Kevin McHale is best known for his Hall of Fame career as low-post scoring machine for the Celtics. Since his playing career ended, he’s been a general manager (Timberwolves) and coach (T-Wolves, Rockets). He’s also served as a funny and incisive television analyst when he’s not directly involved with a particular franchise. That’s McHale’s current role, having rejoined Turner Sports, for whom he worked from 2009-11, after he was fired as Rockets coach last year.
McHale is an analyst on NBA TV Fan Night studio coverage (weekly on Tuesdays). He is also a game analyst for select NBA on TNT Thursday game telecasts. McHale is not on the call of Thursday’s night’s Celtics-Cavaliers showdown on TNT — Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller and Mike Fratello have that game.
But given McHale’s Celtics ties and his friendship with president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, I took the opportunity to catch up with him on the state of the team heading into Thursday’s game.
Q. When you look at the current Celtics roster, do you see a team capable of becoming a true championship contender, or does something else need to happen?
A. They need that one more player. Danny [Ainge, McHale’s former teammate and the Celtics president of basketball operations] knows that, and I think he’s going to do everything he can to get that one more piece, another guy. Al Horford was a really good signing for them, he can play a million different styles, he plays the ball very well, a very versatile guy. Horford is one of those guys that can score six points for you and help you win the game. There aren’t a lot of guys like that left around the NBA. There are too many players who if they aren’t scoring, you’re not getting anything from them. I like him.
They also need some playmaking bigs other than Horford, which [currently injured forward Kelly] Olynyk is. They don’t have that right now on their roster. I’m not saying someone who has to be Magic Johnson, but just someone who moves the ball and gets its swung from side to side, which is really key when teams load up defensively on one player or another, like what will happen to [Isaiah Thomas] sometimes. You need those guys.
Q. Does it have to be a superstar caliber player?
A. When you say superstar, yeah, that’d be great. I’m sure that if LeBron James were being given away by Cleveland that Danny would be all over it, but that ain’t happening. It’s more about getting one more player that really fits with these guys. I’m just thinking he needs another player who draws two defenders. You’ve got good solid pieces out there, but they need a guy who sometimes will let the rest of the guys play 4 on 3. Somebody who gets rid of the ball and let’s them play. That makes everybody so much better.
When you get a guy in your grill and he never leaves you and you’re up against it defensively, it’s hard to play basketball. But when you get a team moving defensively, running and jumping and scrambling, it’s easier to play. That’s what superstars do. They draw two. The best superstars, like LeBron, draw two and distribute the ball. The selfish superstars draw two and hold the ball and play right into it. But some of it is about perception, too. I bet if you started listing superstars and I said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to each one, you’d be really surprised at who is perceived as a superstar compared to who I think is a superstar. A guy who fits your team and can draw two guys, that’s a superstar.
Q. Kevin Durant seemed like the ideal in that sense in every way.
A. Yeah, Golden State has four guys that I really like in [Draymond] Green, [Steph] Curry, Durant, and [Klay] Thompson, and they’ll figure out how to play together. They have a couple of guys that can draw two. They have Curry, and they have Durant. I’m not sure Thompson is a guy that does that. And you have a guy in Green who thrives in two-on-the-ball, allowing him to make plays. That’s a nice fit. You have a guy here — it might be.
Q. The Celtics’ pieces fit well a year ago. They played hard defensively but had offensive issues from time to time. Sounds like you expect them to be pretty similar to that this year, even with the addition of Horford and Jaylen Brown.
A. They have a lot of good basketball players for sure. Brown can create his own shot, but can he create it against top players? That remains to be seen. Isaiah can create his own shot, but sometimes he needs the pick-and-roll to get himself open. They have so many guys that can play. I think they all become so much better when you can put them with that one guy who can consistently draw two defenders. Their flaws on offense would get smoothed out.
But I just like them because they have just a lot of basketball players. It’s not about lifting weights, it’s not about running sprints, it’s not about jumping the highest. It’s about basketball. It’s not about having guys that look great in uniform and all that crap. Red Auerbach always said that athletes are really fun to watch for 44 minutes. But in the last four minutes of an NBA game, give me the basketball players, the guys who really know how to play the game, and that team will win the game. The Celtics right now have those kind of guys.
It doesn’t surprise me that Danny always is drawn to those kind of guys. That’s who he was. Danny doesn’t get too many specialty guys, though that’s what [Avery] Bradley was when he came in. He was strictly a defensive player coming in young and they turned him into a much better offensive player. Danny saw that offensive ability in him and I didn’t.
Q. You didn’t think it would develop with Avery?
A. I just didn’t see the offensive ability that he’s grown into. Danny’s got such a good eye for that.
Q. Smart was drafted higher, but he seems like a similar case: great defense, questionable offense when he came into the league. What did you think of him?
A. Tough, hard-nosed kid. Just thought he’d be another guy who would make plays in a lot of ways. Not a point guard, but he can do that if you need him to. Shooting was always a bit of an issue. But again, if you throw the ball back to him and give him a seam, he’s getting to the basket. He’d be great at that. He’s fearless and tough and his intentions are all based on winning. Danny’s got a whole team of those guys. Jae Crowder is another. They’re not afraid. They’ll push you around, hit you, even if you’re a bigger guy.
Q. What’s the ceiling for this team this year if they don’t make another deal?
A. I like a lot of stuff about them. Are they beating Cleveland right now? No. But they’re the champs. They’re in the next tier, with Toronto and Indiana and maybe a few others. Who’s going to challenge in the East? Probably no one, unless injuries happen or something. The Celtics are a move away from really challenging, to be truthful.
But it’s a long, long year, and a lot of things happen. There will be a lot of moments. Thirty games from now, there will be teams that overachieve and teams that underachieve, and the ones that are underachieving will be saying, ‘Man, we’ve got to shake this up. We’ve got to make a move.’ And that’s when Danny’s going to strike. I doubt he’s going to strike next week, but he’s poised and ready to go when it happens.