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Fertitta backs D'Antoni as coach, vows to keep reaching for Finals

Rockets owner says 'we’re not here to be just OK'

The Houston Rockets had hopes of reaching The Finals this season, a dream that was ultimately dashed with a Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals.

Since that defeat ended their season, Houston fans may be wondering what’s next for the team.

In an interview with Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, team owner Tillman Fertitta laid out a fairly concise plan about all of that. First, he made it clear that he is behind coach Mike D’Antoni, who is entering the final season of his contract this season. While Fertitta did not speak about a possible extension for D’Antoni, he does plan to meet with D’Antoni in the coming weeks.

“Mike will be the coach next year,” Fertitta told the Houston Chronicle. “He’s not a lame duck to me. That’s just a media term. That’s just a media buzzword.

“Mike is going to be 69 years old (next May) and Mike doesn’t know totally what he wants to do, yet. We’ll sit down with Mike in the next few weeks and talk with him. We’re more concerned with making our team better next year. Mike will be here. I like Mike. I think he’s a very good coach. Players like playing for him. I keep being told, free agents want to know who the owner is and they want to know who the coach is. Mike and I do well together. Hopefully, we’ll continue to win and Mike will be here for a long time.”

After Houston’s Game 6 loss, Fertitta remained confident that former Kia MVP winner James Harden was the player to lead the Rockets to their first NBA title since 1995.

“I can promise you, we’re going to win some championships with James Harden,” Fertitta said. “Because we are not going to sit here, we will go to battle every year, we’re going to have a strong offseason, and we’re going to do whatever we can do to be a better team. We are not going to sit on our hands, I can promise you that.”

As for the specifics of next season’s roster, the Rockets’ owner did not elaborate much on that topic. However, he also made it clear that a “run it back” approach to things in 2019-20 is not on the docket.

“We’re here to win,” Fertitta told the Houston Chronicle. “We’re not here to be just OK and make it to the playoffs. We’re going to do whatever it takes to be a championship-style team every year. I will make moves to always extend our runway. I’m not a rebuilding guy to go collapse for three years to get Draft picks. I want to keep us at as high a level as we can. I have a good management team. We’re in the City of Houston, which is soon to be the third-largest city in the United States so we should always attract our good share of free agents.

“Right now, the Houston Rockets as a brand are one of the top brands out there and we’re going to keep it that way.”

Upgrading the Rockets’ roster may prove to be a challenge this summer. Houston has seven free agents on its roster (veteran Nene has a player option), including unrestricted free agents Austin Rivers, Iman Shumpert, Gerald Green and Kenneth Faried. All of those players had a vital role in Houston’s success last season, but the Rockets have never been averse to roster change.

Additionally, star guards Harden and Chris Paul are in the midst of deals that will pay them $38.5 million and $37.8 million, respectively, next season. Center Clint Capela is in the second season of a five-year, $90 million deal he signed last summer while veteran guard Eric Gordon is making $14 million in the final year of his deal next season.

Fertitta told the newspaper he would like to work out an extension with Gordon if at all possible. The shooting guard is eligible for a four-year extension worth a maximum of $75.6 million. Fertitta also praised Harden’s work ethic and Paul’s intangibles and leadership, all while making it clear he wants a team that will be “tough” next season.

“I never want to be soft. I don’t like soft ownership and I don’t like soft teams,” Fertitta told the Houston Chronicle. “That’s not my culture. I do want my players scrambling for a loose ball. I’ll set a hard pick in business. I’ll scramble on the floor for a ball in business. I expect them to do it on the court. I’m not saying they don’t. I have a very hard-playing team. But we’re never going to be soft.

“I know we have a team good enough to win 55 games, but that’s not good enough. We need to have a team we know we’ll get to the Western Conference finals. Then, you need a little luck to win a championship. We will do whatever it takes this off-season to improve ourselves.”

Harden claimed after Game 6 to know “exactly” what the Rockets need to do in order to beat Golden State next season. But wouldn’t reveal what that solution was when pressed for answers.

Despite this latest setback D’Antoni is optimistic that Houston can improve next season and finally chase another title.

“Our core is still young, and (general manager) Daryl (Morey) will do a great job,” he said last week. “We’ve got to gather ourselves this summer and regroup and get after it next year. All of us have got to do a little bit better job.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.