Top 50 NBA players from last 50 years: Kevin McHale ranks No. 34

By | May 8, 2022
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Editor’s Note: As part of a new series for his podcast, “What’s Wright with Nick Wright,” FOX Sports commentator Nick Wright is ranking the 50 best NBA players of the last 50 years. The countdown continues today with player No. 34, Kevin McHale.

Kevin McHale’s career highlights:

  • Seven-time All-Star
  • One-time first-team All-NBA
  • Three-time All-Defensive first team, three-time second team
  • Two-time Sixth Man of the Year
  • 1981 All-Rookie team

There was one season in which Kevin McHale was the best player on his team. It was the 1988-89 campaign and Larry Bird missed all but six games with a heel injury. A 31-year-old McHale was the leading scorer, an All-Star and All-Defensive selection.

The Celtics, who had played in five straight conference finals, went 42-40 and were swept in the first round of the playoffs.

Stopping there, though, would be unjust to the Boston legend. No team won more regular-season games in the 1980s than the Celtics, and only the Lakers won more in the playoffs. McHale was the Celts’ second-best player for the majority of the decade.

“His contributions to winning basketball cannot be overstated,” Wright said. “He wasn’t a role player.”

Kevin McHale is No. 34 on Nick Wright’s Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

Kevin McHale is No.  34 on Nick Wright's Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

Kevin McHale won three championships with the Celtics and was a six-time All-Defensive player. Charles Barkley once said McHale was the most difficult player he ever had to defend because of his outstanding footwork. Nick emphasizes McHale’s track record of showing up when it mattered.

Occasionally, McHale was the Celtics’ best player — even in the playoffs.

He didn’t become a starter until midway through the 1985 season, following a knee injury to Cedric Maxwell. Boston was the defending champs and Bird was in the midst of winning three consecutive MVPs. But in the postseason, McHale took a leap from the NBA’s best sixth man to one of its premier forwards.

No Celtic played better in a Finals rematch against the Lakers, as McHale paced the team in scoring, rebounding, blocks and field goal percentage (among starters). In two of the six games, he led all players on both teams in scoring and rebounding.

McHale was even more impactful in a Finals triumph against the Rockets the following year. He again led Boston in scoring, blocks and field goal percentage (among starters) while going up against twin towers Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Bird deservedly claimed MVP honors, but the 1986 Celtics aren’t regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time without McHale’s massive contributions.

By then, the gawky 6-foot-10 power forward had perfected his low post moves and was equally adept on the defensive end. He made the first of three straight All-Defensive first teams and would lead the league in field goal percentage the next two seasons.

“Whenever you mention Kevin McHale, you have to mention his legendary footwork,” Wright said. “A guy Charles Barkley said was the hardest player he ever had to defend.”

McHale reached his peak in 1987, fourth finishing in MVP voting (behind Bird). The All-NBA first-teamer averaged 26.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game that season, only to break his foot just before the playoffs. He played well through the injury (21.1/9.2/58.4%), but it was one of a few that ultimately compromised the Celtics’ title hopes, as they slogged through the Eastern Conference bracket before being outclassed by the Lakers.

While Boston didn’t make it back to another Finals, McHale continued to produce in big moments. The seven-time All-Star averaged a career-high (and team-high) 25.4 points in the Celtics’ 1988 playoff run. In Game 7 of the conference semifinals against the Hawks, which is best remembered for the shootout between Bird and Dominique Wilkins, McHale went for 33 and 13 as Boston won by two.

Over his eight-year prime, the star sidekick’s averages in the regular season and postseason were roughly 21 points, eight rebounds, 1.7 blocks, 57% from the field and 80% at the free-throw line. He played in five Finals, winning three times.

“Would a team with Kevin McHale as their best guy have been a champion? Probably not,” Wright said. “But would he have undoubtedly had multiple top-five MVP finishes instead of just one? I think so. I’m very comfortable with him as the second-best supporting actor in NBA history.”

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