You can't fire the players: Kevin McHale is out as Rockets coach

Kevin McHale watches the clock run out. (Getty Images)
Kevin McHale watches the clock run out. (Getty Images)

None of this should have to happen, but this is the NBA. Sometimes the most unorthodox and progressive of NBA front offices have to pull an understandable move that would remind of the 1981 Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Houston Rockets fired Kevin McHale on Wednesday, as first reported by Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, because you still can’t fire the players.

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Houston general manager Daryl Morey wouldn’t want to fire his players, though, even after a 4-7 start. Thanks to his long-term vision, the Rockets are filled with both stars and enviable depth. He’s spent years rolling over assets in the wake of the injury-fueled dissolution of the Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady-led Rockets, and with his decade anniversary as a Rockets employee coming up this spring, he can’t have any setbacks.

For a championship contender, though, this start was a shocking step back.

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The Rockets are the NBA’s third-worst defensive team, and they rank 25th in offense. Ty Lawson and Trevor Ariza have missed two-thirds of their shots thus far in 2015-16, and Patrick Beverley is only slightly better from the field. Supposed MVP candidate James Harden is shooting 37 percent from the field and once again offering some meme-worthy defensive lapses, and Corey Brewer needs to make his next shot attempt in order to leap over 30 percent from the field on the year.

Despite fielding Dwight Howard’s 12.6 rebounds a game, the group is the league’s second worst when it comes to managing the defensive glass and it allows opponents to shoot far too well from both near the rim and behind the 3-point arc.

The schedule has been kind. The Rockets have had wins over the Thunder at home, and they topped the Clippers on the road, but that’s hardly something to shine on about. If you’re a championship contender, you take care of business and beat Oklahoma City in your own building, and you at the very worst compete with the Clippers (y’know … the team you beat in the postseason six months ago) in their house. Seven of the team’s 11 games have come at home, and the wins also include a too-close conquest of the Sacramento Kings and a slim victory over Orlando that needed an overtime frame to aid in the escape.

Beyond that, it’s been misery. Monday’s loss to Boston ended with the Celtics finishing their 111-95 win with a 15-0 run. Perhaps the Rockets had hoped that the switch would flip itself after it managed to save a little face with a second half “comeback” against Dallas on Saturday night, one that saw them turn a 57-34 halftime deficit into a respectable (we’re reaching) 110-98 home defeat.

That loss had the team’s rather homer-ific announcing crew lambasting the team for its effort and commitment. Swingman Trevor Ariza did the same prior to the Celtics loss:

And McHale criticized the execution as well following the defeat:

"You're either making excuses or you're making plays," McHale said. "If you're making excuses, you're not thinking about what you're doing. I got to think about countering everything you're saying so I can make some BS excuse. When you're making plays, you're not making excuses. You are moving on. That's what we got to get to.

"At a certain point, we have to go out and do it. You (as a coach) can pick apart everybody's problems. Until they can talk to each other honestly and say, 'Hey, that was my bad," then you're not getting there. Hopefully, we can get to that point. On functional teams, usually by the time you get over to the sideline, everything (the opponent) is doing, you figured out. Dysfunctional teams get over and they start blaming each other. We can't get into the blame game. We have to get into the fix game."

This was prior to a planned players-only meeting on Tuesday. Because those always work.

McHale had mentioned the possibility of lineup changes following the Boston defeat, but with former starter Patrick Beverley sidelined with an ankle sprain he was unable to make the struggling Ty Lawson the super sixth man that he probably should have been from Day One. It’s true that the team has been without Howard for four games and Donatas Motiejunas for the entire season, but when you’re relying on Donatas Motiejunas’ nifty footwork in the low post to help drag you out of the bottom five on offense and defense, things aren’t going right.

McHale’s replacement will be J.B. Bickerstaff, perhaps the league’s most highly regarded young assistant coach. Those close wins weren’t promising, but the Rockets are still only a game and a half out of the dogged Western playoff bracket due to those four victories. And, for all of the rolled eyes at a Nov. 17 players-only meeting, it’s obvious that the players are aware that something has gone terribly wrong.

It only took them three weeks, and the loss of an honorable man’s job, to realize as much.

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Kelly Dwyer

is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!