April 13, 2010
I've been doing quite a bit of research and a whole lot of thinking over the last couple of weeks, trying to put together my candidates for the NBA's end-of-the-year awards. And I signed off on the whole lot of them Monday, no changes no matter how convincing the counter argument, with the results coming in a series of posts you'll see as the playoffs drone onward. And for the Coach of the Year award, as it is on the NBA's ballot, I was able to put down my top three candidates.
And Nate McMillan didn't make the cut.
And I can't possibly tell you why.
Admittedly, that's the case every year in the Coach of the Year voting. I'd venture to say six or seven coaches per season are worthy of this award. And you might want to add a coach or two to that list this season. We rip on the bad ones and watch as teams hire and fire new ones every year. But the NBA is pretty deep at the coach position.
McMillan's just as good as any of them, and has done just as fine a job this season. Even though we've sort of lived through it with them, it's still hard to put into words just how strange and, well, disheartening a season Portland has had. In place of such laptop derring-do, all I can do is list off the names.
Greg Oden(notes). Nicolas Batum(notes). Joel Przybilla(notes). Travis Outlaw(notes). Rudy Fernandez(notes). Patrick Mills(notes). Coach McMillan, himself. And, for the second time this season, and in a way that will likely send him to the shelf for the rest of the regular season and playoffs, Brandon Roy(notes).
That's the injury list, and it's pretty significant. Each of those players, save for Mills, has started this season. McMillan tore his Achilles tendon while facing a depleted group of starters in practice, having to suit up just to run a five-on-five. We think. The Blazers may have been down to four-on-four at that point.
To keep this group on pace, in line, is astonishing. And that's without even getting into the behind-the-scenes machinations involving owner Paul Allen's Vulcan organization and GM Kevin Pritchard's side of the hallway. Rumors persist that Pritchard needs to know his place. Rumors persist that the ownership side might be messing too strongly with what appears to be a pretty good thing.
All we know is that Pritchard lost his right-hand man in the process, he might lose his gig and all the while the Blazers kept winning.
Then Monday hits. The team finally gets news regarding the extent of what was alternately called Brandon Roy's "sprained knee" and/or "knee contusion." The MRI results return, and it's clear that the team's all-world wing has a torn meniscus. The same injury that dogged him in college. And though he talks a brave game and wants to work through the pain, it ain't happening. By tip-off time on Monday night, the future is pretty clear. Roy won't be a part of it until 2010-11.
"Tip-off" against the young and hungry Oklahoma City Thunder, by the way, fresh off a frustrating loss to the Golden State Warriors. Looking to move a full game ahead of the Blazers and into the West's seventh seed with a win, pushing the Blazers down to the eighth seed and a meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers.
(A team the Blazers beat in Los Angeles on Sunday, by the way, the team's second win in three tries this year against the defending champs.)
And even with the Thunder ready to run, even with Roy's news destined to pain, and even through a series of iffy early whistles (for both sides, mind you) that reminded of an embarrassing (for the NBA) game on Friday night between the Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks, Portland kept on.
Not going to tell you that Nate kept his cool. He let the refs have it and had to be restrained by assistant coach Monty Williams several times during the contest. But he also gave whatever his team needed, at whatever moment. And sometimes that involves a coach stomping and screaming at a referee that just missed another one.
Whatever it fostered, it worked, because the Blazers won, confining the Thunder to that eighth seed. Whatever Nate's fostered all season, it's worked. This squad has won 50 games with one to play, and while that was the idea (maybe 60 games) entering the season, doing it without Oden (mock him all you want, but he contributed 11 points, 8.5 rebounds and more than two blocks in half a game) and all sorts of other rotation parts for long stretches was not the plan.
McMillan didn't care about the plan. He just worried about the next game. Or that night's game. He kept this team focused, throughout. The defense has been up and down, but that's what happens when you have to start Juwan Howard(notes) at center for long stretches. Fans might not like the way he sits Dante Cunningham(notes) or limits Rudy Fernandez, but that's what happens when the rookie seems out of step with the playbook or Fernandez works at a pace that doesn't agree with the rest of his teammates.
As it's been since McMillan's days in Seattle, the Blazers work at one of the slowest paces (this season, the slowest at 87.6 possessions per game) in the NBA, but not only is it working for them, McMillan has managed to slow things down without taking the fun out of each game. The Blazers are an engaging watch, every time out, so much so that you still hear the "Portland likes to run" bit of analysis echoing out of your TV speakers every other night.
That's OK, because they do like to run. They also like to hold it up, run a play and score on you. And they like winning, 50 times in 81 tries. Mainly because Nate's kept the focus so narrow, so singular. His message has been so effective, no matter the set of ears.
And he didn't even make my top three coaches of the year. Put him at first on your list, and clearly there's no way I can argue against it. Just understand that for all the second-guessing we do of coaches in these pages, these coaches are often the best things this league has to offer.
And Nate McMillan might be the best of the best.