McHale getting squeezed in Timberwolves’ power play

Kevin McHale
Kevin McHale

Kevin McHale might be getting squeezed out of the Timberwolves by a front-office power play. Just not the one you might assume.

McHale, the NBA franchise’s chief basketball executive from May 1995 through December 2008, has been the Wolves’ public face (non-playing category) for even longer than that.

Straight from his Hall of Fame career with the Boston Celtics, the former Gophers big man and product of Hibbing went from special assistant with the Wolves to broadcast analyst to assistant general manager to vice president of basketball operations. McHale’s decade and a half in the team’s employ spans the club’s highest highs and, if not its outright lowest lows, at least many of its deepest disappointments. Hard not to, frankly, when the organization itself has been around only for 20 seasons.

McHale ended the past season as the team’s head coach, his second stint in a role in which, by standards objective and subjective, he got modest results and showed some promise. So the irony is that, of all the off-seasons in which McHale might have been evaluated harshly and forced from his job, this is the one — in his more benign and largely encouraging position — when he’s left twisting, longer and more publicly than ever.

Dysfunction remains the only constant at 600 First Ave. N.

Consider what has transpired this week: Temporarily and rather unexpectedly, the Twin Cities became the center of the pro basketball universe in the seam between the NBA playoffs’ conference championships and the 2009 Finals, which begin tonight.

Representatives from half or more of the league’s 30 teams descended on Target Center to observe seven workouts of college prospects in advance of the annual NBA draft on June 25. While the Wolves’ staff ran the unofficial “combine”‘ — the team’s assistant coaches orchestrating the 3-on-3 play and individual drills, its personnel gurus evaluating and interviewing — a veritable Who’s Who of executives, coaches, scouts and legends (local or otherwise) watched, took notes and paid a modest fee to pick up some of the Wolves’ costs.

Among the VIPs: Indiana’s Larry Bird, Boston’s Danny Ainge, New Jersey’s Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe, Houston’s Jack Sikma and Daryl Morey, Memphis’ Tony Barone, Philadelphia’s Tony DiLeo and San Antonio’s R.C. Buford. Former Wolves coaches Flip Saunders and Randy Wittman, recently hired as head coach and assistant in Washington, respectively, were around, and Tubby Smith and members of his Gophers staff stopped by.

It was, in other words, an impromptu NBA convention, casual to the max but heavy on the sort of schmoozing that can lay the groundwork for draft-night maneuvers, off-season transactions and phone calls at the trading deadline come February.

McHale, however, wasn’t there. He was, at least at one point during the week, spotted on the eighth tee of a local golf course by a reliable source, leading to the sort of wisecracks about his work ethic that have outstripped reality. The most natural thing in McHale’s world would have been for him to be in the gym this week with his cronies, in his own town, up to his 6-foot-10 neck in basketball. That he wasn’t there made his absence not just conspicuous but unnatural.

David Kahn, the Wolves’ new president of baskeball operations and the first boss officially inserted between McHale and franchise owner Glen Taylor, has said that having McHale present while his job status is being settled would be too awkward. Put too much pressure on McHale, Kahn said, and make it uncomfortable for other people there. To which I say: Huh? Watching a bunch of 21-year-olds hoop it up, while swapping stories with others of McHale’s ilk? Sending a message that he might return as Wolves coach when he might not?

Sorry, it just seems forced that McHale isn’t in the building, more than it would feel if he were there.

Insiders will tell you that the decision to stay away has been McHale’s choice as much as Kahn’s or anyone else’s in Wolves management. Kahn acknowledged to me Wednesday afternoon that he and McHale have been “circling” each other — he didn’t even quibble with the word — in meeting twice so far, without conclusion, to decide if McHale will be back. After all, what worked for McHale and Taylor when the big guy was VP of basketball ops — a handshake deal, annual ponderings whether he should continue — won’t work as an NBA head coach.

Those 30 positions require contracts, at far heftier salaries ($3 million annually and up), with time horizons that make it clear to the players in the locker room that the coach is going to be around beyond this season or this week. Or, at least, management has a financial incentive to keep the coach around beyond this season or this week. That McHale doesn’t have that protection from the Wolves — along with the assurance that money coming free under the salary cap will be spent on roster improvements rather than backfilling for the owners’ losses — makes it understandable that he wouldn’t be committing to the Wolves before they similarly commit to him.

But there is another dynamic at work, insiders say, involving the team’s power structure. Rob Moor, one of Taylor’s sons-in-law, is the Wolves’ heretofore low-profile, low-impact “CEO.” He has been taking a more prominent role lately, however, to the point of spearheading the ostensible GM search that led to Kahn’s hiring to a loftier title. Moor’s power — or at least hands-on activities — has been expanding. And this is in contrast to most previous years, when the basketball side was run by McHale, Saunders and others almost as an independent fiefdom, with a direct line up to Taylor. Moor rarely had any traction internally with that crowd.

Now look at the flowchart: Moor was the guy who hired Kahn, who literally owes his job to Moor. That’s one reason floated for the Wolves seeking out Kahn, a respected but out-of-sight candidate, rather than a more veteran GM with his own track record of NBA personnel success. Moor is said to want more organization and accountability and process-focused initiatives — think color-coded folders and classic managing-up behavior — than McHale, in his casualness and intuitive hoops smarts, ever was going to give. So now McHale might be out, giving Moor (through Kahn) a chance to line up another key position under his authority.

Yeah, office politics. Driven not so much by the new guy trying to show who’s boss but by a relative of the owner, seizing an opportunity. In a sports world that is supposed to be as close to a meritocracy — if you can play and if you can win, you’re in — as we ever get.

Kahn assured me Wednesday that McHale was being evaluated purely as a coach, since that is the job he holds and would return to. Not as a draftnik, not as a trader, not as a please-his-bosses administrator. If so, the new Wolves president needs to think long and hard before their third dinner about McHale’s assets in that job. The current Wolves roster responds to him, in part because he brought them together. Their 10-2 stretch to start January was as good as that franchise had seen since it was a Western Conference heavyweight (five long years ago). They had tailed off before forward Al Jefferson, the essence of their attack, suffered his season-ending knee injury Feb. 8 and then sank as hobbled teams without much purpose do.

But McHale’s 19-12 mark with a talented squad late in the 2004-05 season and his 20-43 improvement from the 4-15 start last season are the types of things that get coaches asked back in the NBA. They at least get those guys a shot at running their own training camp, at least once.

If McHale doesn’t get that, some fans will delight in the outcome, thanks to past failings in a different role. But it will be a decision made for the wrong reasons, a knack this franchise already has shown way too often.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Josh Williams on 06/04/2009 - 05:02 pm.

    Nice piece, Asch. Glad to see you back on the T-Wolves beat.

  2. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 06/05/2009 - 09:04 am.

    Ditto what Josh said.

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