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Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Kevin McHale vs. James Worthy
McHale was a starter on the NBA champion Boston Celtics as a rookie in 1981, when he averaged 8.5 points in 17.4 minutes per game on the title run. His per-36-minute averages were remarkably consistent throughout his 13-year career, but it was not until the 1983-84 season when opportunity allowed for his leap, and he earned his first of seven All-Star selections and back-to-back Sixth Man of the Year awards.
His production held steady through his final All-Star bid in 1991, when years of playing through foot and ankle injuries really took its toll. Two years later, he retired. In his eight-year prime, McHale averaged 21.2 points (62.5 true shooting percentage), 8.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.1 combined blocks and steals in 34.7 minutes per game. Forming arguably the greatest frontcourt in NBA history alongside Larry Bird and Robert Parish, Boston’s original Big Three won fewer than 52 games just once in that eight-year window, reaching five consecutive Eastern Conference finals, four straight Finals and winning a pair of rings.
McHale’s playoff averages from 1984-91 were nearly identical to his regular-season production: 21.2 points (62.8 true shooting percentage), 8.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 2.2 combined blocks/steals in 37.6 minutes a night. He was an All-Star in seven of those seasons, an All-Defensive honoree in five of them and a First Team All-NBA selection in 1987, when he finished fourth in MVP voting despite breaking his foot that March. (He played through the injury, averaging 39 minutes en route to the Big Three’s last Finals showing).
Worthy’s prime nearly mirrored McHale’s. He played an important reserve role as a rookie for a Los Angeles Lakers team that won 58 games and ultimately reached the Finals without him in 1983. His per-minute production was also incredibly consistent, and that was met with increased opportunity in the 1984-85 campaign, when he won the first of three titles in four years with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
He too enjoyed an eight-year run of stardom until March 1992, when season-ending knee surgery spelled the beginning of his end. He retired two years later. From 1984-92, Worthy averaged 19.9 points (56.9 true shooting percentage), 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.9 combined blocks/steals in 35.8 minutes per game. He was either the second- or third-best player on Lakers teams that won fewer than 54 games just once in his prime, playing in six Western Conference finals, five Finals and winning the three rings in that stretch.
Known as “Big Game James” for his ability to meet the moment, Worthy averaged 22.1 points (58.1 true shooting percentage), 5.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.9 combined blocks/steals in 38 minutes per game in the playoffs from 1985-91 (he missed the 1992 playoffs with the knee injury), capturing Finals MVP honors in 1988. He never finished higher than his 12th-place rank in the 1986 MVP voting. Worthy earned Third Team All-NBA honors in 1990 and 1991, the end of his decade-long run with Johnson as his point guard.
Even their lone prime seasons without Bird or Johnson by their side were nearly identical.
The Celtics finished 42-40 and earned the East’s eighth seed in 1988-89, when Bird played only six games. McHale was Boston’s primary option, scoring a team-high 22.5 points per game on 54.6 shooting from the field during the regular season. He averaged a 19-8-3 on 55.8 true shooting in 38.3 minutes per game in the playoffs for a team that was swept by the eventual champion Detroit Pistons in the best-of-five first round.
The Lakers finished 43-39 and earned the West’s eighth seed in 1991-92, following Johnson’s stunning HIV diagnosis and sudden retirement. They were 28-26 through 54 games before Worthy’s knee injury and 15-13 down the stretch without him. His teammates lost in four games to the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. Worthy averaged a team-high 19.9 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting prior to his injury.
With so much being equal, you have to consider McHale’s superior scoring efficiency and his impact as an All-Defensive presence as significant edges over Worthy, even if it feels like picking nits between legends.
McHale’s peak really was his 1986-87 campaign, when he registered career highs of 26.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game while shooting a league-best 60.4 percent from the field for a 59-win Celtics team. He appeared on both the First Team All-NBA and First Team All-Defensive rosters, placing fourth in MVP voting behind only Johnson, Michael Jordan and Bird. But his broken foot in March brought McHale down a peg, even if he averaged 21 and nine on 58.4 percent shooting before losing a six-game Finals set to the Lakers.
So, we should probably incorporate his 1985-86 season, when he averaged 21.3 points (62.3 true shooting percentage), 8.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.4 combined blocks/steals in 35.3 minutes per game for one of the greatest teams in NBA history. He was an All-Star, a First Team All-Defensive honoree and somehow not an All-NBA selection. (The league did not add a Third Team All-NBA until the 1988-89 campaign.)
In the 1986 playoffs, McHale averaged a 25-9-3 on 63.6 true shooting with three combined blocks/steals in 39.7 minutes per game on a team that stormed to the title. He was as good as ever opposite Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson in a six-game Finals victory against the Houston Rockets, averaging a team-high 25.8 points (62.9 TS%) per game with 8.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 3.3 combined blocks/steals.
Worthy’s apex is a little harder to nail down, since his production never spiked the way McHale’s did in 1987. He finished 12th in the MVP vote in 1986, one spot ahead of McHale that season, but you could really pick any of his All-Star campaigns as the pinnacle. His two Third Team All-NBA selections and peak playoff production all came after the last of those Lakers title runs, so for argument’s sake let’s go with Worthy’s 1987-88 season, when he won Finals MVP for his 36-16-10 effort in a Game 7 win over Detroit.
Worthy averaged 19.7 points (57.1 true shooting percentage), five rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.8 combined blocks/steals in 35.4 minutes per game for the 1988 Lakers. Those averages increased to 21.1 points (56.7 TS%), 5.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.2 combined blocks/steals in 37.3 minutes a night in the playoffs. He averaged a 22-7-4 on 54.4 true shooting in the Finals (to Johnson’s 21-6-13 on 67.6 true shooting).
Is the Game 7 performance that shifted the Finals MVP from Johnson to Worthy enough to say he was better than McHale at his very best? Not quite. McHale was every bit as worthy of 1986 Finals MVP honors and considered one of the league’s top five players (and defenders) in 1987, when he was just as productive as Worthy in their Finals meeting with a broken foot. Worthy never got so close to superstardom.
When one of the guys is nicknamed “Big Game,” the answer seems kind of obvious.
That Game 7 of the 1988 Finals against the Pistons was Worthy’s masterpiece. He only played in a handful of do-or-die playoff games — and just three in his prime. The Lakers won all three of them. (They lost Game 7 of the 1984 Finals to the Celtics, which we will get into, and Game 5 of a first-round 1993 playoff series.)
All three of Worthy’s career Game 7 victories came in that same 1988 season. He averaged 29 points (59.3 FG%, 73.9 FT%), 9.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.7 combined blocks/steals in those games, eliminating the Stockton/Malone Utah Jazz, a balanced Dallas Mavericks team and the Bad Boy Pistons in the process.
McHale played in 10 do-or-die playoff games. Seven of them came in his prime, and his Celtics finished 6-1, losing only a first-round Game 5 to Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks at the tail end of it in 1990. McHale averaged 18.6 points (57.8 FG%, 80.5 FT%), 8.9 rebounds, 0.9 assists and 2.3 combined blocks/steals.
The Celtics and Lakers met in three Finals, only because Los Angeles suffered a 1986 Western Conference finals upset that cost them four straight championship meetings. In 19 Finals games opposite each other, Worthy averaged a 22-5-3 on 58/65 shooting splits to McHale’s 20-8-2 on 55/77 shooting splits. In the three elimination games, Worthy outperformed McHale in the 1984 Game 7 loss, McHale returned the favor in a 1985 Game 6 loss, and they were both rock-solid in the Lakers’ 1987 Game 6 victory. We should probably mention that McHale dropped 29 and 10 with four blocks in the close-out Game 6 win in 1986.
In all, McHale averaged 21.1 points (61.4 true shooting percentage), 8.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists and two combined blocks/steals in 25 games over four straight Finals from 1984-87. Worthy played 34 games in six Finals between 1984 and 1991, averaging 24.7 points (62.9 true shooting percentage), five rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.6 combined blocks/steals. McHale was consistent, but Worthy just elevated to another level.
• McHale: Three-time NBA champion; 1987 First Team All-NBA selection; seven-time All-Star; six-time All-Defensive selection (3x First Team); two-time Sixth Man of the Year; 1999 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee
• Worthy: Three-time NBA champion (1988 Finals MVP); two-time Third Team All-NBA selection; seven-time All-Star; 2003 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee
Both Hall of Famers have three rings and seven All-Star selections. McHale’s First Team All-NBA selection is probably worth a little more than Worthy’s two Third Team selections, especially since the Celtics star likely would have had a couple more nods had the NBA added the Third Team before 1989.
It really comes down to whether you would want the six All-Defensive selections and two Sixth Man of the Year awards on your résumé or a Finals MVP. Worthy started for all but his first and final seasons, so Sixth Man was never really an honor he was gunning for, and you could imagine him getting one if he had. Personally, I would want the Finals MVP in my trophy case, so I could tell anyone who listened that I was the best player in a championship series for a team that featured peak Magic and an aging Abdul-Jabbar.
For the culture
Outside of Los Angeles, Worthy has kept a quiet post-retirement profile. He is still a household staple with Lakers fans and the League Pass faithful, serving as a studio analyst before and after games on the team’s regional sports network. Worthy remains an unabashed Lakers fan and Celtics hater, to his eternal credit.
In addition to the customary late-night television appearances for an L.A. star, Worthy randomly acted in a TV show once every few years, playing himself on “Webster” in 1987, “Everybody Loves Raymond” in 1997 and “Arli$$” in 2001, and playing the Klingon Koral in a 1993 episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
McHale also starred in a pair of “Cheers” episodes in the early 1990s.
The Celtics star has managed to stay in the national NBA consciousness for much of his post-playing career. He served as general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves from 1995-2009, drafting and mentoring Kevin Garnett, who lifted the franchise to its highest peaks in history. Ultimately, McHale traded Garnett to his beloved Celtics in 2007, facilitating the restoration of that franchise to its former glory.
McHale also served as head coach of the Timberwolves for two brief stints, before assuming the reins for the Houston Rockets from 2011-2015. He posted a career coaching record of 232-185, including a 56-win season in Houston that ended in the Western Conference finals. He now serves as an NBA TV analyst.
On the court, McHale has also had a more lasting impact. Clearly the second-best member of one of the great frontcourts in NBA history, he helped revolutionize the Sixth Man position and is considered one of the most skilled post players ever to do it, unleashing an array of moves that are still studied to this day.
Worthy was wildly athletic and a skilled post player in his own right, a perfect complement in the Showtime offense, but he took a backseat to Magic and Kareem eternally in stardom and mostly in production. If there are any unbiased fans in this rivalry, they would probably conceded McHale meant more to Boston’s success than Worthy did in L.A., even though both were immeasurably important to two great dynasties.
THE DAGGER: Kevin McHale had the better career.
Previously on “Whose NBA career is better?”:
• Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter
• Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan
• Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
• Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili
• Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson
• Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
• Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
• Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
• Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash
• Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller
• Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone
• Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady
• Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo
• Gary Payton vs. John Stockton
• Kevin Garnett vs. Moses Malone
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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