Grading Kevin McHale's Job as Houston Rockets Coach This Season

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Grading Kevin McHale's Job as Houston Rockets Coach This Season
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Kevin McHale did an excellent job of guiding his young Rockets team.

Kevin McHale and the Houston Rockets had an extremely eventful season. 

Through the ups and downs and the battles of adversity, the Rockets were able to reach the playoffs for the first time in four years. 

The adversity included a roster makeover with Chandler Parsons the only player from last season to end the season still on the Rockets. There were also rotation tweaks, mid-season trades and, above all, the death of McHale’s daughter, Alexandra, who lost her battle with lupus at the age of 23.  

Though it was a tough year for McHale, he showed his commitment to the team, returning to coach Dec. 8, less than a month after he lost his daughter. That commitment earned him added respect from his players. 

Jeremy Lin told Howard Chen of CSNHouston.com:

Every time I feel like things are going rough on my end, I always try to think about Coach, you know, how he has to show up to work every day with a smile on his face, get to work even though he had to mourn the death of a loved one. Just his determination to come back as quickly as he came back and join the team - we've all grown to really respect him for that.

Immediately upon his return, the Rockets went 12-5 with two separate five-game winning streaks. After the Rockets beat the Boston Celtics, McHale was approached by Kevin Garnett to express his condolences in a heartfelt moment on the basketball court.

McHale drafted Garnett in Minnesota and the two have a relationship, but this was special.   

It takes more than drawing up plays to be an effective coach. McHale formulated game strategies around the strengths of the group he had. What he had was simple—shooters.   

For McHale, the 2012-13 season was an experiment that went much better than anyone could have expected. Offensively, he gave his team the freedom to play its game.  

James Harden was acquired five days before the start of the season and McHale wasted no time  in making Harden his go-to guy. From sixth-man to "the man", McHale effectively turned Harden into the franchise player. 

With no preseason to get used to the style of his teammates, McHale gave the biggest scoring threat on the team increased playing time. Harden played over 40 minutes a total of 36 times during the regular season, plus four of six postseason games.

Before Harden was even accustomed to his new team, it was clear from the first game that McHale had decided to let his new shooting guard control the offense. You can see the highlights of his first Rocket game here: 

To get his players comfortable and more familiar with each other, McHale played all of his starters extra minutes in the early going. Often criticized for his rotation patterns and changes throughout the season, McHale played the guys he thought could get the job done at the moment.

I'm not saying he was perfect this year, but with all the roster changes, new players brought in and others shipped out, plus his personal struggles, McHale did a fine job of maneuvering through various lineups. 

There were a few instances where he clearly made the wrong decision, though. On March 29 against the Memphis Grizzlies, the starters sat on the bench in the fourth quarter of a single-digit game.

As McHale gave his team the freedom to shoot, Chandler Parsons seemed to benefit the most.

He was a huge part of the success of the Rockets owning the best field goal percentage (62.5), the best three-point percentage (45) and averaging the most minutes (38 per game) for the high-scoring Rockets' offense.

When they were spreading the floor, finding open space and letting it loose, McHale’s team was dangerous. With the swing four in Parsons, the Rockets were able to attempt many long-range shots. During the regular season, they trailed only the New York Knicks in hitting on three-pointers (867, 36.6 percent). 

The highlight of the season came in the next clip, where the Rockets shared the ball at its finest. It emphasizes the freedom that McHale gave his team to shoot, as well as coaching to the strengths of his players. Eight players scored in double figures and nine players connected on three-pointers. 

What McHale was able to do was to get the most out of his players. He stuck with the fast-paced, up-tempo offense that scores in transition and the quick, catch-and-shoot off a screen.

Lacking a dominant post player, McHale utilized the pick-and-roll. With Harden and Lin, he has two of the best pick-and-roll players in the league in his backcourt. Center Omer Asik is a great rebounder, but he doesn't possess a strong post game. 

Instead of trying to force a post play, McHale let his backcourt make the decisions and the pick-and-roll was a play performed flawlessly throughout the course of the season.

McHale also implemented GM Daryl Morey's use of advanced statistics. The mid-range jumper, in Morey's eyes, is simply not effective. Spreading the floor and running in transition—two of the staple products of Houston's run and gun offense——lead to more quality shots than perimeter jumpers.

This is part of the reason we didn't see many mid-range jumpers this season. The majority of the points came from dunks, lay-ups and long range.

Here is the Rockets' season shot chart, courtesy of Vorped.com.

Shot Chart courtesy of Vorped.com

The one problem for the Rockets was their defense. They allowed opponents to average 102.5 points to rank 28th in the NBA for defense. This problem can't really be put on McHale's shoulders, however. While he can bark orders from the sideline, he can't play defense himself. 

If Houston played defense, then we could still be watching the Rockets in the playoffs.

Mistakes are made during the course of a grueling season. Sure, McHale had his share of mental lapses where he didn’t use the correct players in a given situation, but he went with who he could trust on the floor every night. 

What grade does Kevin McHale deserve for his coaching this season?

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It may not have looked like it, but McHale tried to motivate his players and get them to play up to their potential. He wouldn't hesitate to put in a substitute. It may have seemed like he only sat Lin, but while other players flourished, Lin struggled to fit into the system. 

This team accomplished everything it set out to do and more. The Rockets far exceeded their expectations and that’s in large part due to McHale, who went with the rotation that was working and finished a season that he can proudly call a success.

After all, he coached the youngest team in the NBA to the playoffs. Given their solid core of players, the possibilities are endless for the future of McHale’s Rockets. This summer will be a time for them to grow together, McHale included.

A 45-win team should allow the coach to earn some recognition. Finishing ninth in the NBA Coach of the Year voting, McHale deserves a grade of B for his coaching this season.

McHale wasn't the best coach, but he was sure above average.  

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