Management quickly moved to secure head coach Kevin McHale’s seat shortly after the team’s ouster from the postseason in the first round. I speculated at the time that the move was more a show of cohesion on the public front (with the team very much in the free agent market) rather than an actual show of confidence in McHale’s abilities. After all, even national observers scratched their heads collectively over some of Houston’s strategic miscues. I noted, at times, the team did not even appear to have a gameplan, appearing lost defensively; and there was, of course, the last play of the season.
But to delegate the assignment of “learning to use a clipboard” as McHale’s summer task would be unfairly reductive and an improper commentary upon the head man’s role within the organization. After all, he’s respected, liked by both his star players, and by all accounts, in ownership of full faith in his lockerroom. And he brought Dwight Howard to Houston. Those things are of tremendous value.
I’ve argued, and others have noted, that in today’s NBA, the duty of greatest import for the club’s head man is of leadership. To that end, McHale, having had the ear of his players still several years in, has exceeded expectations. That is not a common feat. A coach should be able to lead and inspire and the former Celtic great has done just that, helping the team navigate the tumultuous waters of the Western Conference.
I’ve come to disagree with the team’s overall on-court philosophy (a gradual process eventually punctuated by this summer’s show in the first round), arguing that the team’s repudiation of the mid-range game was overall harmful to its intended goals. I’m more firm than ever in my belief over the necessity of set plays. But these matters are not at the feet of McHale. The onus is on Daryl Morey to loosen his influence on non-personnel matters. Above all, management must hire an experienced assistant head coach. Not much of this has been made, but I’d argue now in hindsight, having concluded the Ariza-Parsons swap was an ultimate net gain, that the loss of Lionel Hollins from what seemed inevitable hiring was the actual second-biggest forfeiture of the offseason.
So what should be on Kevin McHale’s plate in what’s left of these hot months? Keep doing what you’re doing. Maybe read some self-help books on motivation. Keep Dwight Howard happy. Make up some story about how you and Larry Bird didn’t actually like each other but found a way to bond on the court and feed it to James Harden.
McHale should be lauded for his handling of the circumstances surrounding his tenure. He knew the situation going in, but he’s handled the unconventional dynamics with nothing but grace. It’s hard imagining any other legend as decorated as McHale accepting total subordination in his role as he has, and enduring the constant flux of personnel, year to year. A coach wants to know that the guys he has are the guys he is going to war with – that the chemistry built will be a lasting foundation. Kevin McHale, day to day, has not known who will be on his roster, with his boss perpetually (and rightfully) holding a glimmering eye towards the next star.
Much of McHale’s value is as a figurehead and recruiter. I do not think, for instance, Dwight Howard would be in red had the man on the sidelines been 5’9 and spent the 80’s coaching high school rather than partnering with Robert Parish in the Boston paint. But Kevin Love is gone. There’s no one left on the market. The third star will come by way of trade, if it ever comes at all. If McHale has been retained for recruitment, that value has diminished.
With another disappointing loss in the postseason, the Rockets will have decisions. They might turn to a more conventional hierarchy. But for now, McHale needs to stay the course and Morey needs to hire an assistant.