By Frank McLean
So you want to be a head coach in the NBA?
Ok who had Kevin McHale in their pool of first coach to be fired in the NBA? The general thought around the league’s insiders and pundits had George Karl of the Sacramento Kings being the first bench boss to get his pink slip during the season. I mean when your star player DeMarcus Cousins hates you and your general manager comes in the locker room and polls the players asking “Should I fire the coach?” Well that’s usually a sign you should update your resume.
On Wednesday morning, the Houston Rockets after a 4-7 start fired McHale. He is the same Kevin McHale who last spring took the Rockets to the Western Conference final for the first time since 1997. He is the same Kevin McHale who 10 and a half months ago was given a 3-year contract extension.
It’s not like McHale struggled during his time in Houston. After his five years in there, he leaves with a 193-130 won-loss record and made a struggling franchise into a consistent playoff performer. It’s not like the guy can’t coach.
Heck when he signed his contract extension ownership was quoted as saying “he knows how to win championships”.
The mystery is why the team got off to such a poor start after coming ever so close to going to the NBA Finals. The Rockets opened the season with three straight losses, then won four in a row and had lost four straight when McHale was let go Wednesday morning.
Pretty much everyone returned from last year’s team. They added point guard Ty Lawson, but the team has not really gelled causing McHale to complain about the effort of the team and its sloppy play. He was really upset about those issues after a blowout loss to the Celtics that came after the Rockets blew a 15-point lead early in the game. After that game you could hear the frustration in McHale’s voice.
“At times, I wouldn’t say full effort all the time, no,” McHale said. “Things aren’t going our way and we hang our head. We haven’t put together really good basketball all year long.”
Back in May during the playoffs his players were raving about him like this quote from James Harden.
“I felt like I was talking to an actual player,” Harden said. “Obviously he’s won championships so he knows what he’s talking about. So my ears are just locked in and focused in on what he’s saying.”
During my time covering the NHL there was saying about hard assed coaches like the late Pat Burns. “Five year contract, three year act”. McHale may be in that group. He is gruff in his message and when you are winning everything is ok, but when you are losing and losing early in a season and after five years, well, your players start tuning you out and in a star driven league like the NBA when your stars tune you out you are done.
McHale was replaced on an interim basis by J.B. Bickertaff. If that surname sounds familiar it is, he is the son of long time NBA coach and front office executive Bernie.
Bickerstaff didn’t have to wait long to coach his first game. Wednesday night the Rockets beat the Portland Trail Blazers 108-103 in overtime. Oh and the Rocket star players, you ask what their number were in that game?
James Harden scored 45 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds and 5 steals becoming the first player in NBA history to post those numbers in a single game since steals became an official stat in 1973-74. Take that Kevin McHale.
You knew a good team like the Rockets would snap out of their losing streak. The bet in sport is you always bet a team in their first game after they fire their coach because the usually win.
It will be interesting to see how long the honeymoon lasts with Bickerstaff and for that matter will the Rockets hire a big time coach to finish out the season.
So I will ask the question again. You still want to be a head coach in the NBA?
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.