Reader John Marzan
asked "If you were an NBA manager, who would you pick to build your team around: Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin McHale?"
I think the immediate answer you'd get from most NBA analysts would be Dirk Nowitzki. This is because the league is in the midst of a versatility movement, and Dirk is certainly more versatile, offensively speaking, than McHale was. He's a legitimate seven footer who can rebound, run the floor, stick the three at a high percentage, and score with efficiency from almost anywhere (except in the low post). He can also handle the ball better than McHale did. In NBA parlance, he's the more "talented" of the two players.
Whereas Dirk can do a little bit of everything on the offensive end, McHale was a specialist. But while McHale's skill set may have been more limited, it was also more refined. He had the best low post moves in NBA history, which made him virtually unstoppable. In his prime, McHale was an automatic basket from 15 feet and in, unless he was immediately double or triple-teamed. And make no mistake: McHale was a tenacious rebounder. His career average may be "only" 7.3, but you have to keep a few things in mind. First of all, he was the Celtics' Sixth Man for eight of his 13 seasons. He averaged 31 MPG or less for seven seasons, and he played more than 35 MPG only three times (and for the record, his Per 40 Minute rebounding average was 9.5). He also played with two other guys -- Larry Bird and Robert Parish -- who were averaging around 10 RPG. Think about that for a minute: Most teams are lucky if they have one guy averaging close to 10 RPG, and the 80s Celtics had three
Anyway, one of the knocks on McHale is that he was a black hole who never passed the ball. But again, this is misleading. The Celtics didn't run their offense through McHale the way the Mavericks run theirs through Dirk. McHale was a scoring specialist who was expected
to shoot the ball every time he touched it. Bird himself put it best when he said, "Everyone cries that [McHale] can't get the ball out to the open man when he's double or triple-teamed. But you gotta understand something: We wouldn't have thrown the ball to Kevin if we didn't want him to shoot it." [quote from Peter May's The Big Three
] And once again, McHale was usually the sixth man, which affected his numbers. McHale averaged 2.4 APG during the five seasons in which he was a starter, which isn't too far off Dirk's career average of 2.6.
There's another very important distinction between the two players: Defense. McHale was on the All-Defensive first or second team six times, whereas you won't see Dirk on an All-Defensive team any time soon, and for good reason. Moreover, McHale wasn't just a good defender at his position; he could defend any frontcourt player from Patrick Ewing to Charles Barkley to Dominque Wilkins (before he started getting injured, anyway). In fact, McHale was usually responsible for defending the opposing team's best frontcourt scorer, whether he was a center, power forward, or small forward. The Mavericks have to hide Dirk on the defensive end; the Celtics used McHale as a stopper.
In some ways, it's hard to compare the two players, because, unlike Dirk, McHale never got a chance to be The Man
on his team. We'll never really know how good McHale could have been had a team been built around his skills and abilities. But McHale was certainly tougher than Dirk, both mentally and physically. After all, McHale was the team's leading scorer (25 PPG) in the 1986 NBA Finals, despite going up againsts the Houston Rockets' Twin Towers tandem of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon (a 12-time All-Defensive Team member, and two-time Defensive Player of the Year). And remember, McHale played through the 1987 Playoffs with a broken foot, yet he still managed to average 21 PPG and 9 RPG while shooting 58 percent against teams like the Bad Boys Pistons and the Showtime Lakers. Compare that to how Dirk basically wimped out in the 2006 Finals and last year's first round series against the Warriors, and you can hardly question who you'd want to go to war with.
My last point. Even while playing limited minutes and acting as the Robin to Larry Bird's Batman, McHale's game is very similar to that of another current NBA superstar: Tim Duncan. They can both score at will down low and command immediate double teams. They are both top-notch defenders who rebound and block shots with aplomb. They may not play every phase of the game -- ball handling, three-point shooting, etc. -- but they have nonetheless mastered every phase of the game they do
play. And let's face it: Eight of the last nine NBA championship teams have been built around a low post player (Shaq and Duncan). So for all the thrilling perimeter exploits of the Kobe Bryants and Dirk Nowitzkis of the league, building around a dominant post player has proven itself to be the best method for success.
I take Kevin over Dirk.
Labels: Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Tim Duncan