A hot Houston Rockets team will play the banged up-and-sputtering Timberwolves on a cold Monday night in Minnesota (8 ET, NBA TV). Three of the Western Conference’s 12 All-Stars will be on hand – Dwight Howard and James Harden for the Rockets, Kevin Love for the Wolves if he’s able to play through the thigh bruise that sidelined him Saturday. And the visitors who have won five in a row will challenge the hosts who have lost five of their last six.
Pretty straightforward stuff – except there will be a subplot in play, too, one that seems bounced off a funhouse mirror to those familiar with the history:
Kevin McHale, NBA coach vs. Flip Saunders, CBO (chief basketball officer).
“I don’t think anyone anticipated, 37 years out of college, that’s how it would be,” Saunders said.
Clear early path for duo
For a decade – from 1995 to 2005 – the two were partners in the best stretch in Wolves franchise history, stringing together eight playoff appearances and advancing to the Western Conference finals in 2004. They traveled together to Kevin Garnett‘s first audition/workout in Chicago and walked out of the gym mapping their draft strategy.
McHale and Saunders pulled long hours on Draft nights, at least when they had their full set of picks – the Joe Smith salary-cap scandal in 2000 happened on their watch, costing the team three first-rounders as part of the penalties. And the pair, despite some differences in temperament and style, generally presented a unified front.
Always, though, it was McHale sitting upstairs, Saunders working the sideline.
McHale never had wanted to coach. Saunders never seemed to want to do anything but. The former, upon retiring in 1993 after his 13-season Hall of Fame career in Boston, served as color man on Wolves broadcasts until new owner Glen Taylor hired him as VP of basketball operations in 1995. McHale had done the day-to-day grind of NBA life. He had a family to raise, a lake home in Minnesota and an NBA team to run but at something less than a frenetic pace.
Saunders aspired to be a coach from the start, taking the job at Golden Valley Lutheran College right out of school – he was McHale’s point guard for a year (1976-77) at the University of Minnesota – rather than hold a clipboard on some other coach’s staff. He did spend a chunk of the 1980s as an assistant at Minnesota and the University of Tulsa but was in the CBA from 1988-95 in Rapid City (S.D.), La Crosse (Wis.) and Sioux Falls (S.D.). Saunders won two championships, two Coach of the Year awards and 253 games in seven seasons.
His hiring by McHale in 1995 was a foregone conclusion and the realization of a dream that flickered on about the time Minnesota got its expansion franchise. You get the VP job, I’ll come in as coach. Or I’ll hire you to coach when I take get my shot in the front office.
Either way, it was the the natural, logical order of things.
Until the Wolves slipped badly from their 2003-04 peak. On Feb. 12, 2005, at 25-26 after a lifeless loss at Utah the night before, McHale fired Saunders and took over as interim coach.
The move was a stunner but triggered a 19-12 finish and a narrow miss of the playoffs that Minnesota hasn’t had since. McHale went back upstairs for four years before doing the interim thing again in December 2008. This time – with less talent provided by architect McHale but an intriguing rookie named Love – the Wolves went 20-43.
When Taylor turned to David Kahn in spring 2009 to run the basketball operation – an odd hire that got worse from there – McHale was out.
Duo enjoys new life in new roles
Saunders during all this time had kept landing on his feet, his thick offensive playbook accompanying him to Detroit and Washington. The Pistons won 176 games in three seasons for him, reaching the East finals each time before president Joe Dumars canned him. The Washington gig changed beneath him when Gilbert Arenas went outlaw in the locker room, and the Wizards’ plan of contending got turned by a swift purge of knuckleads into a rebuild.
Both had strong elements of righting wrongs.
McHale’s wit and personality were serving him well as an analyst for TNT and NBA TV, but all the jokes and chatter felt like riding the team bus without any real games. Larry Bird came back this season with a competitive itch and that’s what his old Celtics teammate is scratching these days too.
“I think the years out of it, he missed the fight,” said Rockets assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who also was on McHale’s Minnesota staff in 2008-09. “He missed the competition. I think that pushed him. You sit in meetings with him, you hear the stories about what it was like competing for championships. And you can see it in him every day.”
Howard appreciates the Top 50 big man who tutored Love and Al Jefferson. “He’s been through the battles,” Howard said. “He understands the grind of an NBA season. So when we have those games where we’re not making shots, he doesn’t come in and off on us. He says what we need to do.”
Said McHale: “It’s more taxing but it’s more fun. You live and die it when you’re a GM, too, really. Now you’ve got more control. I really enjoy it. We’re having a great time in Texas. I really enjoy the guys.”
In Minnesota, Saunders’ return in essentially McHale’s old job – with a sliver of minority ownership – came through his skill in never burning bridges and, frankly, Taylor’s desperation to bring in someone he knew after the Kahn debacle. The Wolves owner was on the brink of selling before Saunders convinced him they should recommit together.
This job isn’t what he loves most about basketball – Saunders often has said of coaching, “There are no highs that are as high and no lows that are as low” – but it’s one that suits him now. And it has way better job security, as Dumars continues to demonstrate in Detroit.
“What makes this more frustrating is that you really don’t have control,” Saunders said, offering the, er, flip side of McHale’s comment. “The coach is the one who watches the film and decides, ‘What do we have to do to get better?’ People ask if I miss it. What’s happened is, we’ve had so many things since I took over to change our vision.”
Friendship frays over the years
Saunders inherited a Hall of Fame-worthy coach, Rick Adelman, with his own proven system and a team still relying on three McHale acquisitions: Love, Nikola Pekovic and Corey Brewer, the 2007 draft pick back for a second stint. Saunders’ own first draft went sideways when the players he eyed at No. 9 were off the board; in an audible, he picked and shipped Trey Burke to Utah for what became Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, neither of whom have shown much in limited roles.
Injuries (Love, Pekovic, key free-agent addition Kevin Martin) are a problem lately, and at 24-27 in the West, the goal of a postseason berth looks lofty, even as Love’s 2015 opt-out makes it urgent.
Saunders’ and McHale’s paths crossed a few times when they were in their previous positions – McHale upstairs, Saunders in Detroit or Washington – and once with both on the sidelines. The Rockets beat the Wizards at the Verizon Center, 114-106, a week before Saunders’ got fired and turned to an ESPN TV job for a spell.
At Target Center Monday, besides the role reversals, there will be another big change: the loss of their friendship. Maybe it’s as simple as what can happen when one pal becomes another pal’s boss, but little or no niceties pass between them anymore.
“We talk,” Saunder said earlier this season. “When I got the job, he reached out and congratulated me. [The friendship] is not the same, more than anything else, because of where we’re both at. It’s an awkward istuation for someone in my position to be calling and talking to another team’s coach. Even though I talk a lot to Doc [Rivers].”
Asked about it over the weekend in Milwaukee, McHale shrugged.
Two friends who came a long way together have grown quite a ways apart, doing what they love in the other man’s role.