Lofty expectations and a win-now mentality didn’t leave Houston with former coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey.
The Rockets made that clear Thursday, when formally introducing new coach Stephen Silas and GM Rafael Stone.
“This is a place that I feel like we’ve built something really, really special over the last 15 years,” said Stone, a longtime Houston front office staffer, who was promoted as Morey’s replacement. “We’ve built this really, really cool thing, and I feel like, collectively, we’ve really impacted the game and the way it’s played. We’ve been really, really aggressive as a group. We’re gonna continue to be extraordinarily aggressive. Whether we get there, I don’t know. But I can guarantee you, we’re gonna shoot for it.”
Naturally, the plan to do that relies heavily on building around 2018 MVP James Harden, as well as his MVP counterpart Russell Westbrook.
“For the last eight years or so, our goal has been to win a championship because we had James Harden,” Stone said. “We’ve still got James Harden. Our goal is still to win a championship. If you’ve got him, you’re halfway there.”
Now, it’s up to Silas, 47, to close the remaining distance for a Rockets team still harboring championship aspirations after finishing last season 44-28, before falling to the Los Angeles Lakers over five games in the Western Conference semifinals. The longtime NBA assistant and son of coach Paul Silas, Stephen Silas expressed confidence in his ability to lead this next iteration of the Rockets along with some help from the coaching staff the group is still building. Silas wants to add experienced coaches to the staff, and confirmed that John Lucas, who served in a player-development role under D’Antoni, would remain with the Rockets after finishing as a finalist in the search for D’Antoni’s replacement. Lucas spent time as a head coach in San Antonio, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
Silas also mentioned conversations he held during the interview process with Harden and Westbrook.
“I kind of gave them my vision as far as how I wanted to play, and how I wanted them to be able to use their greatness in a way that will help the team win,” Silas said. “They were all about whatever’s best for the team to win.”
Silas’ vision includes what he called “tweaks” but not wholesale changes to the Rockets’ isolation-heavy offensive system. Harden and Westbrook led the NBA last season in isolation points, possessions and frequency. As a team, the Rockets led the league in isolation.
But it’s not as if Silas doesn’t have any experience working with players that thrive in isolation. Serving for two seasons as the offensive coordinator for the Dallas Mavericks, Silas worked extensively with Luka Doncic, who finished last season ranked among the top five in isolation scoring.
“I’ve worked with a bunch of guards. I’ve worked with Luka [Doncic], Steph[en Curry], Kemba [Walker] and Baron Davis when I was younger,” Silas explained. “The common thing is you have to set it up to where those guys can play to their strengths, but they can also help others play to their strengths.”
Silas admitted the Rockets’ isolation-heavy scheme has “worked, and that’s been part of their greatness.” But the plan is to add elements offensively that might help Harden and Westbrook exploit defenses built specifically to neutralize them.
“They were sixth in offense, and for me to come in and make wholesale changes, that doesn’t make sense,” Silas said. “What I will do is try to make it a little bit easier on those guys, put in a few little actions that’ll make the defense have to make decisions, and make them a little bit harder to guard; be a little bit more versatile on the offensive end, and again, let those guys play to their strengths, but make tweaks here and there so we can make that jump from being the sixth-best offensive team to first- [or] second-best offensive team. Hopefully, [we’re] playing up the floor, letting those guys pass ahead and attack defenses before they’re set; getting defenses on the move early in possessions and keeping them on the move, that sort of thing. Not so much kind of stand around iso-type of stuff, even though there will be that, and there will be times for that because that’s what they do well. But I’m not gonna take away what did well as a group. I’m just gonna add to it and enhance it.”
Stone and Houston’s front office factor heavily into that.
It’s well-documented how Houston committed fully last season to playing small ball, after trading away Clint Capela and a first-round pick in February to bring in Robert Covington. But Stone said he anticipates “we’ll provide Stephen with a little more optionality” next season to play small or with a traditional lineup. Silas and Stone spoke extensively during the interview process about Houston’s need to become more multidimensional both offensively and defensively.
“One of the things that Rafael and I have been talking a lot about is in today’s NBA, you cannot just play one way,” Silas said. “You have to have multiple ways of playing. So, small ball can be part of it. But also, possibly having a bigger guy, a traditional type of center where you can roll to the rim, or duck in or do different things to where the matchups will be a little bit better and more traditional.”
Coach Silas is excited to be the new coach of the Houston Rockets!
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) November 5, 2020
Over an assistant coaching career spanning more than two decades, Silas served as an assistant in Golden State for five seasons (2006-10) working under Don Nelson. In studying Houston’s roster as he prepares for the upcoming season, Silas said he already sees “there were a lot of things that we did in Golden State back then that we can do with this group.” Silas plans to eliminate some of the predictability we’ve seen in recent years with the Rockets on offense and defense.
“On the offensive end, just being a little bit less predictable I would say is what I’m looking to do,” Silas said. “Then, on the defensive end, the same thing. Be a little bit less predictable as far as so much switching and getting into maybe playing a little bit of zone. As an offensive coordinator over the past two years, playing against teams that have different ways of defending is really tough, and it takes a lot of time to prepare for. So, I want to be that team. I want to be the team that you have to spend a day preparing to play the Houston Rockets so you make sure that you have everything covered.”
Stone believes he and Silas “have this immensely talented roster” to work with right now, but with the NBA Draft (Houston doesn’t have a pick) and free agency approaching, “the goal is to bring in another guy or two who can really complement these guys.”
That’ll prove difficult given Houston’s lack of flexibility because of its high payroll. But Stone quickly pointed out that money won’t be a hindrance to team owner Tilman Fertitta “if spending results in winning.”
“He reiterated to me upon being hired that his priorities were winning first, second, and ad nauseum, and money, not so much,” Stone said. “So, I do think sometimes that on the personnel side we have rules within the NBA and the salary cap, and luxury tax. If you’re in them, they actually limit your flexibility. So, I think sometimes people think that you don’t want to be in because of cash when oftentimes, it’s because the results of being hard capped limit your flexibility at the trade deadline or something else. I know that to be a non-issue for this organization. We’re extraordinarily lucky that that’s a non-issue because not every organization is in that spot. But we are and we always have been.”
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