a low basketball profile in Houston and leave the roster decisions to others.
Udoka is said to be flexing his opinion — and the Rockets are listening.
Houston was being touted as a landing spot for James Harden, who could have opted out of the final year of his Philadelphia contract and become a free agent. (He opted in and is now looking to be traded.) A nine-time All-Star, three-time league scoring champion and 2018 MVP with the Rockets before moving on to Brooklyn and Philly, the reunion possibility seemed interesting, if not necessarily a great fit on a club that’s in heavy rebuilding after tying for the second-worst record in the NBA last season.
But maybe Harden could give the club an offensive jolt that would make the kids develop in a more competitive situation on a nightly basis.
However, while Harden is an expert at getting to the hoop, he couldn’t drive past Udoka.
“From everything we’ve gotten out of there, it was a matter that Ime didn’t want him,” one league source told Heavy Sports. “At the beginning, were they thinking about Harden? Yeah. But then they hired Ime, and Ime said, ‘It’s not going to work here.'”
Rockets Signed Raptors’ Fred VanVleet
Instead, Houston opted for free agent Fred VanVleet, who, at 29, is four and a half years younger than Harden. He’s also a more willing cutter and passer, which is the kind of game that works better with young, athletic types than standing around as a star dribbles down the seconds on the shot clock before taking a step-back trey.
“They wound up with a guy who fits better anyway,” the source said. “VanVleet is going to be able to give them scoring they need, but he’s not going to dominate the ball the way Harden would, the way Harden does.
“People look at (Harden’s) assists (2022-23 NBA leader per game with 10.7) and say, ‘Oh, he gives it up.’ But those numbers have a lot to do with the fact the ball’s in his hands most of the time. He holds onto it until he can make a play, and, especially with a young team, you want to get people used to moving the ball — and moving without the ball. If you keep cutting like the coach wants you to and you hardly ever get the ball, you’re going to stop cutting.”
Harden Still Produces
So why were the Rockets so interested in a guy with a party reputation who does work extremely hard on his game but maybe isn’t the best example for a young team?
“Because that guy had two 40-point games against Boston in the second round of the playoffs, and there’s nobody on that roster that can do that,” said a front office source to Heavy Sports. “They do now, but before that there wasn’t anyone on the roster that could do that. There wasn’t anyone on the roster who made an All-Star team. He’s done a lot of stuff.
“As far as off the court, he’s not a good example. But on the court, he’s one of the most decorated players in the league.”
Considering the emphasis Udoka placed on defense and collective ball movement in his one season with the Celtics, it’s probably no surprise he wasn’t swayed by Harden’s decorations.
And it seems like a good start for Udoka’s Houston tenure that management is paying attention to the person who has to coach the players it signs.