The Houston Rockets coaching staff is looking to set an example in the Orlando bubble.
Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters on Thursday that he and the rest of the team’s staff will coach with masks on, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. D’Antoni added that the decision was in large part to model mask-wearing behavior.
Official scrimmages began in the bubble on Wednesday with coaches and their assistants largely without masks but sitting a safe distance apart from each other. Other team personnel sitting behind the first row have already had masks on however.
Mike D’Antoni is traveling to be part of the NBA bubble in Orlando.
There were questions about whether D’Antoni would be cleared for the bubble due to his age (69) putting him in a higher risk category for the coronavirus. But ESPN’s Tim MacMahon says D’Antoni was on the team’s flight and set to continue coaching his Houston Rockets.
Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, 69, is on the team flight en route to Orlando, a source told ESPN. He has said recently that his medical screenings didn't raise any red flags and that he planned to coach as usual, other than wearing a mask.
D’Antoni is part of a few NBA head coaches in the higher risk age group, along with Gregg Popovich (71) and Alvin Gentry (65). Gentry was cleared to join his Pelicans in the bubble. Assistant coaches Jeff Bzdelik (67) and Lionel Hollins (66) opted out of coaching in the bubble.
D’Antoni’s Rockets are tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth in the East at 40-24.
Whether it be in Denver, Phoenix, New York, Los Angeles, or now Houston, D’Antoni’s teams have regularly been among the league’s best in pace and overall offense while usually topping out as average on defense. This season, the Rockets are second in offensive efficiency and 14th in defensive efficiency.
As for the Orlando bubble, new coaching practices may indeed have to be implemented in order to maintain proper distancing. D’Antoni, who falls in the high-risk category at age 69, is also considering other changes to his coaching plan from a more strategy-based standpoint.
NBA coaches will have a lot of adapting to do for the restart of play in Orlando later this summer, and Mike D’Antoni is no exception.
Speaking on Tuesday with Kelly Iko of The Athletic, the Houston Rockets head coach was asked if he was open to using an expanded rotation when the season resumes due to the potential concerns over fitness and endurance.
“Hell, yeah, if you want to be politically correct,” said D’Antoni. “But with [GM] Daryl [Morey] and data, with how we think gives us the best chance to win, it probably comes down to nine guys. Now, who those nine are they could change, and maybe early we experiment, practice and watch. And obviously you’re also biased about their previous play. So I go in with the notion of how I think it’s going to be. I can change my mind. I don’t want to watch practice or games and think ‘Wait a minute, this guy’s better than this other guy.’
“But realistically, you start playing James [Harden], Russell [Westbrook], P.J. [Tucker], Robert [Covington], and Eric [Gordon], those five you’re going to give a bunch of minutes to,” D’Antoni added. “You don’t want to wear them out, but at the same time, you don’t want to be fresh for October. They’re going to be tired and it’s going to be a grind. It’s going to be something that you have to play through. We try our best to keep them as fresh as we can. But at the same time, that leaves minutes for the other guys. And then it comes down to philosophy.”
D’Antoni’s comments are notable because he is notorious for running short rotations, usually of seven or eight players. That inevitably leads to his top guys playing heavy minutes, especially Harden (who ranks second this season in minutes per game), Westbrook (who ranks seventh), and Tucker (23rd).
In the interview, Fertitta addressed D’Antoni’s contract status. D’Antoni’s contract is actually set to expire in July, though he is expected to fulfill his duties for the rest of the season. What will his future be after that? Fertitta says it’s up to general Daryl Morey to decide.
“I think I have one of the NBA’s great coaches in Mike D’Antoni,” Fertitta told Feigen. “And I think I have one of the best basketball ops groups, Daryl and his whole team. Personally, I love Mike. But I’m going to leave it up to the general manager. … I surely would like to have Mike back. If Daryl wants to have Mike back, I’m sure Mike is going to be back.”
The NBA shutdown has left every team in an awkward spot, but the Houston Rockets’ position may be a bit more confusing than most.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni’s contract is set to expire at the end of the NBA season, and no new deal is on the horizon. So what happens if the season restarts or continues beyond July 1, when that contract formally expires?
According to D’Antoni’s agent Warren LeGarie, that won’t be a problem.
“Mike is somebody with a lot of integrity and you make a commitment and you fulfill the commitment — regardless of if it goes past (the length of the deal),” LeGarie told Sam Amick of The Athletic. “It’s obviously something we have to work out, but he would never, ever walk away from what he feels is a moral responsibility to see it through with his team and especially with his players. He would never abandon somebody because of a technicality.”
Rockets GM Daryl Morey said the team has no concerns about D’Antoni’s commitment.
“I don’t want to go into any specifics, but I think that there’s not much needed (in terms of his contract),” Morey said. “That’s not always the case with everything during this time. I know the league lawyers are having to work on a thousand things with different legal aspects, and the Players Union and stuff. But in this case, I think things are pretty straightforward.”
It’s full speed ahead for D’Antoni, who appears ready to coach despite the potential personal risks that could involve. The contract does not appear to be a stumbling block either. With the Rockets hoping to contend for a title, that’s going to come as a relief to the entire organization.
Mike D’Antoni falls into the “higher risk” category for potential complications from the coronavirus disease because of his age, and some have been concerned for the health of people like him when the NBA and other sports leagues resume play. D’Antonio apparently is not all that worried about it.
D’Antoni is eager for the NBA to resume play and would have no reservations about returning to the sideline to coach, sources told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. D’Antoni will turn 69 on Friday and is the second-oldest coach in the NBA behind Gregg Popovich, who is 71.
Two anonymous NBA general managers recently told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes that they will be concerned about the health of older coaches and staff members when the league resumes play. But according to MacMahon, D’Antoni has told people with the Rockets that he has full confidence in NBA commissioner Adam Silver to not allow play to resume until it can be done safely.
The Rockets are 40-24 and in fifth place in the Western Conference. While the Los Angeles Lakers have a sizable lead over everyone else in the conference, the difference between Houston and the No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers is just four games.