Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Nate McMillan could coach a WNBA team to the NBA playoffs

That headline obviously isn’t true. John Wooden couldn’t do that much. Don’t be ridiculous. But I think more recognition needs to be put on the fact that Nate McMillan has done some of the best coaching the NBA has ever seen over his tenure with the Portland Trailblazers.

Nate inherited an absolutely atrocious Trail/Jailblazers team in 2005 when he came over from the neighboring Seattle Thunder (strange, that name kind of works actually). This team had broken the Blazers 21-year streak of making the playoffs – and not only that, but created a cavalcade of negative headlines for The Oregonian; some of the stand out citizens of that team involved Sebastian Telfair, Zach Randolph, Ruben Patterson, Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells and Darius Miles. After a 21-win season, several trades, gun charges and MIPs, Nate had a team that he could actually coach, and improved in win total for the next 3 years, going to 33 to 41 to 54 wins (that season being their first playoff berth in 5 years). During the 2009-2010 campaign, they team fell down to 50 wins, but still made the playoffs as a 6-seed.

Now that is an impressive track record all on its own – McMillan took a team riddled with bad contracts and terrible human beings and transformed it from a lottery team to one of the better squads in the league. With several savvy draft picks (LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Martell Webster, Greg Oden, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez, et al) and some excellent trades, McMillan had a team that could potentially overthrow the Spurs, Mavericks and Lakers for conference supremacy.

Potential is a funny word. The definition has both a positive connotation and a negative one – it essentially means that you have the possibility of greatness, or to achieve something greater than the current status indicates. That’s the caveat though – you are the current status indicated. You are less than the best you could be.

Unfortunately, that’s what Nate has gotten – less than the best they could be. With a team and players full of potential, fate has dealt him a roster of guys that are the current status indicated. His players are those that are undervalued, with skill sets and natural gifts that would deny them results on the basketball court equivalent to their effort. Despite what some might call (the scientific term anyway) “shitty luck”, Nate McMillan has taken what could have been a potential (there's that word again) Western Conference juggernaut, survived an avalanche of injury and succeeded – albeit not on the levels he had once hoped. This has made his accomplishments all the more impressive, but simultaneously undervalued.

Now every team has injuries – basketball is a highly physical, intense sport. A team without injuries, or a team that is restrained to a few during the season, is considered abnormal. But these Blazers teams have been the exception to the rule. I researched the spate of injuries bad luck that have befallen this team over the past few years; something that should have taken me 20 minutes took me over 2 hours. Not because the results were so hard to find - but rather there were too many results. The following list reads like something a Hollywood comedic writer wrote – and not shitty, CBS comedy writer. I’m talking about a legitimate, comedic writer. I actually read off this list to some friends today. One certain beautiful blonde laughed so hard her stomach hurt.

Take a look at the previous two seasons:

2009-2010 Season

7/9/2009: G Patty Mills (broken foot, missed 72 games)
10/30/2009: G Nicolas Batum (shoulder tear, missed over half the season)
11/13/2009: F Travis Outlaw (broken foot, missed over half the season)
12/5/2009: C Greg Oden (broken patella, out for the season)
12/5/2009: Coach Nate McMillan (ruptured Achilles tendon during practice)
12/22: C Joel Przybilla (dislocated patella and ruptured patellar tendon, out for the season)
3/7/2010: C Joel Pryzbilla (reaggravated injury while slipping in the shower, injury carries over into the 2010-2011 season)
4/15/2010: G Brandon Roy (torn ligament in knee, supposedly out 2-4 weeks)

- Other notes: Rudy Fernandez missed 20 games with a back injury and Roy additionally missed a month with a hamstring injury)

2010-2011 Season

10/8/2010: F Jeff Prendergraph (torn ACL, out for the season)
11/4/2010: G Elliot Williams (dislocated patella, out for season)
• Williams was their 2010 first round draft pick
11/17/2010: C Greg Oden (microfracture surgery, out for the season)
1/14/2010: G Brandon Roy (arthroscopic surgery, out for the season)
1/26/2010: C Marcus Camby (partially torn meniscus, out 4 weeks)

YES, EVEN THE FREAKING COACH GOT HURT. In successive years, 2 of their draft picks got hurt before they played an NBA minute. Greg Oden went up for a rebound and split his kneecap in two! His backup center got hurt two weeks later, and got hurt (again) in the shower! Brandon Roy was born without a meniscus! You can't make this shit up. You really couldn't. AND on top of all of this, I restrained myself to two seasons; I didn’t even include the 2008-2009 season, which featured minor injuries to Greg Oden and major injuries to Martell Webster, or the 2007-2008 season, when Oden was lost for the season with microfracture surgery on the other knee.

Nate was able to still bring his team to 50 wins last season and is on pace for about the same number of wins this year. Of course this has something to do with a equal parts intelligent and cursed front office, which had the wherewithal to sign Andre Miller, Wes Matthews and Juwan Howard, as well as trade for Marcus Camby (while at the same time, drafting knee-less Brandon Roy and an injury prone Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant).

He was able to take an offense and defense built on the capabilities of Oden and Roy and remake it on the fly to focus more on the shoot-first point guard Miller, plug Matthews into Roy’s shoes and use a combination of Juwan Howard, Joel Przybilla and Camby to substitute for their 2007 first-overall pick. McMillan was also managing the day-to-day absences of Przybilla, Camby, Fernandez, Batum and Mills, while rookie guard Elliot Williams blew out his knee before he even played a single minute this season. This ability to change strategy time after time, with a rotating cast going in and out of the MRI chamber is the mark of a great coach. McMillan has been able to keep his team disciplined – they have been in the top-10 of opponents ppg, top-15 in defensive efficiency and top 5 in forced turnovers per game for the past 2 seasons. They outrebound their opponents (though only by 0.8) and have ranked 11th and 15th in point differential last year and this year, respectively. None of these are mind-blowing statistics. In fact most of them are middle of the pack. But remember that McMillan has kept his team playing hard with an absolutely demoralizing set of injuries affecting his team.

If you were to read that injury list as a Blazer, you would say (after laughing, crying and then accepting), “Well…yeah. Which players are in the lottery this year? Are we packing it in in February, or March? I’m going to have an affair in a hotel room now”. I can’t imagine how hard it is to keep your team focused and playing hard when every time you get someone back, say a role player like Patty Mills, and then BAM!, you find out that your best player is going bone-on-bone in both of his knees. Or you’re hoping your backup (backup center! You’re praying for Joel Przybilla to come back!) center is going to get better and BAM!, clumsy chump slips on a bar of soap. It’d be like fighting against the current – you’d just give up. I think this is probably the most impressive facet of Nate's success as a coach. He keeps his guys fighting like the salmon of San Juan Capistrano, and here they are in 2011 – 4 games over .500 and in the playoff hunt again.

So this is how Nate McMillan has gained accolades and been simultaneously undervalued the past few years – he’s been lauded for fielding a competitive team despite all of his adversity, but he goes under the radar because his teams are just that; simply competitive, but no one you really have to worry about. Maybe the basketball Gods will have some mercy on poor Nate. The guy coached with a torn Achilles. I don't see how it could get much worse. But if Wes Matthews gets hit by a Mango truck in the Pacific Northwest, I'm really really sorry for having said that.

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