HOUSTON - It should come as no surprise that the Rockets' coaching staff is already deep into the planning and preparation stage of this offseason, contemplating strategies and sets for a roster that promises to look very different from the one they led last season.
What's on their mind now that training camp is less than one month away? Rockets.com's Jason Friedman did his best to find out, seizing an opportunity to sit down with Head Coach Kevin McHale to discuss basketball ideology, what it takes to win in the NBA, and all about the unique challenges that come with coaching young talent.
What follows is Part 1 of their wide-ranging conversation.
JCF: I know this offseason didn’t go exactly the way you wanted it to. I know you would have loved to have acquired that stud, superstar caliber player in the middle to be the anchor of everything you want to do on both ends of the floor. I also know that going young in the NBA typically brings with it a unique set of challenges. That said, does the coach in you get excited by the energy and exuberance of these young guys, and the knowledge that you’re going to play a pivotal role in shaping their growth and approach to the NBA game?
KM: It’s the team that we have. To be honest with you, I wish we had more veterans. I’m very competitive. I want to win. We can still win but it’s always much more difficult to win on a consistent basis in this league with young guys.
But there is an exciting element of taking kids and teaching them how to play the right way in the NBA, teaching them how to be pros every single day, teaching them how to just get better on a daily basis and how to deal with the ups and downs of the NBA. How are you going to deal with a three- or four-game losing streak? What are you going to do? The answer is that you just have to work harder. The funny thing is that the answer is always the same: You have to work harder and you have to work smarter. It never changes because you can’t just work less and get better, and you can’t go out there and play stupid and win games. So that part of it will be challenging but it’s also rewarding.
JCF: There’s also the fact that the vast majority of veteran players are who they are once they reach a certain point. They’ve been through all the wars, heard all the speeches and they’re not likely to change their approach. But with these young guys, especially the rookies, they’re largely blank slates right now. They’re going to be looking to you to indoctrinate them to the pro game.
KM: Yeah, I think there’s something to that. I think that you can shape the young guys more. I think that players are always going to develop habits and they’re going to develop a style of play that fits them and also fits whatever team they’re on.
Right now, we can dictate the style of play that they’re going to play, but there’s also the reality that you’re not going to take a guy like a (Donatas) Motiejunas and just make him into a power player; he’s a fast, up-and-down guy. So you’ve got to take his skills and blend them into your team and that’s going to be the challenging thing.
When I look at our team right now we’re probably only going to have four guys who were on the team last year, with Chandler and Pat and K-Mart and Marcus. So we’ll probably have 11 new faces to figure out, ‘What can this guy do? How can I put him in situations to succeed?’ There’s going to be a lot of trial and error and that, to me, isn’t the fun thing. That, to me, is always the scary thing because there’s so much unknown. Everything works on a white board and everything works when you’re sitting around with a bunch of coaches, but when you get a bunch of guys you’ve never been around before you have to figure out what actually works on the floor. So I just hope we can narrow that down quickly.
Hopefully by the end of that 28-day training camp we’ll at least be able to get some sort of feel for what might work. It really takes the first month, six weeks of playing against other teams nightly to say, ‘Boy, this really works, or this doesn’t,’ so it will be nice when January 1st comes along because hopefully by then we’ll have our rotation, have our young guys really comfortable, and then we can really start saying, ‘OK, let’s see what we can do with this group.’ So there are a lot of challenges with that.
JCF: Last year you had the unique challenge of having no training camp due to the lockout, which really tied your hands because that severely limited your ability to fully implement your system. Well this year you’ve got a whole training camp, but with so many new players does it almost feel as if you’re in a similar situation to last year because even though you have more time this time around, you’re also in a situation where you have to integrate all these new players while simultaneously attempting to get the rookies up to speed with NBA basketball?
KM: Last year with the rushed camp and everything being jammed on top of each other, it was tough but we also mostly had guys who had pro experience so I was able to watch film on them and watch them in different sets and say, ‘I think this guy can do this.’ But even with a bunch of pros, we changed a lot of stuff up from what I felt would work because we threw it out there saying, ‘I hope this fits the team,’ but then we started running it and we’re just saying to each other, ‘You know, we’re not in sync and these guys don’t run this as well as I’d hoped they would – they run this other thing better.’ There’s always going to experiences like that in coaching.
Well this year you’re talking about a bunch of guys who haven’t played a lot of pro ball so I’m not sure what’s going to work best with some of them and what kind of sets they’re best suited to.
I do know we’re going to have to play with pace, we’re going to have to keep the floor spread, we’re going to have to allow our perimeter guys room to make plays and attack because our young guys are real green. To say that we’re just going to give them the ball and allow them all to be playmakers, I’m not sure that’s really fair to them. But with Royce White and Terrence Jones, they can both handle and move and are good decision makers, so it does give you some flexibility since some of our bigs can go out on the perimeter a little bit more and handle the ball real well.
So we should have a lot of different things that we can do, but now we just have to find out exactly what they are, how they work and how everybody is going to play together. There’s just a lot of unknowns, but that’s just kind of where we’re at.
JCF: I think if people just looked at your coaching style last year in a vacuum they’d come away thinking that the Kevin McHale offense is going to feature a heavy dose of pick-and-roll and giving the point guard a lot of freedom and opportunities to make plays. Because the personnel is so different this year do you think we can expect a dramatically different offensive approach, or with Jeremy Lin on board – someone who really excelled in isolation and pick-and-roll situations last season – will it largely be the same with just a greater emphasis on playing more uptempo to take advantage of the young legs up and down the roster?
KM: Again, ideally if you asked me how I’d like to play I’d say that I’d like to have a big guy to throw the ball to and pound the hell out of the other team. If you don’t have those guys then it’s very hard to do that. I don’t foresee those guys being on our team right now, so we’re probably going to have to create offense from the outside-in even though I’d prefer my offense from the inside-out. I’d rather be a team that’s a great rebounding, great pound-it-inside, throw it out for jump shots after you’ve explored pounding it inside type of team. But those teams in the NBA are few and far between these days.
So we’re just going to have to do whatever fits our team the best. If our best playmaker is our two-man then we’ll run a ton of stuff that will allow him to make plays. If our best playmaker is our four-man, then we’ll run a ton of stuff for him to make plays. The object is not to run your offense, the object is to run an offense that fits your team. I’m not playing, so it doesn’t matter what I like; it matters what these guys can and can’t do.
I’ve never believed in a one-size-fits-all offense. I always believed that was a copout. I always thought whenever I heard that: ‘You’ve got Kareem and you’re a high-post offensive coach so you’re going to put Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the high-post? That doesn’t make much sense.’ So I think you have to adapt to your players.
So what kind of offense are we going to run this year? I’ll let you know in a few months when we’ve been around them a little bit more.
JCF: Talking about some of the young guys, do you care whether or not Royce White has a defined position, or do you just feel like, ‘Who cares? He’s a basketball player – that’s all that matters.’
KM: Who can he guard? That’s the big thing. I don’t care what he does offensively. Offensively he’s going to make plays. You can say, ‘Royce, play point guard,’ or ‘Royce, play center,’ and I think he’ll play the same way. He’s got a skill set and he’s going to play to that skill set.
He’s unique: He can handle the ball, he can make passes, he can make plays. He’s going to have to take care of the ball a little bit more and understand that the holes in the NBA are all smaller and what was a good pass in college is no longer a good pass in the NBA because guys’ arms are longer, they’re quicker to the ball and they’re smarter. So it doesn’t matter really if you play Royce at the point guard, off guard, whatever – he’s going to play the same way. So now we’ve just got to figure out how we can get him the ball in those situations and be effective.
You also have to figure out where to put his teammates. What are the best passes he makes? Is he a guy that finds the far corner from the opposite slot? Is he one of those unique guys that can find that guy? If he can, that’s great – that means he has vision of the whole court. But if he doesn’t have vision of the whole court, then you have to find out what he sees: Does he see half the court, three-quarters of the court? So you have to figure that out and the only way you do that is to let him play, watch him and say, ‘Royce, this is a pass we want you to make and this is a pass we don’t want you to make,’ and just try to help him out with it.
But as I said, I don’t care what position you say he is, he’s going to play the same style. You’re not going to label him a two-guard and all of a sudden he’s going to be a three-point shooter – I don’t think that’s going to happen. He’s going to do the same thing no matter what he does. He’s an offensive guy who plays with thrust, puts the ball on the floor, finds people, draws two defenders and finds the open man.
JCF: Different types of players obviously, but I imagine your first response to this next question is going to be the same. Whether we’re talking D-Mo or Terrence Jones, I assume the first question you're going to ask is: Who can they guard?
KM: Yeah, I think they should be able to both guard a couple different spots. I like the fact that they move their feet pretty good. But there’s a big difference between what they did in Vegas and what they’ll be able to do early on in the pros. The summer league, both those guys, I liked a lot of the stuff they did.
But I did happen to notice one big thing in the summer league: LeBron wasn't playing and neither was Dwyane Wade, and I didn’t see either of the Gasol brothers. Dwight Howard forgot to come – you can stop me at some point. Those guys forgot they were supposed to be playing in Vegas, I guess.
So I take all that with a giant grain of salt. They showed some of the stuff they can do but now they have to prove that they can do it against the top line guys on a nightly basis. Can they guard those top line guys? In Vegas, they were able to guard different people which was a good sign.
But when I tell you we have a lot of stuff to find out about these guys I mean we have to find out where they want the ball, where they can be best with the ball, who they can guard – there’s just a ton of stuff that we have to find out about these guys at an NBA level. For a lot of them, they’ve never played at an NBA level and then for some of them, like Omer (Asik), he’s never played long minutes at an NBA level. So there’s just a lot of questions. They’ll get answered in time but I don’t have a lot of answers for you sitting here right now.