McHale's ouster appears to be latest in long line of bad decisions
Kevin McHale has best Wolves coaching record after first 94 games on bench
Minnesota fans couldn't differentiate McHale the coach from McHale the GM
Front office politics and lack of contract made McHale's ouster easy for team
So Kevin McHale gets fired by the Timberwolves at a point when, finally, he deserves to be rehired.
This team truly cannot get it right, can it?
McHale's 16-year association with the Wolves, which began immediately after his Hall of Fame stay of 13 years with the Celtics and rapidly advanced him into the role of Minnesota's chief basketball officer from May 1995 to December 2008, ended Wednesday not with a bang, not even with a whimper, but with a tweet. Forward Kevin Love, letting technology get ahead of the task, passed along info he had gotten privately from McHale by posting to Twitter for all the world to see: "Today is a sad day ... Kevin McHale will NOT be back as head coach this season."
That's how the news got out, a bit of bad form that should earn the franchise a new nickname -- consider them the Tweet-Wolves now. Beyond the style, though, there's this substance: McHale did a pretty good job as coach over the final 63 games of the 2008-09 season. Certainly respectable (13-18 with Al Jefferson in the lineup, 20-43 overall) given the team's 6-13 mark when he took over for Randy Wittman.
Then there's this: Add McHale's 19-12 mark with a more competitive squad back in 2004-05, when he fired and replaced Flip Saunders down the stretch, and McHale ranks No. 1 among all coaches in Wolves history after their first 94 games. His 39-55 (.414) record was better -- working backward, chronologically -- than Wittman (23-71, .245), equal to Dwane Casey (39-55, .414, with future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett on board throughout) and clearly superior to Saunders (34-60, .362), Bill Blair (24-70, 255), Sidney Lowe (27-67, .287), Jimmy Rodgers (19-75, .202) and Bill Musselman (26-68, .277).
Admittedly, by those standards, McHale didn't have to be Superman to leap the other guys' LEGO buildings in a single bound. Each one of those coaches, however, was given a chance to coach a 95th game. And a 96th. And beyond. Each one of them also was able to plan, run and benefit from (or not) his own training camp at least once.
The ironic thing is that, contrary to his résumé as the team's GM, McHale's performance as coach showed promise and packed attributes, to the point where some longtime observers wondered if he had missed his true post-playing-career calling.
He had an unassailable background, in terms of getting players' attention and respect, even among the youngest and most knuckleheaded. He also had a personality well-suited to coaxing, nudging and challenging them to play their best. His style might have seemed a little glib, cocky and casual for the executive suite, but it suits him on the bench. Unlike a number of NBA coaches, he doesn't fear players or resent their relative power, courtesy of their whopper guaranteed contracts. He never was a careerist, either, with one eye on the standings and the other on his next job somewhere.
Never needed to be, until now.
David Kahn, the Wolves' new president, said last month that he respected McHale's reputation, his status as a Minnesota favorite (Hibbing native, Gophers star) and the work he had done as coach. Yet rather than wait a year to settle into his own position, while McHale worked short-term with a roster of players he largely assembled, Kahn made his move now. Why? Three reasons:
Perception is reality. Kahn told some reporters Monday how surprised he was since coming to town that Wolves fans had such a negative reaction to McHale. At least the ones he encountered, he said, were "all gummed up" in their views of McHale as GM vs. McHale as coach. So even though the focus should have been solely on the latter -- and the assets McHale brought to that job -- the decision had much to do with the former.
Let's face it, this is a team desperate to sell tickets in a horrible economy, as a fading fourth among the Twin Cities' major sports attractions. It kills them to see the slack constantly cut, by the public and by local media, for the NHL's Wild, who bump along with mediocre results on the ice but a filled building each game night.
If some fans saw McHale on the sideline and immediately thought about his GM gaffes -- the Joe Smith salary-cap scandal (which involved owner Glen Taylor more than most people know), three forfeited first-round picks as penalty, other shaky draft decisions (Ndudi Ebi vs. Josh Howard, Rashad McCants vs. Danny Granger, Randy Foye vs. Brandon Roy, Love vs. O.J. Mayo) bad signings/contracts (Marko Jaric, Troy Hudson, Trenton Hassell) or the largely squandered Garnett era -- well, that meant more right now than his connection or even results as coach.
Politics matter. In this case, it is office politics. The belief within the basketball department -- and in various corners of the NBA, too -- is that front-office maneuverings are dictating the Wolves' decisions these days. The team's CEO, Rob Moor, is one of Taylor's two sons-in-law working in executive capacities. Moor took a larger role in Kahn's recruiting and hiring. Previously, he also never had much clout with the basketball side, with McHale & Co. routinely bypassing him in dealing directly with Taylor, and that didn't necessarily stop when McHale was "demoted" to the bench in December, his executive privileges allegedly curtailed. That bit back Wednesday.
Money matters, too. Pure and simple, McHale always worked on a handshake agreement with Taylor. So he had no years remaining on a contract, with guaranteed money, to protect him now. Whatever severance he takes, if any, will be due only to Taylor's relationship with him.
If you didn't know better, you might think that outside agents are setting the bar higher than the Wolves generally have set it for themselves. Like Orlando, their expansion partner in 1989, making it to a second NBA Finals before Minnesota managed to get to and lose its first. Like the Lakers, reminding everyone how tough it is and shall be out West. Like their division rivals, with the Wolves putting the worst in "Northworst."
But no, this is simply the Timberwolves deciding that they have lofty expectations and exacting standards to uphold. Right.
NBA Truth & Rumors