Last year I wrote my first article about keeping Kevin McHale. Until I decree otherwise, this is a short annual column on why the Celtic great and 50 Greatest Player deserves to continue alternating between wobbling and quietly sitting on the bench for the Houston Rockets.
Cemented. Solidified. Ensconced. Take your pick. After a few years of perceived instability (*cough,* Twitter) let's review where we are now: Kevin McHale is the unquestioned coach of the Houston Rockets.
McHale has put his tenure as general manager and head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves behind him while leading the Houston Rockets to a 189-123 regular season record over the past four years. McHale has never had a losing season with the Rockets and his tenure includes three consecutive playoff appearances capped by a run to the Western Conference Finals this past season.
Oh. Let's not forget. Kevin McHale led a pre-James Harden Houston Rockets team to a 34 - 32 record. Leading scorers of that team: Kevin Martin and Luis Scola. So despite the negative criticism on Twitter, the rotation chirping and the X's and O's mistakes, McHale has proven successful with and without multiple all-stars.
Why we don't fully appreciate Kevin McHale:
Kevin McHale isn't the best coach in the NBA: He just isn't. You could buy season tickets behind the Rockets bench and spend all game bellowing "Popovich did it" without using the phrase inaccurately.
Other than waterfalling three point attempts, the Rockets don't bring an offense or defense anyone in the NBA would remark is a masterpiece of coaching. It's more an offense and defense born of construct than execution. Pointing at the Rockets' unique stylings is more the construction preformed by Daryl Morey, the transcendent play of James Harden and the tenacious attitude of a team that's nearly always underestimated.
Kevin McHale flies under the radar:
The NBA's perception of Kevin McHale is still heavily informed by his decade-plus in the front office and bench with the Timberwolves. McHale's home-state team failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs more than once and drew more attention for their failed attempt to sign an under-the-table deal with forward Joe Smith than their investment in Kevin Garnett.
This reality showed in McHale's sixth-place finish for coach of the year last season. McHale may not be the best X's and O's coach in the league, but he deserves plaudits for leading a team who lost Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas. The vote totals for that award didn't recognize this.
Daryl Morey gets the bulk of the recognition:
The bloodline of the 2014-2015 Houston Rockets (and future teams) flows through Daryl Morey. The ping pong-playing general manager has caused every NBA franchise to revise their player acquisition strategy leaving a permanent fingerprint on the NBA. Each season, Morey continues to provide McHale the tools necessary to be successful. If you gave Brad Stevens, Frank Vogel and Kevin McHale the current version of the Sacramento Kings, McHale's team would likely under perform the other two.
But drawing such a stark comparison doesn't do Kevin McHale justice. We're judging Kevin McHale, coach of the Houston Rockets. Not Kevin McHale, NBA head coach combine participant.
Why Kevin McHale is the unquestioned coach of this team:
The players believe in him:
"He played in the league, and he has a couple of championships," Dwight Howard said. "He understands the game. He understands how tough it is to win a series, how tough it is to win four games, and that no matter what the situation is, you need to stay together and not have any negative energy, and anything is possible." Associated Press 5/25/2015
The NBA is filled with superstar players who never achieve their ceiling because they allow their relationship with a head coach, or their lack of respect for the head coach, keep them from reaching their ceiling. Here's a quick list of All-Stars who fall into this category over the last few seasons: DeMarcus Cousins, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Deron Williams, Zach Randolph, the entire Chicago Bulls roster.
That list of names isn't meant to indicate these players had bad coaches. Rather the player and coach refused to get along, didn't respect each other or built a toxic relationship that sunk their effectiveness.
By contrast, Kevin McHale is the ultimate players' coach. He spent over a decade grinding out playoff seasons and three championships when the NBA's tolerance for hard fouls far surpassed what it is today.
McHale's career commands respect the second a player joins the Houston Rockets...
Want to complain about how physical the game is? McHale played an entire playoffs with a broken foot.
Not getting your shots? McHale can tell you about playing alongside the following all-stars who made his team better: Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Bill Walton and Tiny Archibald.
Tired of coming off the bench? McHale has two Sixth Man trophies to go with his three titles.
Feel like he called the wrong set? Sorry, that play was good enough for Larry Bird. It should be good enough for you.
He's Daryl Morey's partner:
For a real dose of how Daryl Morey has permanently impacted the NBA, try Googling "Daryl Morey" along with "man genius" "dork elvis" "Shane Battier" "Moreyball" or "the guy that knew Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic could be this good."
This is Brad Pitt and Philip Seymor Hoffman liking each other while working together to teach Chris Pratt how to play first base. Morey has set the tone for the organization and it's clear a "grand vision" from the sideline is unwelcome.
McHale is cool with that. He's there to get the most out of the miscast roleplayers, misfit toys and one-dimensional three point shooters, shot blockers or speedsters. And he does it well.
This relationship goes both ways. There's several times Morey has thrown a player into a bed of thorns only to be rejected by McHale and left to sit on the bench. I'm sure if you're K.J. McDaniels or Isiah Canaan, McHale isn't your favorite coach and your agent spends a fair amount of time lobbying Morey for more playing time. But Morey trusts McHale's judgement and has shown a willingness to let him bench pieces he acquires.
Lastly, the two very clearly have a cooperative game plan for the development of younger players. Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas have all been given time to develop under this system. McHale may have little tolerance for playing rookies big minutes, but he understands the need and way to develop talent. His value in the gym on practice days is invaluable to the never ending string of undersized 4's and 5's the Rockets turn from cheap acquisition to role player.
Meanwhile, in the last two seasons we've seen Morey stash an asset like Troy Daniels or Clint Capela in the D-League for an entire season, only to have them brought up and given vital playoff minutes by McHale in a "long con" that paid off in spades in the playoffs.
McHale & Josh Smith:
Kevin McHale proved an ability to tame Josh Smith. In perhaps the most impressive display of his coaching, influence and experience he was able to convince the former franchise player to accept a bench role for the good of the team.
To be a fly on the wall of that process. A combination of McHale-Howard-Harden were able to get Smith to swallow the long twos he jacked with reckless abandon for higher value three point shots and drives to the hole.
They sold Smith on defense and took every opportunity to promote and congratulate his athleticism. In the end, the Rockets defense proved stronger and more durable with the threat of a Smith block and his rotations. Without Donatas Motiejunas there was no presence more consistent on defense down low for the Rockets.
Irrefutably, the Howard-Smith relationship was a big part of this. But Howard has proven several times in his career that he's not a leader capable of engineering this change on his own and we haven't seen the instruction from James Harden to make a change like this happen.
The fulcrum of the Josh Smith turnaround had to be Kevin McHale.
McHale is a foundation of leadership:
Dwight Howard, not a leader. James Harden, still growing into being a leader. Each player brings different leadership skills to the table, but neither strikes you as a Michael Jordan, Chris Paul or Jason Kidd leader and mentor on the floor. Harden continues to become more of a leader each season, but he still assumes the Tim Duncan role of "do as I do, trust the system." At least more so than the Chris Paul role.
Arguably the Houston Rockets have signed Jason Terry because he's the player best described as the "leader of the team." Before him, that title probably belonged to Chandler Parsons. Several years before that, Shane Battier.
McHale provides the glue to hold a team together in the final five minutes of a close game. He commands respect from the team and he provides the shoulder to lean on. Improbably he plays the role both the first person off the bench to bark at a bad call and the first person to urge everyone to calm down and move on from it.
Reporters, front offices and Twitter may not recognize it yet, but Kevin McHale has crept from the middle of the pack to the top fifth of NBA head coaches. There was no red carpet waiting for him. There's wasn't a balloon drop. Dude probably didn't even get an ice cream cake from the family. McHale creeping his way up the ladder of the head coaching ranks isn't the most distinguished path. Heck, it's not even a fact that's glamorous to write or read. But it's the truth.
Coach on, big man.