Understanding why sports franchises generally hire from within for their interim positions after parting ways with a coach midway through a season isn’t difficult on the surface. Particularly for teams with hopes of remaining contenders immediately following the switch, comfort within the organization is paramount – a relationship with players, a knowledge of the inner workings of the franchise and a level of stability are some of the most important considerations for a group looking to hit the ground running. How an interim man manages the changeover can often make or break his chances of retaining the job full time.
What’s often glossed over, though, isn’t anything to do with personnel or the interactive element of continuity. Rather, in situations where replacements are typically promoted from the ranks of assistant, a simple fact tends to be overlooked: The head coaching job is very different.
“As an assistant coach, your job is just to make a ton of suggestions,” said J.B. Bickerstaff, interim top man in Houston after the franchise parted ways with Kevin McHale.
Different assistants are responsible for different areas, operating as vessels for the head coach to accumulate and parse through. The approach completely changes once you ascend to the director’s chair.
“As a head coach, your job is to make decisions,” Bickerstaff told Basketball Insiders. “Figuring out the moves to make, figuring out the outside noise that you need to filter out, because you’re given so much information, there’s so much going on. So you just try to decipher what’s the most important, and then how to prioritize that information.”
This is of particular importance for Bickerstaff, who had no previous NBA head coaching experience as he was called upon to fill McHale’s shoes in mid-November. He spent time in Charlotte and Minnesota before winding up in Houston as part of McHale’s incoming administration – over a decade as an assistant in total.
Management didn’t want a full-scale overhaul of any sort midseason, and Bickerstaff’s comfort level in the current environment was a big part of their decision to look in his direction.
“I’m comfortable with the system and the style of play that the organization wants to play,” he said. “There are relationships that have already been formed with guys – an understanding of who guys are, what buttons to push, things like that… So I think it’s been helpful so far, and I think it’s made the adjustment a little bit easier because everything hasn’t had to be brand new.”
This was always going to be a challenge in Houston’s locker room, one that’s taken on a reputation as notoriously fickle over recent years. Stars James Harden and Dwight Howard are among the most polarizing big names in the game, and the Rockets’ Harden-centric style of play can be grating for support pieces when things aren’t going well on the scoreboard. Bickerstaff knows these guys, though, and knows motivating them is a tricky process.
“No matter what you do, this is a results business,” he said, knowing his group can be fragile at times – prone to swings based on external factors. “We need to see the results in the win column, and then I think that’ll give us a little boost in confidence.”
That’s often easier said than done, and there have been ups and downs in Bickerstaff’s two months at the helm. The Rockets have been extremely streaky since he took over – a five-game winning streak recently coming right on the heels of four straight losses. Houston has made up the three games below .500 at which they sat when J.B. was named interim head coach, but hasn’t been able to mount a charge to be back among the West’s elite where they feel they belong.
Bickerstaff knows a big part of his job right now is to weather the proverbial storm that comes with falling short of (gaudy) preseason expectations, though. No one expected him to step in and revolutionize McHale’s approach in a way that flipped some magical switch for his players. Incremental improvement to habits and cohesion are vital, even if motivating his guys that way isn’t always possible.
“We’ve tried to simplify what we’ve done,” Bickerstaff said, rather than making any big alterations on the fly. “Trying to get better in smaller areas, and then hopefully grow those into larger things.”
Guys are coming around. Rays of light like January’s five-game streak are present, even if they’re tough to focus on after losing three of the next four. The path to the end of the tunnel no longer feels impossibly long.
“I think we’re one run away from being the team that we think we can be,” Bickerstaff said.
Whether they ever make that charge could determine if Bickerstaff can shed the interim title next season. Whispers around the league peg summer 2016 as a potential hot bed of coaching movement, with titans of the industry poised to fill what could be numerous vacancies. General manager Daryl Morey has never been the most patient sort in Houston; Bickerstaff needs to prove his worth over a flashier name, and on-court results are the easiest way to do it.
“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Bickerstaff said. “Obviously we’ve had our ups and downs… when you’re transitioning, you’re still going to have those tough moments… I think our guys are positive, and we need to stay positive. We need to find the joy in it and have some fun, and see what happens.”
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