Rockets coaching fit: Will Kelvin Sampson make the jump to the NBA

ANALYSIS Houston Rockets

With Mike D’Antoni out, the Houston Rockets must find the right coach to help steer their franchise in the right direction.

Everything was good just four years ago — promising more than ever. Sitting between GM Daryl Morey and former team-owner Leslie Lee Alexander was Mike D’Antoni. He was dressed in a navy blue suit with a red tie. He was the new kid on the block in Houston as Morey and Alexander introduced the then 65-year-old as the 13th head coach in Houston Rockets history.

At times throughout the press conference, there were some laughs. Like when D’Antoni went out of his way to introduce Jeff Bzdelik as his assistant coach, since he was not known to be a “defensive-minded coach.” But more than anything, there were talks about a promising future and plans to get the Rockets back to championship contention.

And that he did.

In his first year at the helm in 2017, D’Antoni helped the Rockets improve by 14 wins (55-27) and took home his second career Coach of the Year honors (2005). Three years later, D’Antoni became the winningest coach in franchise history in terms of winning percentage (.682). He set a franchise record for the most regular-season wins (65) in 2018. And came a hamstring and a game away from reaching the NBA Finals that same season.

In a perfect world, the success the Rockets have had with D’Antoni should have kept him around for at least three more seasons. But instead, an explosive article by Kelly Iko of The Athletic chronicles the toxic events that followed D’Antoni’s introductory press conference that ultimately led to his jettison.

Now — in what could be the most important off-season in its history — the Rockets are faced with a daunting task to find another head coach to steer their franchise. One who could possibly navigate the Rockets to a place where D’Antoni could not.

Over the next five weeks, Houston Sports Press will take a look at several candidates who have been linked to the Rockets as their next head coach. Up first, a coach who does not need any introduction to the City of Houston — Kelvin Sampson.

Only a handful of coaches have made a successful jump from the collegiate to the pro-level. Most recently, Brad Stevens has been the poster child of a college coach making the triumphant transition, leading his Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals in three of his seven seasons at the helm in Boston.

Asking a college basketball coach to come in and help a franchise compete for a title immediately may be a daunting task for most, but Kelvin Sampson would be the right man for the job.

Why it makes sense:

Since taking over as head coach of the Houston Cougars, Sampson has instilled a winning culture that has changed the basketball program in Houston. Since 2014, Sampson has led the Cougars to five winning seasons — which includes back-to-back American Athletic Conference regular-season titles — and three trips to the Big Dance during March Madness.

After two consecutive playoff eliminations in humiliating fashion for the Rockets, it may take Sampson’s proven culture to get Houston over the hump. But more importantly than any coaching philosophy, the Rockets must find someone who can gain the trust and respect of their players — a feat Sampson already has accomplished.

As a former assistant coach to Kevin McHale for three seasons (2011-2014), Sampson has a strong relationship with the core of the Rockets’ roster — which includes James Harden and Eric Gordon. In February, Robert Covington credited Sampson for laying the foundation for his career as an undrafted rookie during his first stint in 2014.

Although it would be nice to see him call plays from the sideline of the Toyota Center, life may be just too good for Sampson right now 10 minutes away inside the Fertitta Center.

Chances of Kelvin Sampson becoming the Rockets next head coach: Less than 10 percent.