Cloning Kevin McHale
On Monday night, I decided to watch Game 6 of the 1985 NBA Finals in which the Los Angeles Lakers were battling the Boston Celtics. The Lakers were victorious and won the title but Kevin McHale was a dominant force during the game at both ends of the floor. The Celtics’ power forward fouled out midway through the fourth quarter with 32 points and 16 rebounds; and yet the numbers fail to capture just how great he was in Boston’s final game of the season.
The former Minnesota star was simply unstoppable on the low block against Los Angeles. More often than not, McHale would catch the ball on the block and unleash an arsenal of low post moves on his defender that not even Hakeem Olajuwon could match. Granted, the Hall of Famer’s post moves have been analyzed and discussed several times over the years and consequently one would think there is not much left to say about them. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
Kevin McHale had the ability to literally make defenders become irrelevant on the low block without ever dribbling the ball. Think about that for moment. Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon are some of the greatest post players we have ever seen, and they needed to catch the ball and dribble to set up their man for a score.
McHale was just too good down low to be stopped. The funny thing about him mind you was that he always finished with his right hand. Always. His wide array of moves often led you to believe that he was ambidextrous, but such was not the case. The Celtics power forward could catch the ball in the post and turn to either his left or right and immediately elevate for a the jump shot or hook shot and never get his shot blocked.
Furthermore, he did a great job of setting up his defenders with head fakes, pivots, drop step fakes, hook shot fakes and pump fakes. Amazingly enough, he was such an elite scorer that even double teams rarely limited his scoring opportunities.
Kevin McHale had enough tools in his shed to beat any defense thrown at him. He could face up and bank in shots, drop step towards the baseline for dunks, catch the ball and shoot a turn around jump shot (either straight up or a fade away) or put up a soft floater, split double teams and score with an up and under move or simply pivot on the catch and take a hard dribble towards the basket for a score.
These moves sound relatively simple but with tough NBA defenses covering you, they are quite possibly almost impossible to successfully complete against elite defensive big men. Indeed, very rarely have we seen anyone approach McHale’s post game skills. It’s not by accident that he shot 55.4 percent from the field during his career and even shot over 60 percent in consecutive seasons (1986-87 and 1987-88).
And once again, for the most part he accomplished all of these moves while rarely dribbling the ball.
As gifted as McHale was as a scorer, one could make the case that he was equally devastating on the defensive end. At 6’11 and 210 lbs., the former Minnesota star had the uncanny ability to move his feet quickly which in turn allowed him to stay in front of players who at times were much shorter than him. As a result, the Celtics power forward was often called upon to defend elite perimeter players such as James Worthy and Julius Erving.
McHale’s length and quickness meant every shot the player he was guarding took was a contested one. Also, McHale was always active defensively, which meant that he could rotate down low, defend the paint and contest shots.
Needless to say, we will probably never see another Kevin McHale; but we will see a player come close to his set of skills. As a matter of fact, we have already seen such a player and ironically he played the last game of his career as a Celtic.
For whatever reason, it only dawned on me recently, but Rasheed Wallace in his prime was quite possibly the closest thing to Kevin McHale we have ever seen.
Sheed may not have possessed the Hall of Famer’s vast array of moves down on the block, but he was just as effective during his stint with the Portland Trail Blazers. Wallace’s length and his long arms were always problematic for defenders because it meant that he could shoot his turnaround jumper whenever he wanted without fearing that his shot attempt would get blocked. Consequently, the former Tar Heel routinely set up his defenders to think he was going for the jump shot and he instead was able to drop step to the hoop for a thunderous finish.
Wallace was prone to dribbling the ball in the post, but he was always efficient with his moves; finding ways to consistently create high percentage shots. More often than not, Sheed had the quickness to get by his man off the bounce or simply to beat him to the spot when posting up.
McHale was infinitely craftier around the basket, but Wallace made up for it by being a terrific midrange shooter (he could easily face up his defender on the block and bank shots over him) and an outrageous (yes, the word outrageous qualifies perfectly here) leaper. This explains why Wallace rarely had a tough time converting when he got in the lane; he was almost always above everybody else at the rim.
If teams shaded him too hard prior to the post entry pass, he could spin off his man for the lob and an easy deuce over the top. If his man bit on a pump fake, he was taking the ball to the rack and creating a combination of posters and screensavers.
McHale and Wallace may not have finished around the basket in the same fashion, but they were equally efficient down low.
Another similarity that Rasheed Wallace shared with Kevin McHale was his ability to defend perimeter players. People might forget this now, but prior to Scottie Pippen arriving in Portland, Wallace played at small forward for two years in order for Brian Grant to start at power forward. And much like the legend before him, Roscoe’s quickness as well as his length caused some huge problems for opposing players. He could close out on shooters, rotate to the lane to protect the rim and even occasionally switch on screens to pick up either a big or smaller player.
In addition, Rasheed gave opposing big men fits on defense because he was so tough to score on. One of the biggest reasons why the 2005 NBA Finals went seven games was quietly the phenomenal job that the former North Carolina player did on Tim Duncan in holding him to 41.9% field goal shooting in the championship round.
Alas, the biggest reason that the Wallace-McHale comparison never really materialized stemmed from the fact that as Sheed’s shooting range improved; he spent less and less time on the low block as his career progressed. Given the fact he drifted away from the basket, his shooting percentages progressively took a dip.
Clones are never as good as the original and this holds true in this case. Nonetheless, Rasheed Wallace was still a quality player that created match up problems for his opponents and yet he was still light years away from matching McHale’s talent as well his production.
That’s just a testament to how truly phenomenal Kevin McHale was…