The end of the T’wolves’ McHale era: 8 things I learned today … and coaching candidates galore

Kevin McHale

timberwolves.com
Kevin McHale

Eight things I learned — or at least thought about — today while covering the end of Kevin McHale’s 16-year run with the Timberwolves:

1. On Monday morning, as the Wolves’ new president of basketball operations, David Kahn, chatted with reporters about the pros and cons of McHale’s future with the team – which turned out to be a ver-r–ry short future – I asked him, “Since you’re planning to have a long career as an NBA team executive, how many coaches do you think you’ll fire and hire over the course of that career?”

Kahn nodded his assent, while voicing the politically correct caveat that everyone’s preference is not to do that. Well, sure. We’d all love to see coaches and their teams stick together like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward – think Jerry Sloan and the Utah Jazz – when the reality is more like Nicolas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley. Based on the eight NBA head coaches fired during the recently completed season (including the Wolves’ Randy Wittman, replaced in December by McHale) you’d swear that some general managers and others in Kahn’s position have a daily to-do list with “7. Fire the coach” and “8. Hire a new one” pre-printed on it.

Kahn’s current firing pace: One per month.

I don’t know if Kahn’s mind was as open on the issue of McHale’s continued employment as he wants us all to believe. When McHale got stripped of his VP title and went to the bench 19 games into the season, this scenario — one foot out, second soon to follow — was the heavy favorite. When Kahn made sure that McHale did not participate in the workout combine that the Wolves hosted at Target Center earlier this month, that seemed a telltale sign. And when the chief basketball exec talked repeatedly about how, in this process, he didn’t want to hurt McHale, it seemed like something your dentist says while all you can do is stare at the big drill he just picked up.

The clincher, though, was Kahn’s read of public sentiment on McHale, unfavorable enough that it became unfeasible to separate Kevin the Coach from Kevin the GM. Opinions of people Kahn sampled, he said, were simply cranky over the Wolves’ dreary plight and mismanagement from a Western Conference contender to five consecutive out-of-the-playoffs finishes.

McHale, of course, had everything to do with that from his perch in the front office (as much as any one man can) and very little to do with it from his two brief stints as coach. I’ve written it before in several places: McHale as coach was pretty good, well beyond his work as team exec. He connected with his players, challenged them, never feared them. He had an intuitive feel for games that you’d expect from a Hall of Fame player, yet didn’t overvalue talent or underrate hard work. He appeared passionate about the teaching, the practices, the development.

But this is a team desperate to sell tickets, one whose profile never has been lower in the Twin Cities. Popularity and spin mattered today. And maybe a little apprehension about McHale having strong opinions about where the Wolves go from here. “This is going to be a transition period still,” Kahn said. And with the changes that have occurred and the changes that are still to come, it would have been difficult to put him in the middle of that again. I really felt that way.”

2. Forward Al Jefferson, whose season-ending knee injury forced McHale to work without the team’s one almost-All-Star over the final 32 games, said he made it clear to Kahn how much he enjoyed playing for McHale, one former Boston Celtics big man clicking with another.

Jefferson’s thoughts now? “I would feel a lot worse today if I would not have went to David two weeks ago and told him how I felt about Kevin McHale,” Jefferson said in a phone hook-up with reporters at Target Center. “The decision still came out the way it did. I told him again, I respect that and I’m going to roll with it. I did my part letting him know how I felt about Kevin McHale. I don’t think it’s my job to tell him what kind of coach or put my input on the new coach.”

Offensive-oriented or defensive-minded coach? Above Jefferson’s $12 million pay grade … er, not his job to decide that, he said.

Good cop or bad cop? Same. Although the power forward did say: “To me, [McHale] was both of them. He was the type of guy who could communicate with you, and if he was upset he would get in your face too. … Some of us players are knuckleheads and need a coach to really get down on them and get in their face. There’s also some time to sit down and communicate and talk to the player as a man.”

3. Now we know why they call it Twitter. Wolves forward Kevin Love scooped everyone when he posted — as in, leaked — the news of McHale’s departure on the relentlessly ballyhooed networking site in the wee hours today. It was a fairly serious breach of protocol, linking Love with Milwaukee Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva as NBA players who have tweeted themselves into trouble. Villanueva got busted posting on Twitter during halftime of a game last season.

“I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet,” Jefferson said. “But I really believe everybody ought to let him know that was a bad mistake.” Kahn, however, said he wasn’t upset and that Love shouldn’t feel bad.

4. The uncertainty that hung over McHale now shifts to the personnel staff — Fred Hoiberg, Jim Stack, Rob Babcock, Zarko Durisic — and naturally to the assistant coaches, who will be even more vulnerable to the replacement’s preferences. Certain insiders pick Hoiberg as the surest bet to stay, based on owner Glen Taylor’s once overly exuberant portrayal of the former Wolves guard as an heir apparent to McHale.

5. Watching and listening to Kahn up at a podium for the second time in four weeks — his hiring was the first — was a reminder that, after a decade-and-a-half of an old-school basketball guy running the hoops part of the franchise, the suits really are in charge now, boy.

6. I calculated this stat for my SportsIllustrated.com piece, but think it’s worth sharing here: McHale coached the Wolves in 94 games, first going 19-12 as Flip Saunders’ replacement in 2004-05 and then 20-43 in relief of Wittman. No other coach in franchise history beats his mark of 39-55, .414.

Dwane Casey, fired in January 2007 while the team was in playoff contention with a 20-20 record, also went 39-55 through 94 games. But at least Casey had Kevin Garnett to win with. Saunders was 34-60 to the same point. Bill Musselman got things going 20 years ago by going 26-68. Less good: Sidney Lowe (27-67), Bill Blair (24-70), Wittman (23-71) and Jimmy Rodgers (19-75).

The team’s first eight coaches all were permitted to work beyond 94 games, each of them at least getting the chance to run his own training camp. By subjective measures, McHale probably ranks second only to Saunders in competency among the Wolves coaches.

7. Next for McHale? A TV gig, if he wants one. He would be best working games as a color analyst, but also would be fine logging desk duty on a studio show. His, ahem, work with Kevin Harlan on long-ago Wolves broadcasts — more like “Mystery Science Theater 3000” back then — made some horrible games watchable.

8. Kahn said he would not begin the task of hiring a new head coach until after the NBA draft on June 25. He said he has no penciled list, no queue of candidates in mind.

Coaching candidates
Fine. But we do. Here are some names you might be hearing:

• Sam Mitchell / The former Wolves forward is dying to get back after getting fired in Toronto and the money he has coming on his Raptors contract into 2010-11 means Taylor could get him relatively cheap. But Mitchell might be a better fit for a more veteran team, more poised to win. The same goes for Terry Porter, the former Wolves guard fired by Phoenix.

• Tom Thibodeau / The Celtics’ defensive guru, this career assistant was on Musselman’s inaugural staff and gets much praise for his preparation. But he has been interviewed plenty without getting a top job, enough to make you wonder.

• Bill Laimbeer / How much might this sting if Laimbeer, an old McHale nemesis, were to get his job? The former Pistons bully abruptly quit his WNBA gig in Detroit to dedicate himself to landing an NBA post.

• Kurt Rambis / This would be even more ironic, if the guy McHale became famous for clotheslining in the 1984 Finals ended up with the payback of taking over his team. Rambis, a Lakers assistant, was a candidate for the Sacramento job Paul Westphal just got. Another Lakers assistant, Brian Shaw, might merit a look here, too.

• Casey / Don’t laugh. Well, OK, laugh, because it won’t happen. But Casey probably fits the current Wolves roster better now than he did as a rookie head coach taking over a team with loftier expectations. Plus, they fired him when he was .500, so they owe him one.

• Elston Turner / Another former player and proven assistant who has been mentioned and interviewed with increasing frequency around the NBA.

• Avery Johnson / No candidate can match his track record of NBA success (fastest coach in history to reach 100 victories). But he didn’t impress Dallas players or observers with his inconsistent rotations or his bedside manner.

• Mike Budenholzer / As Gregg Popovich’s right-hand man in San Antonio, you’d think his name would come up more often. It ought to for this vacancy.

• Mark Jackson / People expected Jackson to move from the green room of TV work into a head coaching job. But his lack of sideline experience still is an issue. Besides, we always need announcers to unceasingly remind us that Finals games are for all the marbles. Thanks, Mark.

• Doug Collins / His ego would suggest that he’d want a phone call from Kahn. Or that he’d place one to nominate himself. But word is, as much as he wanted the Bulls job last year or the Sixers job this year, he wouldn’t be excited about Minnesota now.

• Jeff Van Gundy / Stan’s younger brother is a year or two away from a return to coaching. But it would be a handy way for McHale to get a TV gig, if the two essentially swapped jobs.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Matt Linngren on 06/17/2009 - 08:32 pm.

    That’s funny… I calculated Kahn’s firing rate as once per millenium!

  2. Submitted by scott gibson on 06/17/2009 - 10:51 pm.

    Nice writing, as are your pieces with Sports Illustrated. Please don’t let the new coach be Van Gundy or Jackson. I felt their commentary was inane. My favorite commentators are former coaches Hubie Brown and Dr. Jack Ramsey. Both are far more analytical than JVG or Jackson. And, although he was my favorite Wolf of all time, please don’t let it be Sam Mitchell. I think your appraisal of his fit here would be correct.

  3. Submitted by Brad Lundell on 06/19/2009 - 10:47 am.

    Nice work Steve. Regardless of how any of us feel about McHale as a person, this really had to happen.

  4. Submitted by Steve Aschburner on 06/19/2009 - 11:49 am.

    — Matt
    What can I say? Fun with numbers!

    — Scott
    Has the name of Rick Pitino been floated yet for the Wolves job? The Louisville coach came up this morning when I spoke with someone who knows someone who… hey, this is the Internet age of reportage. Oh, and glad you’re finding me across this Web. I hear it’s worldwide.

    — Brad
    Any freshly hired exec who got Kahn’s job, other than maybe Jerry West or Larry Bird, and wasn’t explicitly told “McHale has to be brought back next season” would have made this move. I understand that. But once we were told McHale would be evaluated only as a coach, I chose to believe that and evaluate him that way. He wasn’t not-brought-back because of his performance as a coach.

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