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October 20, 2011
What if They Played Now?
Kevin McHale

by Kevin Pelton


In ESPN Insider's "What if they played now?" series, we'll translate the statistics of stars of the 1980s and '90s to the present-day environment to give an idea how they might have stacked up to their new contemporaries. Each season's stat line is compared to league average at the time, then projected using the current NBA averages. Next up: Celtics star Kevin McHale.

With his Boston Celtics struggling during the 1999-00 season, coach Rick Pitino famously ranted to reporters that Kevin McHale, along with fellow Celtics legends Larry Bird and Robert Parish, was not "walking through that door." But what if he was?

In the latest edition of "What if they played now?" we imagine that McHale was taken by Boston in the 1998 NBA Draft, when the Celtics actually added cornerstone Paul Pierce. In such a scenario, McHale likely would not have done enough to save Pitino's job, but he could have filled a key role on a Boston championship team for a new generation.

Here's what McHale's stat lines might look like in the modern NBA:

Year    Tm    G    MPG    PPG    RPG   APG    FG%
1999   BOS   50   20.1    8.3   4.3   0.6   .484
2000   BOS   82   28.4   11.9   6.7   1.0   .500
2001   BOS   82   28.6   11.5   6.1   1.0   .503
2002   BOS   82   31.4   15.6   7.2   1.1   .519
2003   BOS   79   33.6   15.8   8.3   1.4   .514
2004   BOS   68   35.3   17.7   7.5   2.2   .532
2005   BOS   77   39.7   23.3   9.4   2.2   .574
2006   BOS   64   37.3   20.2   8.3   2.2   .588
2007   BOS   78   36.9   20.0   8.0   1.9   .537
2008   BOS   82   33.2   18.7   7.5   1.8   .523
2009   BOS   68   30.4   16.8   6.4   1.5   .545
2010   BOS   56   25.0   12.4   5.3   1.3   .496
2011   BOS   71   23.3    9.5   4.7   0.9   .445

After finishing up at the University of Minnesota, it took the real-life McHale a few years to establish himself as a star player. In this scenario, his breakthrough would have come during 2001-02, which fits well. That season, after Jim O'Brien had replaced Pitino on the sideline, the Celtics returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1995.

In 1983-84, McHale was honored for the first of two times with the league's Sixth Man Award. That figures to hold up here, as McHale's averages surpass those of actual 2001-02 winner Corliss Williamson (13.6 points and 4.1 rebounds with the Detroit Pistons). McHale might have had a tougher battle to claim best sixth man the following season, when Bobby Jackson won with 15.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game for a Sacramento team that won 59 games.

In real life, McHale put up his biggest statistical performances after becoming a full-time starter in 1985-86. That coincided with the last of the three championships Boston won in the '80s with McHale. Projected forward nearly two decades, there is no longer the same relationship between McHale's play and the Celtics' success. His best efforts would have come in a first-round exit in 2005 and two subsequent trips to the lottery.

Still, that wouldn't take away from what McHale averaged. His translated 2004-05 campaign would have ranked him 11th in the league in scoring and 12th in rebounding. No one in the NBA that season had better averages in both categories, and McHale would have placed third among big men in points per game while posting a field goal percentage second only to Shaquille O'Neal.

McHale would have been on the downside of his career by the time Boston loaded up for the 2007-08 season, though still a major contributor in what would have been a run to a championship. His numbers are comparable to the 18.8 points and 9.2 rebounds Kevin Garnett posted that season. The following season would have been McHale's last as an All-Star, and he probably would have been selected on reputation as much as anything.

Here, we see a key difference between the NBA of the '80s and early '90s and the present-day game. After one final season as a reserve, McHale retired in 1993 at age 35. Ray Allen was an All-Star last season at the same age. Garnett, who turned 35 in May, remains one of the league's top big men and Pierce shows little sign of dropping of now that he's reached 34. Certainly, playing on a broken foot during the 1987 playoffs was a factor; the injury bothered McHale the rest of his career. But McHale's career path wasn't atypical for his generation. Improved medical treatment and long-term planning by teams have helped players today age better than ever before.

McHale's relatively short career kept him from piling up impressive career stats. In our scenario, he would not even have scored 15,000 career points. His projected total of 14,742 would have put him right between Rashard Lewis and Carmelo Anthony. Translating McHale's stats also reinforces that he was a below-average rebounder for a big man who racked up decent-looking per-game averages only because he played so many minutes in a fast-paced environment. (In fairness, playing with Bird and cross-matching defensively is one reason McHale did not grab more rebounds.)

At the offensive end, McHale's polished post-up game would translate to any era. Even with a poor final season, he would have retired as a 52.6 percent career shooter from the field--good for ninth among active players. As far as go-to power forwards, his accuracy would be comparable to Carlos Boozer and Amare Stoudemire, both of whom have shot 53.7 percent over their careers.

Neither of those players is the closest modern analogue to McHale, however. The statistics confirm the obvious comparison between McHale and Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers, who comes closest to matching McHale's footwork and array of moves in the post. McHale's 1985-86 season scores a similarity of 97.0 out of 100 to Gasol via the SCHOENE projection system, far and away the highest for any player last season.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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