April 2004: After watching the Timberwolves decimate the Nuggets in the first game of the 2004 NBA Playoffs, I shake Kevin McHale’s hand and gush like a school girl as I thank him for assembling an unbelievable team.
April 2007: A fan is ejected from the Target Center during the last game of a 32-50 season for displaying a “Fire McHale” sign.
[ad2] Those are two starkly contrasted reactions to Kevin McHale that occurred less than three years apart. Had they simply been two differences of opinion between two different fans, they’d be nothing worth noting. However, the fact that both of those reactions were the consensus opinion of the man at the time, makes their complete incompatibility very surprising.
Kevin McHale is the man who’s been primarily responsible for the Minnesota Timberwolves successes and failures over the past twelve years. Every player who’s electrified the Target Center was acquired by him. Yet at the same time, every disappointment, bad contract, and lost pick has been his doing as well. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why McHale’s standing in the opinion polls is closely linked to the Wolves’ win-loss record. While Timberwolves fans continue to show unconditional love towards Kevin Garnett, whether he wins 58 game or 28 games, McHale has been afforded no such luxury. Now with the Wolves suffering through three consecutive years without a post-season appearance, Kevin McHale has never been less popular.
The media, the fans, and critics everywhere have been calling for his firing for months, and they’re certainly justified in asking for change in light of the team’s recent failures. But it’s very easy to criticize a GM’s moves when you’re sitting behind a computer with 20/20 hindsight. It’s quite another to be the man behind the desk who’s dealing with greedy agents, egotistical athletes, and bloodthirsty reporters.
What I’m attemting to do through this series of articles, The Kevin McHale Retrospective, is to take a look back at all the major decisions that McHale has made throughout his tenure and assess his overall impact on the franchise. In order to do this, I’m going to weigh each decision based on how good it appeared at the time it was made, as well as how it ultimately turned out. After all, we can’t expect McHale to see the future. Yet at the same time, he’s still partly responsible if his supposedly good idea, bombs. Also, I’m taking into account that all moves are not created equal. For example, drafting Kevin Garnett was extremely more important than the drafting of Ndudi Ebi. So even though one may be considered a 10 out of 10, and the other a 0 out of 10, the moves should average out to more like an 8 out of 10 than a 5 out of 10.
In order to account for all this, I’ve worked out this scoring system. Each move will be rated from -5 to 5, with -5 being as bad as you can get, 5 being as good as you can get, and 0 being a completely mediocre move with no real benefit or damage. Then I’ll multiply this score based on the move’s importance with 0 being completely meaningless and 10 being a true franchise-altering event. (To be honest, if a move is a total 0, I’m probably not going to waste my time mentioning it.)
I’ll do this for each move based on both it’s perception at the time, as well as how it ultimately turned out. Then I’ll average the scores for both, ultimately giving an overall estimation for McHales success or failure with the Wolves.
Hopefully this series will provide some objective insight into the most polarizing figure in franchise history. Does Kevin McHale really deserve to be fired? We’ll see what the numbers have to say…
6/28/95 – Drafting Kevin Garnett with the #5 pick overall .
Then: Score: 2 Importance: 8 Overall: 16
With Ed O’Bannon and future ROY winner Damon Stoudamire still available, McHale made a big gamble going for the first high-schooler in the draft in 20 years. At this point, the franchise desperately needed stability, and Garnett was a huge unknown.
Now: Score: 5 Importance: 10 Overall: 50
If Kevin McHale can hang his hat on any move, drafting Garnett is it. This is the defining moment in franchise history.
9/28/06 – Free Agent Sam Mitchell signed to a multi-year deal.
Then: Score: 1 Importance: 4 Overall: 4
Bringing back Sam Mitchell wasn’t perceived to be a real impact move at the time. Mitchell’s numbers as a T-Wolf: 14.6 points a game in ’90-91 had decreased dramatically to 4.8 in ‘93-94 and 6.5 in ‘94-95. He was a good locker room guy, but not expected to be a game changer.
Now: Score: 3 Importance: 6 Overall: 18
Mitchell’s numbers improved significantly over the next four seasons and he played an integral role in mentoring the young Kevin Garnett. KG’s level-headedness and character are, in large part, due to Mithcell’s influence.
10/5/95 – Doug West signed to a 5-year contract extension
Then: Score: 4 Importance: 8 Overall: 32
Doug West the last “original” Timberwolf was one of the few bright spots in franchise history. He had proven to be a consistent double-digit scorer and lead the team with 19.3 ppg in ‘92-’93. On a Wolves team desperate for any semblance of talent, resigning West was a major plus.
Now: Score: -1 Importance: 4 Overall: -4
Doug West’s numbers plummetted after the signing, scoring only 6.4 ppg – less than half of his previous season’s production. He was never a reliable player for the Wolves again.
10/14/95 – Free Agent Terry Porter signed to a multi-year deal
Then: Score: 3 Importance: 9 Overall: 36
Terry Porter was a franchise-player for the Blazers for many years. After missing a step in ‘94-95, Porter’s PG spot was given to Rod Strickland, thus making the legend available for McHale to snatch up. On a team desperate for leadership, having a savy vet like Porter run the game was a huge bonus.
Now: Score: 2 Importance: 7 Overall: 14
Signing Porter was a big deal for the Wolves as his leadership proved to be very valuable over the years, especially to Garnett and Marbury. However, he never recovered anywhere close to his level of play in Portland, and a year later, Marbury would become the team’s star point.
10/16/95 – Re-signed restricted free agent Tom Gugliotta to a 5-year, reported $27M contract
Then: Score: 4 Importance: 10 Overall: 40
Tom Gugliotta was one of the very few players that gave Timberwolves fans something to look forward to. The young power forward had shown flashes of greatness and was a solid piece to build the franchise’s foundation with
Now: Score: 4 Importance: 7 Overall: 28
Resigning Googs played a major part in the team reaching the playoffs for the first time in 1997, by scoring a career-best 20.6 ppg. He was also the first Timberwolf, along with Garnett, selected to the All-Star team. He then scored 20.1 ppg the next season, until bone spurs in his ankle sidelined him for the season. He would eventually leave the Wolves without compensation. While still a great signing, Tom Gugliotta never reached his full potential with the team.
12/18/95 – Flip Saunders named Head Coach
Then: Score: 1 Importance: 6 Overall: 6
At the time, Flip Saunders was an unknown in the NBA coaching world. Still, it’s not like the team could’ve done any worse.
Now: Score: 4 Importance: 9 Overall: 36
Flip Saunders consistently lead the Wolves to over-acheive from 1996-2004. Despite never having a complete team to work with, he lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs for 8 straight seasons. Had Sam Cassell not been injured in the 2004 playoffs, he may have an NBA Title on his resume’.
10/22/96 – Christian Laettner and Sean Rooks traded to Atlanta for Anthony “Spud” Webb and Andrew Lang
Then: Score: -1 Importance: 7 Overall: -7
The Wolves traded Laettner, who was a locker room cancer, to make room for Garnett. However, in doing so, they traded a potential young star for 80 cents on the dollar.
Now: Score: 2 Importance: 4 Overall: 8
So much for Laettner becoming a “star”.
Then: Overall: 127 Avg. Move: 18.14
Now: Overall: 150 Avg. Move: 21.43
Summary: In his first year in office, Kevin McHale shook up a struggling squad. He added some strong vets to mentor his trio of young forwards. He resigned a key player in Tom Gugliotta and ousted a discontented on in Christian Laettner. He named Flip Saunders as head coach. And most importantly, he altered the course of the Timberwolves by drafting Kevin Garnett. Quite an amazing season for a rookie!