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 of them.

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.

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19 Comments:
Blogger Bugg said...
Great breakdown. I'd pretty much take anybody from the eighties over anyone now in their respective position sans TD, just because the old guys actually had a work ethic and knew how to play as a team. The next comparison, if not already done, should be the 9x Bulls vs. the 85/87 Lakers.

Blogger Drake said...
I definitely agree. I mean, there are plenty of guys who can do a lot of things, such as Dirk, Sheed, Diaw, and countless others. Versatility is certainly important (and it seems more important during the Draft for various reasons).

But how many guys are that automatic-2-points-from-15-feet-in guy? How many guys are people legitimately afraid to guard? And how many guys can go 20-10 when they're not even the main focus of the team?

You can look at the statistics all you want, but you're not going to get a good and complete sense of the actual player. The only true way to look at how good a player actually is is by looking at how he plays when he plays. There is really no other alternative.

And BTW, the last posts video is an absolute crown jewel of all Youtube videos. Search for "Kevin Mchale" and you'll get a bunch of Celtics clips and maybe one other video showing some of his moves. Otherwise, nothing as comprehensive as the last post's video. And people wonder why nobody scores that way in the low -post anymore.

Anonymous John E. Sanford said...
McHale over Nowitzki, all day everyday.

Blogger john marzan said...
I take Kevin over Dirk.

Yay!

Here's more "what if" questions:

1) I've said in the previous post that i think Mchale's a much better player than Karl Malone if both player played against each other in their primes. But many will say that what makes malone great was him being paired with John Stockton to form one of the best dynamic duos in the NBA.

So my question is, who would win in a two on two contest: Karl Malone/John Stockton vs Kevin Mchale/Dennis Johnson?

malone and stockton are hall of famers. OTOH, mchale and dj are all-defense type players.

2) Would the Mavericks be better if they had McHale instead of Nowitzki? At least the suns wouldn't have the nerve to put marion on mchale, no? ditto for the warriors and their swings. if boozer was so dominant vs. the warriors, whereas dirk had a hard time, think of how mchale would have performed.

but others will question, can mchale keep up with current fast pace of the suns or GSW's? well, were the celtics able to keep up with the Showtime Lakers?

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I hate the Celtics. But you are 100% correct. I thinhk TD is more athletic than McHale but obviously not as good from the free throw line. Another thing about Nowitzki is that the Mavs somtimes struggle with spacing when he is on the floor. Not all his fault but if he had a better game in the post it would open up more opportunities.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I take Dirk over Kevin and the same thing does everyone in the world that has eyes.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I'd take whoever I could get. Any team that has to make that choice would be pretty lucky.

Anonymous padraig said...
first off, fantastic post. I read it yesterday but never got around to commenting. posts like this are the reason I continue to read bbawful on a fairly regular basis.

on dirk v. mchale: one thing you missed - McHale's role (limited minutes, #s, etc.) is a double-edged sword. Sure, it's impressive that he put those #s up playing next to Bird/Parrish/etc. but, on the other hand, he was playing on probably the greatest frontline of all time with fantastic backcourts for the most part. oh, and the coach wasn't bad either. now, Dirk's got some talent around him, but the two-headed Dampier/Diop beast ain't no Parrish, to put it lightly, and DJ>>>Jason Terry. I'm not saying that I'd take Dirk over McHale based on this but it's kinda important to consider Kevin was playing one of the greatest teams in NBA history.

This is really, to me, about styles and the evolution of basketball. Honestly I think a more interesting comparison would've been McHale and the dude he's inextricably linked with, KG, who really does represent versatility. Dirk isn't really versatile so much as he's the poster boy for the Euro-izing of big men (e.g. soft, perimeter, good shooters).

Oh, and one minor quibble. It's true that TD has limited range but that cat has sick handles for a 6'11" dude that McHale could never dream of. I mean, haven't you ever seen Tim break some poor stiff down with crossovers and between the legs and junk? Sure, it almost inevitably results in a a 15 foot bank shot or an up and under or something, but TD is a fantastic ballhandler for a big man.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Great post on McHale. I just recently found this blog and I love it!

Kobe hater: check!

Sheed hater: check!

I do read Simmons because he's (well, used to be) funny, but I was gettin' tired of the Nash bashin' as well.

Keep up the great work!

Blogger Liston said...
I would not build a team around Dirk Nowitzki, but I would build a wall around him. And then put a roof on it. And then fill it with water. Yeah, I build that around Dirk.

Liston

Anonymous SK said...
Al Jefferson is approaching McHale territory in terms of post scoring ability. He doesn't have the freaky long arms or the intimidating armpit hair (come on, if you saw those pits coming at your face you'd back up by reflex, right?) but Big Al has great footwork and can find space to get off his shot in tight spaces. However, he has a ways to go defensively (like from the Earth to Mars way to go) to match McHale on that end.

Blogger john marzan said...
one quick note. ainge and dj are not true pgs. bird was the top assist man on that celtics team.

dirk can create his own shots in the perimeter. Mchale can create his in the paint. players like dirk and bargnani are becoming the trend. lowpost scorers like duncan are a dying breed.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I'd take McHale over Dirk all day long. Love hearing Barkley talk about how talented McHale was. You don't hear other NBA stars talk about Dirk that way.

SK is right about Al Jefferson. I went to a Celtics @ Sonics game last year and I swear Al Jefferson did a different post move the first 5 or 6 times he touched the ball. The Sonics were rotating guys like Nick Collison and Chris Wilcox on him, but still, for a young player, Jefferson's got a ton of post moves and good touch ... unlike Dwight Howard.

Blogger Cameron said...
Put Dirk on that Celtics team and ask yourself if they would have more or less rings.

I say more.

Now put McHale on the Mavs and ask youself if they ever get to 60 wins riding his offense each and every game.

I'm not knocking McHale (except as a GM, ohmigoodnessheisterrible), but Dirk's new-school talents are too obscene to ignore.

Awesome blog BTW

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I select Dirk...as GM for the Timberwolves. Good luck finding one person in Minnesota, aside from Glen Taylor, who wouldn't like this change.

Blogger dollar_democrat said...
you are a hueg fool

mcHale is one of greatest forwards in history

dirk is nthing but a semi talented gunner with no balls

mchale has what 3 championships,, and woulda had 6 if len bias had not been coked out

Anonymous Anonymous said...
mchale was great and was perfect for the celtics. If the two players had switched teams then both teams would've done worse. Mchale isn't someone you should center a team around. Dirk is an offensive machine who's best skill is the ability to score. He would not work well being a sidekick to any player. Generally it depends on who else you want on your team when you decide between these two. If you want another star then take mchale. If you want more role players take dirk. I personally would take dirk because he was more all around but i have nothing against people that would take mchale

Anonymous KHayes666 said...
The only way to find out if Dirk can play second fiddle is if he joins another team with stars like Chris Bosh did.....and 15 games into the season Bosh is flopping worse than Bill Laimbeer driving on McHale

Blogger dollar_democrat said...
its really about efficiency and number of shots, onyl thing kobe is is a gunner, they had that saying back in day, a gunner

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