Kevin McHale has a lot of basketball experience, even for a Hall of Famer. Apart from winning three championships with the Boston Celtics in the 1980s, McHale worked in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ front office for over a decade and then coached the Houston Rockets.
Now, McHale is appearing as a judge on NBA TV’s new SAP GM School, which features four NBA fans trying to show off their team building abilities. In light of GM School’s premiere, I recently spoke with McHale about the show, his experience coaching James Harden, and what players he sees continuing his legacy in the low post.
Micah Wimmer: For GM School, what sort of criteria will you be evaluating the contestants by?
Kevin McHale: Their overall knowledge of the analytics, but mostly putting a team together and their reasoning behind the types of players they chose to put in. I thought that was very interesting to me, watching the contestants explain why they chose someone for their team — why’d you choose that guy, why’d you choose him over this guy, how will he fit with your other players and a bunch of questions I thought were very pertinent to putting a team together on the floor. Because, at the end of the day, all the stuff we’re doing is an exercise… to see what this team would be in the NBA. Would it be a playoff team or a non-playoff team? Would it be a playoff team that could win a series, would it be a playoff team that could win multiple series?
Even though everyone’s looking at the same numbers, one thing you find in analytics is that everyone values different numbers a little bit more… It’s all the same numbers but looked at differently by different contestants. Honestly, in the analytics [departments] in the NBA, it’s the same thing. There are guys who swear by rebound percentage, there are guys who swear by assists and hockey assists and the amount of ball movement, so there’s a ton of different things you can look at, but at the end of the day, most of the evaluation of the contestants was how their teams fit and what kind of team it would be going forward.
Wimmer: What do you think the average fan or writer misses in their analysis of front office decisions?
McHale: I think that there’s a lot of things that go into having a successful team. Can you get that top player? Can you get that guy you can build a franchise around — LeBron James comes to mind. Can you get really top quality players? Can you get two of the top 25 players, two of the top 20 players on your team? Can you build around them? And then… How does player x fit your top two players? You better establish your top players first and then try to fit around them [players] who can make him better.
There’s so much fit in the NBA. There are only about 15-20 players who can play any style [and] drive his team to win — put this guy on a team with player x, y, and z and they’re still gonna win games. Who he’s playing with, there’s a lot of things that go into that.
From an analytics standpoint, that’s much more interesting because a lot of different people value different things. Some guys might just like scoring, he scores a lot of points, but to me, that’s always been the least impressive because usually your points scored are directly related to how many shots you take, how much time you have with the ball in your hand, all that type of stuff.
Wimmer: It’s been over a decade since you worked in the front office for the Timberwolves — how have things changed in front offices since your time with Minnesota?
McHale: Things have gotten much more analytical. Analytics has played a much bigger part at looking at everything. I think player development, because you’re getting the players younger, I think that is something management has got to do a great job of. But I think even now, when you get young kids in here, that you draft at 19 that maybe haven’t had three or four years of really high-quality coaching at the college level.
I think the game has changed somewhat too. Solid defense and great shot selection works. It worked back in the 1980s and it will work in 2019. Everybody in the analytics department says every 3 is a good 3. Well, wide open 3s being shot by good shooters are really good 3s, but wide open shots being shot by really bad shooters are still really bad shots cause they don’t make them, so how do you generate those shots? How much drives, how many times do you get fouled per game, how many times are you in the paint? The quality of shots is huge and I think that’s always been the case, but now they put a premium on the 3.
I think there needs to be a little bit more contact on the perimeter, a little bit tighter, because it’s almost impossible to defend. And then teams that aren’t really good, and even some good teams, they give up a couple fouls early in the game and then they don’t play defense anymore… Defense is still important if you have players who can stay in front of people to the best of their abilities and can contest the jump shot.
Wimmer: You were GM of the Timberwolves and oversaw the trade of Kevin Garnett after twelve seasons with the team. Do you see any similarities with that situation with what’s happening with Anthony Davis in New Orleans right now?
McHale: Yeah, a little bit. I think with Kevin, that one year we made it to the Conference Finals with Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell and lost to the Lakers who eventually lost to the Detroit Pistons. And at that point, a confluence of things happened and they decided to make a change and what happens is Kevin is a great player. He was 31 or 32 when we tried to trade him, but there were a lot of teams that just said we’re not at the point where Kevin fits well, young teams that weren’t ready to contend for a few years. So actually finding suitors was a lot tougher than I thought it would be because teams are going in different directions. New Orleans did not like the packages for Anthony Davis, and he’s still under contract for this year and next year and they decided not to make a trade. It’s tough when you’re trying to get value for a guy, it’s not easy.
Wimmer: In your playing days were renowned for your mastery in the post and vast array of moves that confounded defenders. Do you see any players today who are carrying on your legacy in the post?
McHale: I think Joel Embiid. I like what he does down there. He’s just scrappy, able to get shots off. He’s huge, really an impressive guy. I think good footwork and the ability to make a shot is imperative. I look at Jokic, who can also get shots off, with his jump hook, and his passing ability. Again, the game has changed. I think we’re going to see a little bit of a coming back to getting the ball inside a little bit more, trying to punch that thing in. I look at Karl-Anthony Towns and he has good footwork down there, he’s pretty crafty.
Wimmer: While in Houston, you coached James Harden for a few years — what do you make of his recent streak and what is it that sets him apart from other offensive superstars in the league right now and historically?
McHale: I tell you what, he’s on a roll right now. I think what makes him unique is a couple things. I think he’s got phenomenal strength. I don’t think most people realize how strong James is. James is just unbelievably powerful. He can play through contact because he’s so much stronger. And he has phenomenal basketball IQ. His shot is much better now today than when I coached him. He was more streaky back then, but now he’s really just got a beautiful stroke.
I think today’s game is just different. I don’t think you ever saw players of old, guys who had the ball as much as James does, but in today’s game, there’s a lot more isolation, a lot more high pick and roll, a lot more one on one on the perimeter.
Wimmer: Have you given any thought to returning to the front office or the sidelines?
McHale: Nah, I’ve had some opportunities. They just haven’t been right. I never say never just because I love the game.