Two Cheers for Kevin McHale

Minnesota Timberwolves

Kevin McHale may be a breath of fresh air and a head-pattin', back-slappin' mood enhancer for his players, but the bottom line--daunting mediocrity--remains unchanged since Flip Saunders was canned a little over two weeks ago. The Wolves, 25-26 under Flip, are now 3-3 with McHale at the helm. Fans who cling to the dream of a late-season resurrection and an upset in the playoffs--fans including Glen Taylor, that is--seem destined for disappointment. The only drama is the pace at which their hopes will be dashed--slow and agonizing? Quick and merciful?

That's the sober prognostication. But, quite frankly, I'm sick of being the doomsayer. Let's talk about the things McHale and his crew are doing right, and, because it's already a lost season, offer a proposal from the cheap seats for shaking off the team's doldrums.

The key to success in the NBA is defense and McHale's edition of the Wolves have wacked 10 points-per-game off the total they were surrendering with Saunders on the sidelines. Some of this is because the Wolves are limiting second-chance points by rebounding better. But most of the improvement results from stout, belly-to-belly defensive effort, which has reduced opponents' field goal percentage from 44.3 under Flip to 39.3 under McHale. When he took the job, McHale pledged that he would get his small men rotating down in the paint to cover for the Wolves' bigs when they challenged opponents driving to the hoop. Although he has enjoyed middling success getting his point guards to execute this strategy, the shooting guards and small forwards (Spree, Szczerbiak, Hassell, and Hoiberg) are all playing McHale's smash mouth basketball with gusto. Until he hyperextended his knee, Michael Olowokandi in particular benefited from this shared responsibility in the low post. It allowed him to be aggressive without the decision-making responsibilities that had crippled him in the past.

A simpler way to say it is that the Wolves, as a team, are simply working harder on defense than they were under Saunders. To the extent that the lack of effort owed to confusion, as it seemed to in Kandi's case, the blame goes to Flip. To the extent players were not shifting into that final gear or two because it wasn't demanded of them, the blame is on them.

McHale has also been better than Saunders at coming to grips with the most important change in the way the game is played this season--the tighter officiating on defenders hand-checking their opponent. The emphasis on defense in the low post, where hand-checking is harder to see and easier to ignore than in the open court, is one example. Another is McHale's emphasis on driving to the hoop rather than passing the ball around the horn to set up open jumpers, which, as everyone knows, was Flip's signature style.

So why are McHale's Wolves averaging nearly 10 points-per-game less than they did under Saunders? Partly because playing top-notch defense, while the proper emphasis for this team, leaves the players with less energy for their offensive sets. But the dip in points mostly reflects the fact that Flip's half-court sets, while complex in design and heedless of the new hand-checking standards, really were a great way to rack up points. Though the players can't say enough how much fun they're having with the newfound freedoms McHale has afforded them on offense, the result--87.4 points per game--is a ridiculously low total in this brave-new-world NBA that says you can no longer touch the man with the ball.

Perhaps the new stuff McHale is integrating into the offense will take hold, although the last six weeks of the season is a hell of a time for a major overhaul. Instead, here's a wild idea: Why not resort to more of a go-go, fast-break offense, deploying personnel that wouldn't necessarily hinder your D? Specifically, what about a starting five of Anthony Carter, Spree, Wally, KG, and Mark Madsen?

Since McHale took over, the players with the best plus/minus ratios during the time on the court are Szczerbiak (a whopping +28) and AC (+ 12 in more limited minutes). Not coincidentally, both men love to run, and with Carter playing the kind of perimeter pressure D that generates turnovers, the transition opportunities are relatively plentiful. And in the looser half-court sets deployed by McHale, Carter's drive-and-kick approach is tailor-made for Wally's catch-and-shoot marksmanship.

With Sam Cassell or Troy Hudson at the point, the Wolves don't have enough quickness and tenacity to get away with playing Spree in the backcourt. But Carter's disruptive D mitigates that weakness. And with Madsen and KG among the team's best defenders on the pick-and-roll, and with Spree and Wally both dedicated to McHale's defensive philosophy, the D-first mentality wouldn't be sacrificed with this unit. Sure, it would mean that the team's best perimeter defender, Hassell, would be headed for the bench. But the sad truth is that even before Flip's departure, Hassell's effectiveness had been diminishing. Along with Ervin Johnson, he has had difficulty adjusting to the new hand check rules. And his instincts about shot creation--something he never had occasion to explore in the halcyon days of the MV3--remain a fitful work in progress.

Properly gelled, the go go five would create something akin to a new MV3, with KG, Wally, and Spree (in that order) carrying the offensive load while AC and Mad Dog serve as the role-playing energizers. For a substitution pattern, McHale could mix and match his second unit as the situation warranted, so long as Fred Hoiberg receives at least 20-25 minutes per game. (Like Saunders, McHale has foolishly under-utilized Hoiberg, who has been hands-down the team's second-most valuable player this season.) With Hoiberg and either Cassell or Hudson in the backcourt, the Wolves could certainly spread the floor in the half-court sets, allowing Hassell room to slash from the baseline and providing post-up opportunities for Kandi. If Kandi yet again flubs this chance to contribute, install EJ or John Thomas at center for crunching picks to free up the outside marksmen. To save Garnett during the weeks Griffin is out, go small for brief stretches if the matchups aren't suicidal, using Wally at power forward alongside Hoiberg, Hassell, Cassell, and Kandi.

Assuming this is a disastrous proposal, what have the Wolves ultimately lost, other than the proceeds from five or six first-round playoff games?


KG's hurting, and here's the proof. The year's most jaw-dropping stat: Over the course of 13 February games, the Wolves scored 62 fewer total points than their opponents. During the time Kevin Garnett was on the court during that month, the deficit was 72 points. In February, that is, the Wolves performed better with KG on the bench than with KG on the court. No wonder the team's record was 4-9.

This should remove any lingering doubts about the significance of Garnett's knee injury. In recent years, his resilient body and formidable will power have seemingly shrugged off what appeared to be serious ankle and shoulder sprains. But he isn't 25 anymore, and that isn't happening this time.

Now is not the time for tunnel vision. Whether or not the Wolves scramble on to the bottom rung of the playoffs and become a sacrificial lamb for San Antonio or Phoenix is not nearly so important as Garnett's mental and physical health at the onset of next year's training camp. Sometime in the near future, we'll consider all the ways this franchise seems to be edging toward the abyss. But for now, Free the Go-Go Five!

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