Executive Decision

March 07, 2005
March 07, 2005

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March 7, 2005

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Executive Decision

Though he never wanted to coach, Timberwolves VP Kevin McHale put himself in charge of his moribund team. High risk, or nothing to lose?

The interim coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves switched on the lights of his Ritz-Carlton suite in Los Angeles and went immediately to the television, searching for the Clippers-Suns game being played that night in Phoenix. He ignored the fruit tray, the popcorn, the complimentary brews sloshing around in an ice bucket. "What would I be doing in the old days?" wondered Kevin McHale. "Well, looking for the Clippers wouldn't have been the first thing on my mind. And I probably would've had a beer right away." ¶ There's now a lot on the mind of McHale, who since Feb. 12 has been not only the vice president of operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves but also their coach. He spent much of last week working the phones in advance of the Thursday trade deadline. Ultimately, the T-Wolves stood pat, despite rumors that they were shopping guards Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell and center Michael Olowokandi. (Wearing his executive hat, McHale steadfastly refuses to comment.) Meanwhile, he had X-ing and O-ing to do. Last Thursday, with his cast unchanged, Minnesota fell to the Clippers 92-86. At week's end McHale had gone 3-3, leaving the T-Wolves, a Western Conference finalist last year, at 28-29, the ninth-best record in the West.

This is an article from the March 7, 2005 issue Original Layout

Many in the NBA were amazed when McHale, who has run basketball operations since 1995, grabbed the reins himself after he fired his close friend and former University of Minnesota teammate Flip Saunders. Unfailingly good-humored and glib, McHale is nevertheless famously impatient with what he perceives as the fundamental weaknesses of today's players. Whenever he was asked about coaching, McHale would always demur, saying, "I'd last about two minutes." He likes his hunting and his golf, pastimes more easily pursued as an exec.

And while he has the power to trade, waive or re-sign the players he's coaching, which gives him an advantage over his fellow interims--former assistants Frank Hamblen (Los Angeles Lakers) and Herb Williams (New York Knicks)--the move to the bench also carries great risk for the 47-year-old McHale. He was, after all, responsible for acquiring the very players whose underachieving helped get Saunders fired. He and Saunders were perceived around the Twin Cities as a matched set, the ex-Gophers running an NBA show. Now there's only one left, and he's asking the questions all new coaches ask: Should I shake things up drastically? How do I treat the assistants who were passed over? Are there gaps in my knowledge of the game?

And in McHale's case: What do I wear?

The major reason McHale appointed himself instead of one of his assistants (Randy Wittman and Sidney Lowe have been NBA head coaches, and Jerry Sichting is widely respected as a teacher) was his awareness of how tough an interim coach's job can be. "If you give it to one of our guys and we still don't play well, then he gets frustrated and tainted in the long run," says McHale. "Had I not [taken the job], I would've always wondered if I was shirking responsibility. I get paid to take the heat."

While everyone in the organization treads carefully around the subject of what ultimately went wrong under Saunders--who went 411-326 (.557) in nine-plus seasons--almost everyone agrees that discipline was lacking in the final months of his regime. Players were late for flights and buses. Minds wandered in timeout huddles and practice sessions. Like hundreds of NBA coaches before him, Saunders was tuned out, his pleas to play hard having become elevator music to the players.

Once McHale made the decision (with the blessing of owner Glen Taylor), he hit the ground running. Actually, running wasn't an option because of his arthritic ankles--when ankle transplant surgery is perfected, McHale plans to be first in line--but he did hit the ground talking. His first practice lasted three hours. (He lost his voice.) Reigning MVP Kevin Garnett shakes his head and smiles when he recalls McHale's early days on the job. "Kevin always did like to talk," says Garnett, "but then he went out and got himself a damn whistle. I mean, there was a lot of noise."

Initially McHale had decided on three basic changes: reduce the size of Saunders's playbook and try to exploit favorable matchups on offense; keep his interior defenders closer to the basket, cutting down on what he calls "full rotations"; and pay attention to players' punctuality. The last was part of a philosophy of getting tough on the court ("I'm a fan of smash-mouth basketball") and, especially, off it.

As for X's and O's, McHale frequently attended practices and coaches' meetings but conceded that he knew only "about half the plays" when he made his debut on Feb. 13 (an 87-83 home loss to the Chicago Bulls). Always confident as a player, McHale was anxious before that tip-off. "The way I always looked at basketball was to study what the other team was doing and decide what you could do to counter that," says McHale. "But when I got on the bench, I thought, Whoa, maybe my ability to do that has been lost, never to be found again." He didn't pretend to know more than he did about the offense. During timeouts, McHale would say, "I want to run a high pick-and-roll with KG." An assistant would answer, "O.K., we call that 13 strong." Sichting has since given McHale an index card containing all the play calls; he keeps it in his pocket and refers to it from time to time.

But McHale is still just as likely to say what he's looking for rather than what a play is called. He wants players to make more of their own decisions, improve on what he calls their "basketball IQ." The T-Wolves are still adjusting to the transition from a classic gym rat like Saunders to a classic read-and-react former Boston Celtic forward like McHale. Saunders drew up the game; McHale, a Hall of Famer, sees it. "Playing for Kevin is so different from anything else that I can't put it into words," says Cassell. "He'll just tell you to do something, like a player would on the playground." Garnett has talked constantly about how McHale has been "a breath of fresh air" and describes him as "a bar fighter who comes in, orders a drink, downs the drink, says whatever to whoever, then he's out of there." (The metaphors will sound more convincing if the fresh-aired bar fighter's team starts throwing a few combinations of its own.)

There's a practical reason the T-Wolves must make more of their own reads too: They can't hear McHale the way they heard Saunders, who prowled the sideline shouting play calls. McHale gets up from time to time, but--partly due to his temperament, partly to his ankles--he's basically a sitter. That doesn't mean he's not involved. "[The other team will] make a substitution, and Kevin will say, 'O.K, what plays can we run for Wally [Szczerbiak]?'" says Sichting. "Kevin talks a lot during the game. Of course, he talks a lot all the time."

For many, the best thing about the McHale regime is to see him down on the court before games--sport coat off, loafers on--instructing his team in the fine points. The sessions with his players have a kind of apple-polishing feel to them because McHale controls both their minutes and their long-term status with the franchise. Before Minnesota played the Clippers, he spent 10 minutes instructing Ndudi Ebi, a little-used forward who's on the injured list, about how to double-down and dig for the ball, then spring to the outside ("close out") to guard a shooter. Then he fed forward Mark Madsen and Ebi the ball as they went at each other hard in a one-on-one session.

By all accounts, including his own, McHale likes coaching more than he thought he would. "The competitive fire does come back as a coach more than it did watching from the stands," he says. "You're in the middle of it a little bit more. Your mind's active all the time." The players sense that he's into it. "It's energized him," says swingman Fred Hoiberg. Reluctantly, McHale even concedes, "I do have some new suits arriving soon," which is fortunate, since in the pocket of the old-school gray number he picked for his debut was a ticket stub for a Timberwolves-Warriors game in Oakland ... from 1999. "It must be a while since I had that one cleaned," McHale told Steve Aschburner of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Given his enthusiasm, is it possible that if Minnesota finishes strong and grabs a playoff spot (at week's end they were 2 1/2 games behind Hamblen's Lakers for the final one), McHale will take the interim tag off himself? "The chances of me doing this long term are slim to none," says McHale, who refuses to rule it out categorically. "I just don't think I'm cut out to be a career coach. The one thing I can guarantee right now is that I'll coach tomorrow night." Most interims would kill for that kind of security. ■

McHale likes coaching. "The COMPETITIVE FIRE does come back more than it did watching from the stands," he says.
COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonoughSTAND-UP GUY Rather than put his assistants in a tough spot, McHale took on the task of reviving Minnesota's playoff hopes.COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonoughHOLDING ON Western finalists a year ago, the T-Wolves know they must pull together.COLOR PHOTOANN HEISENFELT/AP (MCHALE)COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonoughSPECIAL K Minnesota's leading scorer and rebounder, Garnett describes McHale's arrival on the bench as "a breath of fresh air."