J.B. Bickerstaff spent five seasons with Rockets so when he returned Saturday it felt strange.
“Going into the visitor’s locker room is always different in a place you’ve been for five years,” Bickerstaff told SportsRadio 610 Saturday. “Riding the bus in, you know, all those small things that were commonplace are a little different. Seeing the red floor, you know, all those small things are a little weird.”
Bickerstaff, now the top assistant on David Fizdale’s staff in Memphis, who played the Rockets at Toyota Center on Saturday, finished last season as Rockets interim head coach following the dismissal of Kevin McHale 11 games into the season. He guided the Rockets to a playoff spot, but the team fell way short of expectations, though even after a 5-game playoff loss to Golden State, Bickerstaff believes they could’ve met them.
“Still to this day, I know what we had as a team,” he said. “We obviously fell short of what we wanted to achieve as a team, but guys were great, we had players that were trying to do what we wanted to do, and again, in the end, we weren’t able to get done what we wanted to get done.”
The Rockets won their first game with Bickerstaff in charge, only to follow that with three straight losses, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t moments when it seemed the team had figured things out.
“Early in the year, there was a game versus Utah, which I think capped off a 5-game win streak for us, and it felt like we were right on the cusp of turning the corner,” Bickerstaff said. “For whatever reason it didn’t happen, but there were times throughout the year, that game sticks out as one of those moments.”
It’s unclear which game Bickerstaff was talking about. The Rockets beat Utah in a home and home early in January, which started a 5-game win streak, and a stretch of nine wins in 12 games, but the Rockets followed that by losing 6-of-8. That was a microcosm of the Rockets season. The team just couldn’t sustain any success, and its former coach had an idea of why.
“Things just started to pile on top of themselves, he said. “From the beginning of the year we didn’t get off to the type of start that we wanted to get off to, so it was like we were always climbing uphill and we were always digging ourselves out of a hole and whether it’s one game or 82 games that’s hard to do.”
Still, in a tough Western Conference, the Rockets qualified for the playoffs for the fourth straight season, something the franchise hadn’t done since the 1990s, which Bickerstaff felt should’ve allowed him to continue in the position.
“I thought with the circumstances I did what I could,” he said. “As a staff, we worked at it. We put the time in. We ended up making it to the playoffs, but it didn’t work out. The year didn’t work out the way that any of us expected and when that happens changes are made.”
After meeting with Rockets owner Les Alexander and general manager Daryl Morey, Bickerstaff reportedly took himself out of the running for the permanent head coach job. A little more than five months later, Bickerstaff returned. The team he once coached is different, but the new floor at Toyota Center caught his eye.
“I like it, it’s a lot of red,” he said with a chuckle. “It is what it is.”