Q&A With Kevin McHale: Part II

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 2 of their conversation (In case you missed it, Part 1 can be read here).

JCF: You said that your stated preference from an ideological standpoint would be to play inside-out; to pound the ball inside and bludgeon teams. This is probably an obvious question, but is that philosophy borne just from the fact that was your playing style with those great Celtics teams of the 80s?

KM: Well I think if you control the paint, you control most games. That has shifted a little bit, it’s become a bit more of a perimeter game, but the Houston Rockets won two championships because they got the ball inside-out to Hakeem Olajuwon. I still think it’s important that you can play inside-out.

Now you can play inside-out different ways. We might play more inside-out by driving the ball into the paint and then kicking it out. We might play more inside-out off the dribble. But I still think you have to collapse the paint all the time.

If you’re a guard and you’re starting out five feet above the three-point line, you’ve got a long way to go to get into the paint. If you’re a big who catches the ball with one foot in the paint, well you’re home. You take one dribble and you’ve got two feet in the paint. It’s just much easier to collapse the defense that way. But if you can’t then you’ve got to collapse it some other way.

So I want to play inside-out and I’d like to do it with big guys because I just think it gives you a big advantage, but in today’s game things have changed a lot with a lot of dribble-drives and penetration.

But you know basketball is essentially a simple game in a lot ways. Defensively you want to keep the ball out of the paint as much as you possibly can. Offensively you want to get the ball in the paint as much as you possibly can. And the team that does the best combination of those two usually wins because you’re just not going to beat people on a nightly basis by just jacking jump shots.

JCF: And I guess to your point about there being different ways of playing inside-out, even with the way the game has evolved you can look at a team like Miami, a club without a traditional big, but one that still won a championship because LeBron controlled the paint, commanded so much attention, and was either able to score down low himself or find wide-open teammates along the perimeter for easy threes. And OKC, another team without a dominant interior presence, enjoyed a similar run to the Finals last year because of the amount of pressure KD, Westbrook and Harden can put on opponents with their ability to drive, kick and get to the line.

KM: Yeah, LeBron, you can’t find a guy who can keep him from breaking down a defense. So Miami had him, then Wade with a little bit of pace and all of a sudden there’s another guy getting into the paint.

Like I said, there’s different ways of owning the paint. There’s three ways of getting into the paint: You can dribble it in there, you can pass it in there, or you can rebound it in there. If you can win two of those three ways then on any given night you’ve got a good chance to win. If you get the ball in the middle of the paint 40 times in a game then you’re going to have some good stuff happen, so we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to get the ball in the paint and then we’ve got to figure out defensively how we’re going to keep it out of there. You’ve got to protect the rim and you’ve got to attack the rim and if you do those two things you should be in good shape.

JCF: Have you changed at all as a coach from last year at this time to who you are as a coach today?

KM: Yeah, I think you always evolve. If you don’t evolve and don’t change some stuff I think that’s just silly. You’ve got to.

I think everybody evolves a little bit but my basic philosophy has never changed. If you protect the paint on the defensive end and can attack the paint on the offensive end then you stand a really good chance at winning the game. I’ve believed that for years and years and years and years. That doesn’t change. How you do it and how you go about it – now that changes a little bit.

One thing you realize is that no matter how much you watch there are always going to be things that surprise you or that you can’t prepare for. Like I watched all the games from the Rockets the year before during the lockout in order to prepare for training camp last year. I saw all the stuff and all that corner series and all the stuff I really liked that (Rick) Adelman ran for them before I got here. Then all of a sudden camp started, we put a lot of that stuff in there and realized there’s a huge difference in that corner series when you don’t have Brad Miller and Chuck Hayes making those passes. I realized and I said, ‘Hmm, it doesn’t look as good as it did (laughs).’ So all that prep work you do kind of goes for naught because all of a sudden you kind of go, ‘Wow, we’re going to have to get off of this and try some other things.’

So you evolve a little bit and you realize what you’ve known your whole life: You truly don’t know your team until you coach them daily. Watching them from afar is completely different than coaching them. When you’re around a guy and you like him more after being around him on a daily basis as a player, those are the type of guys you want to keep because normally when you spend enough time around a player you start seeing his weaknesses and his warts and you start saying, ‘Oh man, I thought he was a little bit better.’ But when you get done with guys and say, ‘Boy, I really like that guy,’ those are the type of guys you want to keep around here.

Last year at the end of the year there were some guys that I’d really grown close to and felt that I knew if you asked them to lay it all on the line that they’d fight for you and they’d fight for each other. At the end of the day, that’s what this league is all about. We’ve got to get these guys willing to fight for each other and go out there and fight for the win. Whatever it takes to make that happen, they’ll do it.

Again, that is not the sexy, ‘Oh you’re in the NBA, you get paid.’ That’s why half these clowns in this league don’t win anything. They don’t realize that it comes down to how hard you’re willing to fight for each other. It’s your team. How hard are you willing to fight for it? What are you willing to do to win that game that night and then what are you willing to do to win that game the next night? You do that 82 times, then you do it another twenty-something times in the playoffs if you’re lucky and you win a championship. Because the answer is: Whatever it takes. When you have a team that says, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to win,’ you’re moving in the right direction.

Most teams have guys who say, ‘Well, I’ll play up to this point, but after that, now I’m uncomfortable. You mean I have to put a body on LeBron James and box him out? Wait a minute now.’ So you want to find the guys who will do whatever it takes to win and we’ve got to find out how many of these young guys are willing to do that and then – win, lose or draw – are willing to do it all over again the next night.

It’s a grind. The NBA is a huge grind. It’s not a sexy league. Everybody thinks that it is. But it’s a grinder’s, workman’s, tough league. I always chuckle because I see people writing that it’s about something else. They’ve never played. I’ve never seen a guy who’s played in this league and had success who hasn’t said the exact same thing. It’s all people from afar or people who have never won who say it’s about something else. Talk to anybody who’s won and they’ll tell you it’s a grind and it’s all about finding a way to bring it every night.

So that’s what we’ve got to find out with our team: How many of those guys do we have?

JCF: Do you think the percentage of those guys in the league is any different today than it was when you played? Or do you think there always will be a portion of guys who get it, some who don’t and the vast majority who exist somewhere in between?

KM: There are always going to be guys who are willing to play really hard until it gets uncomfortable. And then there are those guys who, when it gets really uncomfortable, they dig even deeper. Then there are the guys who – and I hate to say this but it’s true – look at you and say, ‘Come on, dude, I’m making some good money and I’m only going to play so hard.’ I think you can figure out which group you win more with.

That’s why veteran teams tend to win more. It takes you a long time to figure it out because no one is telling you that. You have people whispering in your ear when you’re in college, ‘Oh, wait ‘til you get to the NBA, you’re going to get paid and get cars and live here.’ They’re telling you about all this stuff you’re going to get but they don’t tell you about how hard it is.

If you were to ask LeBron James if his mindset is different now than it was five years ago I bet he’d tell you just how different it is. He found out that nothing else mattered except winning. For all his talent, if he was to achieve what he wanted to achieve nothing else mattered except winning. There’s nothing else. That’s all there is. But sometimes it’s hard to get players to see that.

You have to experience it, man. You have to get your heart broken and you have to lose some tough games and have a lot of stuff happen before you get that real hard, hard finish. That’s why we have to try to do everything we can to get our young guys to that point as quickly as we can.