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Kevin McHale's firing signals major shift in NBA coaching field

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Rockets GM: 'We're going to make changes until we win' (1:55)

Rockets GM Daryl Morey said he fired Kevin McHale because the team was not responding to him and there was no time to wait for a turnaround in the Western Conference. (1:55)

Patrick Beverley chuckled as he caught the ball from J.B. Bickerstaff, then the assistant coach of the Houston Rockets. As the veteran Rockets point guard fired up a midrange jumper, he peered over to the assistant coaching staff on the sidelines.

"Chris, you see this?" Beverley cracked.

The comment was directed toward assistant coach Chris Finch, who was seated in plush, black-leather, courtside seats. Beverley knew he was tattling on himself just before a Nov. 1 matchup against the Miami Heat. The midrange jumper is famously taboo in the Rockets' system. But interestingly enough, Bickerstaff was on the court with Beverley and fellow point guard Ty Lawson, feeding them dozens of the intermediate shots.

"Oh, I see that," Finch said, joking back at Beverley. "We just want to see the ball go in the damn basket for once."

At the top of the key, Bickerstaff gave a knowing grin. The Rockets had just come off two blowout losses, each with the Rockets shooting thirty-something percent from the floor. Perhaps indulging in some long 2s -- the forbidden fruit -- could shake them out of the funk.

Kevin McHale was nowhere to be seen, but there was Bickerstaff working with the players and trying something different. Alas, later that night, the Rockets were trampled again as the Heat went on an unthinkable 67-26 run to close the game while Houston missed 15 of its 16 3-pointers in the second half. It marked the Rockets' third straight loss by a deficit of at least 20 points.

Seventeen days later, the Rockets wanted something different. After a 4-7 start, the team announced that Bickerstaff would be brought over as the replacement for McHale. The 36-year-old Bickerstaff brings a fresh voice, an on-court communicator that general manager Daryl Morey trusts to rally the players in ways McHale couldn't.

"J.B. is a young, smart coach who is strong defensively and strong with player relationships," Morey told ESPN.com. "He's forward-thinking but has experience for many years in the NBA as well. So he's grounded."

Though a basketball lifer and son of former NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff, J.B. didn't play in the NBA. And these days, that seems to score more points than having a scoring title on your NBA résumé. Look around: There are more J.B. Bickerstaffs than Kevin McHales in the coach's seat. And those on the McHale end of the spectrum seem to be on shakier ground.

There are no formal job postings for an NBA head-coach position. But let's imagine there was one for the prestigious occupation. Fifteen years ago, at the top of it, you might find the following qualification:

Played in the NBA at a high level.

"To be licensed as a modern NBA coach, gone are the days when a so-called 'Basketball Ph.D' would suffice. Instead, a liberal arts hoops education seems more qualified for the multidisciplinary gig."

Indeed, the coaching circle was much more decorated then. In 2000-01, according to an Elias Sports Bureau study, a total of nine head coaches were former NBA All-Stars, representing a third of the league. Names such as Isiah Thomas, Dave Cowens, Dan Issel, Rudy Tomjanovich and Lenny Wilkins graced the sidelines. If you wanted to coach, chances are you had to have played in the league and played among the best.

But we've seen a seismic shift in the backgrounds of NBA coaches over the past few years. This morning, the number of All-Star coaches stood at five. This afternoon, it stands at four after McHale's dismissal. Doc Rivers, Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins and Jeff Hornacek are the last of a seemingly dying breed of NBA coach.

Today, the job qualification list looks much different as players rise up in the information age. It's not enough to growl, "I played this game and this is how it's done." And if you start a sentence with "back in my day," you might as well be speaking through a dusty phonograph.

This is increasingly a young man's league. To wit, at 45 years old, Miami's Erik Spoelstra is the second-longest-tenured head coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich, who also never played in the NBA. The average age of today's NBA coach is 52.1 years old. Five years ago, that was 53.4, according to Elias research.

To be licensed as a modern NBA coach, no "Basketball Ph.D" is necessary. Instead, a liberal-arts hoops education seems more qualified for the multidisciplinary gig. Didn't play in the NBA? That once may have been labeled as "inexperience" but now can be read as "open-minded."

And that's necessary, because the staff behind an NBA team has grown exponentially over the past decade as the brains and brawn become highly specialized. Between analytics, medical staff, sports psychology, strength and conditioning, scouting, sports science, nutrition and video coordinators, the head coach of today has to have a grasp on all of it. Think more "renaissance man" than "Finals MVP."

Leadership skills come in many shapes and sizes. But one of the main pillars is credibility. McHale's calling card was that he was a player's coach with the credibility of being an NBA legend. But that decorated track record may carry less currency these days as Byron Scott and George Karl fight to keep their jobs while bemoaning player effort seemingly every other night.

And these days, it's harder to relate to a millennial basketball player if you snip at the idea of Snapchat and tweak over the advent of Twitter. Hence, why Fred Hoiberg, Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens have been called up from the collegiate campuses where technology is not only ubiquitous but championed.

Look, McHale was no dinosaur. The Rockets have not just broken 3-point records; they've shattered them. Last season, the Rockets launched 2,680 3-pointers, which was 309 more than the league had ever seen. This season, they've once again paced the league with 37.6 percent of their field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc. If the 3-ball is the modern weapon in the NBA, no coach was more with the times than McHale.

But it's clear from the evidence that the Rockets players were checking out on McHale. And the bigger question may be whether the league is checking out on the McHales as a whole. After years of appealing to basketball authority, the league is thinking differently.