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Houston Rockets: Is Kevin McHale a Top-Tier Head Coach?

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Since the NBA offseason has drastically slowed down and teams are preparing for training camp in a couple of weeks, I figured now would be a great time to analyze the top coaches in the league, and specifically where Kevin McHale stands in the hierarchy of head coaches in the NBA.

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  • First, let’s start with some background on McHale as a coach (since most people know how great of a player he was). McHale has a  228-178 record as a head coach, good for a .562 winning percentage. That’s a very respectable track record, especially considering that McHale didn’t coach very talented teams until these past two seasons. However, I am going to focus on what McHale has done recently with the Rockets, since he has been dealt a very good team to coach in the past two seasons from general manager Daryl Morey.

    In the past two seasons with the Rockets, McHale has posted a 110-54 record, which is very good. However, McHale and the Rockets fell in the first round of the playoffs in the 2013-14 season, prompting many to question McHale’s legitimacy as a head coach of a team with championship aspirations. I for one, was against the contract extension the Rockets gave McHale in December of 2014, mainly because he had never won a playoff series as a head coach.

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    McHale is known not for his strategical prowess,  but rather for his ability to connect with his players. Dwight Howard listed McHale as one of the key reasons he decided to join the Rockets. However, I (as well as many analysts) had doubts as to whether McHale could truly coach a team deep into the playoffs.

    Fast Forward to today, with the Rockets coming off a 56 win season, division title (first since ’93-94), and a trip to the Western Conference finals. Mchale proved doubters wrong, as he impressively led a injury-plagued Rockets team to 56 wins and a deep playoff run. I was particularity impressed with his decision to bench James Harden in game 6 of the series vs. the Clippers, as he realized that players such as Corey Brewer and Josh Smith were playing well and ultimately led the improbable comeback.

    In retrospect, it seems that the contract extension for McHale was the right move, as it looked like the team really responded well to McHale last season. Also, for a team such as the Rockets that is known for heavy player movement, McHale represents a stable constant for the team. He has built a good relationship with his star players, and has found ways to use key veterans such as Jason Terry to maximize their contributions.

    Star player James Harden has bought into Mchale’s system, and the two have built a strong relationship. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Now, here comes the tricky part. The key question is, where does McHale rank in the hierarchy of head coaches in the NBA? I think it is quite easy to rank the first tier (in no particular order) with Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Mike Budenholzer, Rick Carlisle, Doc Rivers (though I think less of him as a coach after the Clippers collapse), and Frank Vogel ahead of McHale. I respect those six coaches the most and I believe they represent the highest tier of head coaches in the NBA. Those coaches have had postseason success (sometimes more than once), and have built identities for the teams they coach. However, the next tier of coaches can get pretty tricky.

    In the second tier of head coaches in the NBA, I would put (again, in no particular order) David Joerger, George Karl, Erik Spoelstra, Stan Van Gundy, David Blatt (not entirely sold about Blatt yet), Jason Kidd, Brad Stevens, Quin Snyder and Kevin Mchale. I believe Kevin McHale has established himself in the second tier of head coaches in the NBA. I believe that the coaches in this list can lead a good team to a title, but are still below the top tier of coaches based on either playoff struggles or poor win/loss records.  Also, it is important to note I have left off rookie head coaches such as Fred Hoiberg and Billy Donovan just because I would need to see them coach for at least one season before I can comfortably put them in a tier.

    So, there you have it. I firmly believe Kevin McHale is a second tier head coach and I have (tentatively) bought in to McHale being the coach that can lead the Rockets to a title. I expect (barring any major inuries) the Rockets to have another deep playoff run this upcoming season, which may change McHale’s status in the hierarchy of head coaches in the NBA. The Western Conference will be a bloodbath this season, but it is good to know that the Rockets have a very talented and deep squad and are led by an established and respected head coach in Kevin McHale.

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