Does Kevin McHale have what it takes to be a championship coach?
No one would question McHale's pedigree as a player or a person, but his coaching record is a topic of debate. In just under 300 games as a coach for the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves, McHale's all-time record is barely over .500, which is nothing to brag about.
Houston general manger Daryl Morey made the decision to bring in McHale as the head coach in an effort to start a new age of Rockets basketball. Yao Ming retired and Tracy McGrady was traded away, leaving Houston in rebuilding mode. Morey seized the opportunity to start building the team around his system focusing on advanced statistics, and he hired a coach who would implement that system.
That guy turned out to be McHale, and the era of Moreyball was underway. The Rockets roster consisted of a bunch of role players whose talents fit the run-and-gun style of offense, but lacked a true superstar. Morey always stockpiled a ton of assets all in the pursuit of getting a star to Houston.
In the system, the Rockets focused on efficiency. They only took efficient shots, which meant they were in the paint or behind the arc, especially in the corner. Using this style of play, a bunch of role players without a star were able to finish over .500 three straight seasons, but missed the playoffs each time.
Three straight finishes as the ninth seed in the west and the fourteenth overall pick in the draft, and then it happened.
Just when it appeared as if the Rockets were entering their worst season yet since the end of the Yao era, Morey pulled off perhaps the best trade in Houston history. He finally got his superstar James Harden in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Harden announced himself to the world that season, scoring in bunches within the Rockets' system. Houston finished the season as the eighth seed, finally making the playoffs without a seven-foot Chinese man on the roster. Even after a tough loss to the Thunder in the first round, the young Rockets impressed teams around the league and were clearly on the rise.
They also impressed Dwight Howard, who decided to leave the Lakers in L.A. and join forces with the Beard in Houston. The Rockets now have two superstars and a legitimate contending roster with the championship window wide open for years to come.
However, now we need to re-evaluate.
The Rockets' system changed with the arrival of Dwight Howard. There are still a lot of threes and pick-and-rolls, and midrange jumpers are still nonexistent, but now Houston has a post presence. Dwight gets plenty of touches down low on the block, creating an inside-out game that resembles the one the Rockets used with Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1990s.
The Rockets are no longer a team that lacks a superstar and must rely on a run-and-gun offense, which doesn't bode well in playoff basketball anyway. Houston finally is a championship contender with two stars, which means the original purpose of McHale's hiring is in the rearview mirror.
As well as Houston has played this season, they are still a step or two behind the Western Conference elite. The Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Clippers and even the Portland Trailblazers all have a better chance at making the finals this season, and it's not because their rosters are significantly better.
Scott Brooks has already led the Thunder to the finals. Gregg Popovich has won several championships in San Antonio. Doc Rivers won a championship in Boston before heading to L.A. and Terry Stotts won a championship as an assistant coach in Dallas with Dirk Nowitzki at his disposal, and now he has LaMarcus Aldridge. All of these guys are proven coaches, and unfortunately, Kevin McHale is not.
McHale is a players' coach. He doesn't yell much, and he talks to his players like they are co-workers. This type of setup is great for the locker room, but it hasn't yielded spectacular results on the court.
As many impressive wins that the Rockets have this year, they have just as many embarrassing losses. Defeats to teams like the Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Sacramento Kings and other below-.500 teams are just inexcusable. A lot of these games went down to the wire, and McHale lost the chess match against the opposing coach in the final two minutes of the game.
You have to take care of business against bad teams in the NBA. Even though the Spurs have a horrific record against contending teams, including the Rockets, they always take care of business and beat the teams that they should, which is why they will finish the season as a top-three team in the West.
The Rockets are still developing chemistry with a fairly new roster. Chandler Parsons is the only remaining player from the team that McHale took over for just two seasons ago. However, with a roster like this, regardless of the amount of time it has had to develop chemistry, there are high expectations in Houston for the next couple of years.
My prediction is that if the Rockets don't get to the Western Conference Finals this year or next, McHale will be let go. It may sound harsh, but if the organization's ultimate goal is to win a championship with this roster in place, then it becomes a move that is necessary.
Only four active coaches in the NBA have won a championship: Erik Spoelstra, Rick Carlisle, Popovich and Rivers. Coaches without pedigrees like McHale may create a great locker-room environment, but they don't win Larry O'Brien trophies.
The Rockets will have to hire an established coach if they want to bring another championship to the city of Houston. It's as simple as that.
I am a big fan of McHale as a person and as a player. He has helped this organization get back to contention level. He has definitely helped Dwight Howard's post game, and he will forever be an NBA legend.
At the end of the day, however, it's about championships, and McHale has not proven that he is capable of taking this team all the way. I'm rooting for him just as much as any Rockets fan, but unfortunately the odds are against him.