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Report cards: Kevin McHale

I am loath to dole out grades.  I’ve never done it.  Why?  Because it presents a veil of finality.  Not every issue is closed or can be defined by the assignment of a single character.  But I’ll do it.  Psychologists will tell you that people like grades because people want conclusions.  Whilst casual reading, people don’t want to be left with open-ended analysis; they want a concrete takeaway in concise form.  So with that, I’ll do this…for you guys.  But know I hate such gross oversimplification in assessment.

We’ll start this series with Kevin McHale.  I’ll work through every major figure associated with the team, or until I grow tired of the whole thing.  That could very well happen as early as like the Kevin Martin issue or even last up to Hasheem Thabeet.  We’ll see.  Actually, I had been working on (putting off) a ‘season in review’ piece, but realized I needed to do some of the major thinking in more detail and figured this series would help.  Anyways, without further ado, I present to you the Kevin McHale installment.

Grade: C+

That grade could also be considered as fairly generous.  Had you asked me, as some did, what I’d have given McHale with a few weeks still remaining in the season (ie: prior to ‘The Collapse’), my response would have been ‘A’ or ‘A-‘ at the very worst.  He had a new team with a new system in position to contend for homecourt advantage, all in the face of a flurry of injuries to the team’s expected best players (Martin, Lowry).  Then ‘The Collapse’ happened.

It’s typically unfair to assign blame or the majority of it to any one individual for the failure of a joint venture.  But in this case, given the circumstances, we must.

It would be one thing to go out and lose games through various manners of ineptitude.  But when a team comes out and loses six in succession, in the most critical stretch of the year, in the same freaking manner in EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM, that my friends, is on no one else but the coach.  McHale did not have the Rockets prepared to start those third quarters [in which they were manhandled in routine fashion.]

Also maddening, as most here have noted, was his insistence on playing Luis Scola at the ‘5’, a lineup formation which routinely saw the team get crushed in the paint.  One would think McHale would have learned around the 5th or 6th time the strategy cost the team a game.

On that note, a brief point: upon reflection earlier today, I realized that in the nine seasons since Jeff Van Gundy first took over the team, through his stint and Rick Adelman’s, never once before this season did I ever think to myself during a game, regarding the coach, “what the hell is he thinking with that?”  From his wacky lineups and rotations, to his total inability to adjust or make teams adjust in-game*, I said that to myself this year, several times.  That mainly speaks to how great Van Gundy and Adelman were at their craft, but it should be noted.

*Another point: Good coaches make the opponent adjust.  Kevin McHale adjusts to opponents.

**Yet another point: the home affair against Minnesota, when Pekovic obliterated Houston on the PnR, was a classic example of one coach getting completely schooled by the other.  McHale had absolutely no answer for any of the sets Adelman threw his way.  In fact, one could probably point to any of the Wolves-Houston games similarly.

In fairness, the magnitude of the task presented to McHale this year should not be understated.  He took on a new team in a compressed season with no training camp and a shortened preseason.  For anyone, that responsibility would be considerably daunting.  We on the outside far too often overlook the human element of sports, not appreciating the amount of preparation it requires to interweave fifteen young men into a complex system and ready them to compete against the world’s best.

Also overlooked and taken for granted is that Chuck Hayes had been the focal point of the team’s offense.  While appreciated for his defensive work, Hayes might have been even more vital to the team at the other end with his passing and ball-handling from the high post.  With his departure, the team had to integrate a completely new system.

For the above reasons, in combination with the injuries to Martin and Lowry***, were it not for the sheer magnitude of the collapse, one would have had to give McHale an A.  But due to the egregiousness of the collapse, my stated grade is appropriate.

***Had you removed the expected two best players off of any team already lacking in talent and seen that team still remain competitive, you could only label that coaching job as extraordinary.  On the contrary, though, one could also perhaps argue that this chain of events spoke more to the nature of the Rockets’ roster and its total evenness of quality from 1-12.

The Weird Part

The rumors had swirled that Adelman was axed largely in part due to his refusal to develop young talent.  Through this, many naturally concluded that the McHale hiring was made in line with this objective.  Yet curiously, the team’s “number one overall pick” (to steal from Bill Worrell’s malprop. habit of referring to first round draft picks as such), Marcus Morris, languished on the bench for the entirety of the season.

When Morris was sent to the D-League, I defended that decision.  With management’s desire to convert him to the ‘3’ (from his natural ‘4’), he needed time to learn that position and test new things against inferior players.  But once back up, it was odd that he wasn’t given a chance.  One could argue that Chandler Parsons was playing at a near All-Star level, but the team was short-handed, missing Kevin Martin.  Chase Budinger also disappeared for stretches at a time.

Late in the year, after a game in which Morris finally did get in, scoring a few hoops in isolation in the first half, he then didn’t see any minutes after intermission.  When I asked McHale about that decision, his response gave some insight into his overall thinking: he said that he had taken out Morris because the rookie had picked up his own man defensively on one particular possession, not realizing that the good guys were employing zone.

Now, to be sure, such gaffes are costly.  But how is a young player to learn without getting opportunity to make such errors?  One might point to Chandler Parsons as counter-illustrative to the point on McHale and player development.  But Parsons from the start, never made errors.  How will a team ever develop high-potential young talent if the coach takes such a conservative approach?  Pointing to players like Parsons or even Patterson doesn’t negate the point because their main  strengths are their IQ.  Neither are particularly ‘high potential’ either.  The vast majority of ‘high potential’ young prospects lack in that area and need to be given time to allow their physical gifts to pay fruits.  (Terrence Williams is, of course, the other major example.  The team spent a first round pick to acquire him only to see him languish on the bench before being released.)

This begs an interesting question: what did Morey think about these decisions?  This question in turn demonstrates the agency dilemma inherent in almost every institutional sector, from business to political systems.  Individuals intrinsically do not have the same motivations and objectives as their superiors or the institution at large.  Minimizing this cost is the challenge.  (For example, directors will not inherently have the same motivations as shareholders of a corporation.  Thus, incentives and restrictions are put in place.)

Similarly, Kevin McHale faces a situation where after nearly destroying the Minnesota Timberwolves organization with his mismanagement, he has been given a fresh coaching opportunity.  It would be naive to think that he cares as much about the long-term health of the Rockets as he does about getting a successful first season under his belt and on his resume to change the perceptions of his peers and future potential employers.

This situation is also why models like the Spurs’ work so well.  Greg Poppovich, while the coach, also enjoys tenure and complete control, for the most part, of personnel decisions, in tandem with R.C. Buford.  The Spurs get off to slow starts almost every season because Poppovich sacrifices games to integrate the stream of young talent coming through the pipeline.  He has no fear of repercussion if the risk taken fails.  Conversely, while Morey is provided these high-risk prospects (Williams, Morris), McHale this season did not find the personal risk to be one worth taking.  One can only wonder how much financial waste has been incurred by the team through the former Celtic’s rejection of the team’s analytics program.

Conclusion: 

McHale certainly shouldn’t be fired, especially not with guaranteed money on the books.  But make no mistake, the Rockets took a clear step backward in the coaching department.

One of the stated pros of the hiring was that McHale could tutor and develop the team’s numerous young big men.  Hasheem Thabeet and Jordan Hill both regressed and are now gone.  Patrick Patterson severely regressed.

With a full summer and training camp, McHale will have chance to work with Patterson and rookie Donatas Motiejunas.  He’ll also get chance to more fully work in his system.  This upcoming year will be a referendum on his post-playing career.

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About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.