- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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HOUSTON -- You look at the bleak record and the darkest bags ever under his eyes and you are prone to conclude that Jeff Van Gundy isn't just a troubled coach.
You see the stress in his face and figure that he must be a coach in trouble, too.
That's not exactly so.
He is, but he really isn't.
Van Gundy is in the hot seat because this is the NBA. If you're not Gregg Popovich or Jerry Sloan, you're pretty much guaranteed to hear about your job security after a couple seasons. Sooner, probably.
That said ...
Van Gundy is also a fair bit luckier than his look suggests.
When the Houston Rockets went to Dallas last May and lost a Game 7 by the humiliating score of 116-76, it was Tracy McGrady -- not Van Gundy -- who absorbed most of the fallout for the Rockets' failure to take their season into the second round. The painful exit, after Houston seized a 2-0 series lead with two road wins, didn't prevent Van Gundy from receiving a one-year extension to his contract.
When McGrady missed eight games this month with a back injury and the Rockets lost all eight, it was Yao Ming -- not Van Gundy -- who was bashed hardest for failing to keep the rest of the Rockets closer to .500.
When the Rockets hired Van Gundy to succeed the legendary Rudy Tomjanovich, Van Gundy's reputation as an elite coach won him the opportunity. Only now, in a season expected to put that status up for evaluation, Van Gundy has been reduced to finger-crossing as much as he's coaching. Which makes it tough for anyone to nit-pick his decision-making.
In their current state -- best described as openly praying that McGrady's iffy back doesn't get any worse -- Van Gundy and the Rockets can't prove anything. They're just trying to get back to respectable, having desperately needed a victory Tuesday night over Atlanta to hike their record to a meager 4-11.
"This is how the NBA goes," Ol' Raccoon Eyes said this week, hours before McGrady's return halted the longest losing streak of Van Gundy's coaching career at seven games.
"It's very humbling. I've learned that over the years. No one is above bad stretches."
"You get what you deserve in this league and we're getting what we deserve right now. I'm getting what I deserve as a coach and we're getting what we deserve as players. ... I've got to try to come up with some answers."
That's true. That's what coaches are supposed to say and do, no matter who is in or out of the lineup. Especially coaches in Van Gundy's salary bracket of $4 million to $5 million per season.
Yet it's more true that McGrady's injury vulnerability has actually given Van Gundy some added cushion against heavy criticism. The pressure on the coach would be significantly heavier if McGrady was at full capacity, because then Houston would be forced to live up to all those lofty preseason expectations.
Which might have been an even bigger problem for Van Gundy than his current predicament.
Reason being: Houston might have been the most overrated team coming into the new season.
The Rockets were a popular choice to emerge as the West's No. 1 threat to overwhelming conference favorite San Antonio, with Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire undergoing knee surgery in training camp and Yao getting his long-awaited athletic sidekick (Stromile Swift) in the offseason. McGrady promptly developed knee soreness in camp, followed by a nasty fall in practice that bent his back on Nov. 4, and the injuries have shifted the focus away from the Rockets' long list of shortcomings.
They need a dependable No. 3 scoring option even when McGrady plays through the pain. They don't have anyone outside of McGrady and Yao to consistently occupy the defense, let alone someone to punish the opposition for smothering Yao when T-Mac's out. As a group, they look more than a year older and slower. They're also badly missing glue guy Bob Sura, who's likely out for the season with his own back torment, and have since lost Jon Barry and Rafer Alston for the short term.
The list keeps going. Swift was billed as an impact signing, but his snail-slow transition to Van Gundy's system has quickly resuscitated all the old concerns about Swift's work ethic and basketball IQ. The Rockets made three great trades last season to find pieces that snapped in around T-Mac and Yao -- acquiring important pieces David Wesley, Barry and Mike James -- but the first trade they swung this season (James for Rafer Alston) looks like a rare coup for beleaguered Toronto Raptors general manager Rob Babcock.
The Rockets' formerly solid shooting and team defense have also been suspect, but Van Gundy -- with two seasons left on his contract after this one -- hasn't had to answer for any of it. Yet.
He also, not surprisingly, doesn't disagree with the new theory that the Rockets were too highly regarded by the prognosticators.
Asked if he has at least seen glimpses of the Rockets so many of us envisioned in McGrady's seven games, Van Gundy said: "That's presupposing that your guys' [visions] were the same as mine. I wouldn't confuse those two.
"I saw us as a team that lost a very valuable component in Sura and had older players that had a resurgent year [last season]. When you think that will automatically duplicate itself, that is an assumption that is very risky.
"I wasn't as bold as some because I also know how fragile it is."
Said Barry: "Obviously no one expected us to get off to this kind of start, but I think our coach expected it with the way we kind of cruise-shifted through the preseason. I think we [as a team] just thought that because we made some good additions and had our core back that everything was going to be peaches and cream. It never works likes that.
"Each one of us has to say that we're tired of this crap. I know we're better than this."
Such sentiments should encourage Van Gundy. He'll want to hear that the Rockets want to battle, because the risk for a hard-driving, pessimistic coach like Van Gundy is that a team will choose to tune out before it fights on.
Hearing Van Gundy publicly pooh-pooh the grandiose forecasts about these Rockets only supports the idea that he's too controlling and negative and bound to wear on his players. Yet McGrady forcefully scoffs at the suggestion that he or anyone else in the locker room is growing weary of Van Gundy's frequent harangues.
"He's a great coach and he knows his [expletive]," McGrady said. "If we could just go out there and do what he tells us each and every day ... we will be successful.
"We have the utmost respect for coach. ... It doesn't bother us when our coach calls us out. He's just doing his job."
As the tired eyes suggest, Van Gundy is obviously trying as hard as he can with a roster that, unlike brother Stan's in Miami, doesn't exactly offer an Alonzo Mourning-level counter to a major injury.
Peers have often described him as inflexible, but his Houston history contradicts the notion. He allowed the Rockets to play more a wide-open game last season than seen with the Knicks, and this season Van Gundy is starting a rookie (Luther Head) he hadn't even planned on playing much, in the quest to find some footspeed.
For weeks he has lamented Houston's effort and focus and countless breakdowns in pick-and-roll defense. Yet you ask Van Gundy about individual strugglers, such as Yao and Swift, and he defends them vigorously. Yes, even Swift.
"To continue to dissect ourselves for public consumption is fruitless," Van Gundy said. "I just think, right now, we've all been dissected enough.
"In the NBA," he adds, "things can change from good to bad and from bad to good very quickly."
Said McGrady: "This was a top-five team before everything started happening to us. You weren't wrong. I thought this was going to be a real special year for this team.
"Now we're in a deeper hole than we were last year at the start of the season ... but I still think there's a good chance that we can get to where we want to by the end of the season. I think we have what it takes to be at that next level if we are healthy and if we're focused and that's what he is emphasizing every day."
He being the famously hard-to-please coach who, let's face it, would probably look troubled if the Rockets were 11-4.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Marc Stein talks to Jeff Van Gundy and Tracy McGrady about Houston's season so far.