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Ball Don't Lie

Is Nate McMillan the right choice to help turn around the Lakers’ defense?

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan are unaware they're about to coach Kobe, Pau, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard (Getty …

There are actually three ways to react to the rumored and likely impending hire of former Seattle and Portland head coach Nate McMillan as the new Los Angeles Lakers defensive guru.

The quick scan tells you that Nate, the forever and ever "Mr. Sonic," was a defensive mastermind as a player in Seattle. Nearly as disruptive as the guard he helped develop, future Hall of Famer Gary Payton, McMillan not only led the NBA in steals one year but also spearheaded a frantic and ahead of its time defensive front in Seattle that pre-dated the switching defenses (with heaps of hand-checking) that became an NBA staple years after his retirement.

The second take reminds you that McMillan, as an NBA head coach, has yet to even run a great or even good NBA defense despite 930 career games at the helm in Seattle and Portland. Sure, his teams looked solid enough on that end when you didn't pay attention to games and looked at the raw points allowed, but the snail-like pace McMillan demanded on offense helped hide the fact that his squads regularly either ranked amongst the worst in the NBA defensively, or at best the middle of the pack.

The third, and possibly cheeriest take? Just as it is with new Laker coach Mike D'Antoni, who was never afforded a passable group of would-be defenders in Phoenix or New York (save for 42 games in 2011-12), it's just fine to assume that Nate McMillan hasn't been handed a real roster he can ably utilize on that end, yet. Nothing against the personnel chiefs in Seattle and Portland (and, while we're at it, Phoenix and New York), but there's a chance McMillan's fine work in previous stops was obscured by offensive-minded rosters that just weren't able to procure consistent stops on the other end.

What we do have in place, though, before Nate proves all of us (still clinging to the second thought) wrong? A substandard history when it comes to the defensive results of his time spent coaching NBA teams. It's true that the personnel hasn't been there, and that he's had to clean up some messes left by Paul Westphal and Maurice Cheeks, but the proof is in the 82-game pudding.

McMillan's top-mark as a defensive coach came in 2008-09, when his 54-win Trail Blazers finished 13th out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency. That year also marked the season where Greg Oden, sadly, played nearly half of his total career mark of 82 games in one 39-game stretch, and the Blazers once again paced the NBA with the lowest amount of possessions per game.

And that's about it.

In Seattle, Nate's teams ranked 24th, 24th again, 17th, 27th and 27th again in terms of defensive efficiency (the number of points allowed per 100 possessions, which normalizes for pace; a phrase that I seemed to be typing 20 times a day when discussing Nate's 2004-05 Seattle SuperSonics teams in various SI.com columns and message board appearances back then). In Portland, he worked up a 28th ranking, 26th in his second season in 2006-07, 17th, that 2008-09 run to 13th, 15th, and 14th. The Blazers dipped to 23rd overall in 2011-12, but that mark was both pumped up by 23 games of good work from interim coach Kaleb Canales, and obscured by the fact that McMillan's team had tuned him out by the second week of the season.

Not a sterling record. Not a good record, even. Actually, a pretty terrible record on that end, if we're honest, one that is possibly the worst defensive record of any available NBA coach -- Mike D'Antoni included. Nate McMillan has nearly 1,000 games as an NBA head coach under his belt, and he routinely turned in seasons that saw his teams amongst the dregs of the NBA defensive ranks. His best seasons were average, at best.

And he's the "defensive coordinator"? Because he did well to make life hell for opposing point guards 20 years ago?

The third point, listed above, brings me back. Nate McMillan never really had a defensive team worth shouting about during his time in the Pacific Northwest. Just as was the case with D'Antoni (whose defensive marks were consistently better than McMillan's in Phoenix and New York), this could be a case of players playing the games and coaches having to deal with the outcomes. Give Nate a real defensive squad to work with, and things might turn out on that end.

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Nate McMillan locks down (Getty Images)

Or, and we write this with obvious giddiness, this could be a superficial hire. One to placate those that don't really look past the surface of NBA basketball ("Nate McMillan! He was good at defense!") as the Lakers take to a higher echelon offensively.

We talked about as much when D'Antoni was hired. Yes, the Lakers started the season on a miserable run defensively, and they entered the year with most of us expecting at best a top-10 mark on that end in spite of Dwight Howard's presence due to their unending stream of step-slow rotation parts. The Lakers, even with all those brilliant performers on offense, will still need a swift kick in the butt from time to time when it comes to spacing and ball movement and, especially, half-court decisions.

And few NBA coaches have a better track record of coaching lights-out half-court offensive teams than Nate McMillan does.

Again obscured by his teams' slow pace, McMillan's groups in Seattle and Portland were constantly ranking near or at the top of the NBA in offensive efficiency. That 2008-09 group we discussed above was tops in the league, and his final year in Seattle wasn't far behind D'Antoni's celebrated 2004-05 Phoenix Suns. This man clearly knows his way around a playbook, in a way that belies his reputation as a defense-first guy.

Maybe the Lakers, as we suspected even with Brown in place last August, are attempting to go all-out offensively while hoping that a healthy Dwight Howard does all the rest.

Of course, it's early. McMillan hasn't been hired yet. Howard is a while away from playing at tip-top shape, and even D'Antoni might need a week or so before hitting the big stage due to his own health issues.

It's a fascinating turn, though. And a little piece of "I told you so" to have in your back pocket, when cable TV analysts effusively talk up McMillan's "defensive presence" even when the Lakers are making their hay on the other end of the ball.

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