In Hindsight: Was McHale really the problem in Houston

Was Kevin McHale the problem? Was the poor start to Houston’s season his fault? Or, this being a team that comprise of different personalities, might Dwight Howard’s ego colliding with teammates James Harden and Ty Lawson have something to do with McHale’s sudden departure? It seems McHale’s relationship with the Rockets had fluctuated, but it’s unfair to totally place all the blame on him.

While the Rockets have performed somewhat better since his departure, they are still at the .500 mark since his departure, with two of their wins coming against bottom-dwelling Eastern conference teams and one against the 5-15 New Orleans Pelicans. Against above .500 competition, they are 1-2, and are now 9-11 on the season.

And to think a year ago, McHale signed a three-year, $12 million extension, following a 27-7 start to the season. A year later, after dropping four straight games early in the season, the Rockets fired the winningest coach, by percentage, in franchise history just 11 games into the season.

The move was so stunning and disconcerting that McHale’s dismissal left the basketball world in a state of shock, but unfortunately NBA coaches take 90 percent of the blame if a team built to contend underachieves. In a surprise move, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whose vision of analytics transformed the business, decided that the players weren’t responding to McHale and wasted no time in parting ways with him — all that after a horrid 4-7 start. This change hasn’t solved all the immediate problems — a change that will only reveal the lack of chemistry between Harden and his teammates. This is more than just about one man. This is about a locker room where Rockets players are seemingly bumping heads and look completely lost.

It is impossible to ignore the utter mess for the Rockets on the court. The notion that this team is wallowing in confusion and turmoil. Whether we can say McHale lost the locker room of a team six months after he led Houston to the NBA’s Western Conference finals, of course, for one, it’s an atmosphere of turbulence and mutual distrust. Harden, for another, is a Hey-Look-At-Me guy who seems to think the game revolves around him.

He has yet to change his attitude and show he’s a leader of men? This is exactly why McHale lost his coaching job. This is exactly why Harden won’t ever be a team leader. That much became obvious in McHale’s firing, and with him being relieved of his duties, we are able to get a small sample of whether or not McHale was to blame.

The Rockets are sloppy handling the ball, the offense is executing poorly and they have played sub-par defense. McHale tried to rectify the weaknesses and build on strength. And his way of doing so was with switching to a smaller lineup, trying different defensive strategies and making every kind of adjustment for the Rockets, who had played a lackluster brand of basketball.

Now is a chance for Harden and Howard as co-leaders to shoulder a burden of responsibility and also step up their level of play. As gradually as the Rockets are falling out of contention in the Western Conference, it’s been a trend for the Rockets to get annihilated by average and above average teams. Another trend has shown that more than a few Rockets wins only come when Harden scores above 40 points, like the 50-point outing it took to squeak past the lowly 7634s.

Just as it was before McHale’s dismissal, the Toyota Center is hardly serving as a home court, where they’ve won just five of 12 games.

Even when McHale as a coach was expected to keep it together in such a demanding role, he couldn’t suit up and step onto the floor for his players. It’s not a matter of who is to blame for the Rockets’ woes. It’s a matter of a collective roster turning over the ball on a lazy pass, or the fact that one player is flapping his gums at another player. There’s plenty of blame to go around in Houston for the team’s deficiencies.

For now, the fingers may still point at McHale, but if the Rockets don’t improve over the course of the regular season, they may be calling for a mulligan soon.