After doubt, McHale finds his way with surging Rockets


At once full of doubt, Kevin McHale has quickly put his stamp on the Rockets and led them to a 20-14 record and 5th place in the West.




The NBA has quickly reached its All-Star break, and the Houston Rockets are 20-14, fifth in the West, putting them in the hunt for a postseason cameo.

Leading the charge is first-year head coach Kevin McHale. The choice of McHale – who agreed to a four-year contract last summer after the organization and Rick Adelman went their separate ways – had many Rockets fans scratching their heads: Why did the Rockets go from proven experience at the head coaching level to hardly any coaching experience what so ever?

Under Adelman, the Rockets won 193 games and won 22 games in a row at one point, the second-longest streak in NBA history. Adelman left with the highest winning percentage of any Rockets coach. The sentiment that started to spread was, “If the Rockets can’t replace Adelman with a better coach, why fire him in the first place?”

Even McHale had his doubts.

“In 34 games this season in totality, the guys, to have come where we came from that first five minute scrimmage on Dec. 9, where it was actually frightening, where I literally went home and almost cried myself to sleep … “ McHale told the Houston Chronicle in a candid discussion following the Rockets’ 93-87 win over Philadelphia Wednesday. “It was the worst basketball I’d ever seen in my life, had 10 guys holding their shorts after a minute and a half. I thought, ‘Oh, my word, we might not win a game this year

“I wonder what 0-66 will look like.”

McHale – a three-time NBA champ and three-time NBA all-defensive first team during his illustrious career as a Boston Celtic in the 80s and early 90s – has no problem proving how great of a career he had. But his tenure as vice president from 1995-2008 for the Minnesota Timberwolves entails far more criticism.

Through the ups and downs, McHale never feared to shake things up. During the 2005 season, the Timberwolves fired head coach Flip Saunders, and McHale took on the responsibility, finishing with an impressive 19-12 record, but showed no interest in coaching after that season.

A few years passed and McHale gave coaching another chance, but finished with a disappointing 20-43 record.

“If you keep preaching team first, team first, team first, everybody buys in,” McHale said. “That’s what you want.”

In his third go-round as head coach this season, McHale has surprised many with his unique style of coaching. As opposed to Adelman, who stuck by his rotation even if it was struggling, McHale adopts a looser strategy. If you aren’t producing on the court, you can take your talents to the bench. Just ask Kevin Martin, a proven scorer who hasn’t found a consistent rhythm under McHale. In the Adelman system, Martin would have received more time to redeem himself, but McHale wastes no time in finding what works.

January was a month the Rockets had to sustain. With hardly any time for training camp due to the abbreviated schedule, McHale had to motivate his players to keep up with the grueling lockout-driven campaign. They responded.

The Rockets won 10 games last month, which included a seven-game winning streak that proved McHale’s “lead by committee” theory suited this team well. It was a month which saw Chase Budinger lose playing time, and then late in the month regain it due to Martin fighting the flu. That’s a perfect example of McHale putting his trust in players, and asking them to step up, and players responding, knowing they can see the court at any time during any given game.

February has shown the maturation process under McHale’s leadership. Kyle Lowry continues to shine as an all-around player, and Chandler “Bang” Parsons has shown shades of old Rockets favorite Shane Battier. Though Parsons’ offensive game requires some much needed attention, his defensive efforts have propelled the Rockets in the right direction. Courtney Lee has stepped up his shooting and given McHale a true threat off the bench. Patrick Patterson has taken time to recover from his injury woes, but looks comfortable, and has received more consistent playing time, particularly late in games.

These Rockets are a deep team, and without such depth McHale would be battling with what he has instead of being able to utilize a plethora of rotations.

Still, not all is well. Hiring a new coach hasn’t brought fortune to players like Jonny Flynn, Terrence Williams and Hasheem Thabeet, all former lottery picks who could very well still thrive in the right situation. Williams, who finds himself in a logjam behind two second round picks, knows his future does not lie with Rockets. Thabeet can’t seem to convince anyone he’s capable of using his height at a competitive level, and Flynn finds himself behind two quality point guards.

Fans that were optimistic that forward Jordan Hill would benefit greatly by having a “big man” coach teaching him the ropes haven to be disappointed in reality.

“They went from a group that was really, really, really hard for me to coach to a group I’m starting to enjoy,” McHale said. “I don’t want to enjoy them too much. We’ll lose their edge.”

Fans across the NBA know from his time on television that McHale is not a reserved individual. He’s optimistic, motivated and has an undeniable passion for the sport of basketball.

McHale’s fans can see it, his peers can see it, and, most importantly, his players can see it.

“I couldn’t sleep when I played poorly. That game bothered me so much I couldn’t sleep. Finally, I woke up the next morning and I made a pot of coffee and said ‘I’m going to stew for three or four hours and sit here.’ I honestly wondered, ‘What am I doing? Why did I take this job? I got to be out of my mind.’

“Then the guys battled back. They respond, and you go ‘I love coaching.’”