If you're a fan of NBA blogs, you're a fan of Blazer's Edge, a powerhouse community that serves as a model for all others. I asked Dave Deckard, BE's founder and managing editor, for a few words of wisdom about Nate McMillan. He gave us an entire column -- the following are his words.
Nate McMillan's biggest strength, especially in relationship to a young team, is discipline. This guy is old school. He's not a screamer. I've never seen him out of control. But he knows what he wants in terms of playing style and player comportment and he gets it. Stepping near McMillan is like approaching a statue of one of the founding fathers. You may not know the entire history but you know that this guy is important and you instinctively react with respect, perhaps a little awe. That aura rubs off on his team.
McMillan backs it up too. His first act upon taking the Portland job in 2005 was laying down the discipline on notorious scofflaws Zach Randolph and Darius Miles. Young, undisciplined, and masters of their listless roster by virtue of talent, these two ruled the roost. McMillan insisted on things like showing up on time, adhering to practice schedules, not wearing distinctive headbands until the team had earned that right by playing well. Miles and Randolph rebelled. McMillan outlasted them both by half a decade. Miles was forced into medical retirement in '06, Randolph traded for comparative peanuts in '07.
The famous 2006 and 2007 drafts brought McMillan a new crop of talented rookies in Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Greg Oden. McMillan shaped them in his own image: disciplined, efficient, playing mostly boring percentage basketball and winning more games than any group their age ever had in the history of the league. The Blazers switched all screens when defending outside, retreating to prevent drives and post moves in the paint at all costs. On offense the pecking order ran Roy, Aldridge, Everyone Else. Iso matchups were Portland's bread and butter because their two stars could succeed that way. Everybody else had to pick up scraps and lump it. Flair was fine if you could score consistently but McMillan would rather see a good, basic shot after 15 seconds of hard work than a pretty but lower percentage shot otherwise. Rebounding hard was a must as well.
McMillan's strengths also became weaknesses, at least according to some. This was not Soviet Russia. The system did not fit you. McMillan had little patience for guys like Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez who had talent but couldn't harness it into a disciplined game. It's worth noting that few of the supposedly-talented players whom the Blazers traded away because they couldn't flourish under Nate actually succeeded elsewhere. Zach Randolph has but that took several stops and several years of maturity. Jarrett Jack has as well but he was traded more because he didn't fit with Roy's game than because he didn't fit with McMillan. Bayless has been OK, nothing more. Travis Outlaw nose-dived after leaving Portland. Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez aren't in the league anymore. McMillan's hard-nosed style seems to have allowed truly talented players to rise to the top while the lesser lights sunk. He didn't save anybody from drowning but he didn't waste his time with unproductive guys either. You earned your spot or you didn't get it. If Nate had to play a hard-working journeyman with no upside in front of you to prove that point, so be it.
McMillan was less successful with incoming veterans, a condition which eventually led to his downfall. He famously faced off with Andre Miller upon Miller's arrival in 2009, telling the then 11-year veteran (highly respected) that he didn't play "our way." If you know anything about Miller's personality you'll realize that was a "High Noon" showdown moment. Miller and McMillan eventually patched it up enough to get through two seasons together but 2011-12 saw the Blazers fielding a roster including Marcus Camby, Gerald Wallace, Jamal Crawford, and Raymond Felton ... every one on the last year of a contract. That proved a recipe for disaster. The veteran-laden team started off fine but began to nose-dive. Once that fall started and it became apparent that few, if any, of those vets would remain in Portland beyond the summer, they all thumbed their nose at the hard-driving coach and went into business for themselves. They saw no reason to take the discipline or change their games for him. He was not going to back down from them. All four players would be dumped by year's end but so would McMillan ... a sad end after 7 years with the team.
Had injuries not devastated the Roy-Aldridge-Oden lineup McMillan's fate may have been different. He had the perfect setup: a huge mound of amazingly-talented youngsters to mold in his image. He could have coached that team deep into the playoffs for a decade and claimed full responsibility for its success. The collapsed knees of Roy and Oden destroyed that dream, leading directly to the need to patch the roster with short-term vets, leading in turn to the rebellion that ended Nate's tenure in Portland. Even so, McMillan garnered respect among his players, with the organization, in the media, and among his peers every step of the way ... evidenced in part by his position on the U.S. National Team staff in 2006, 2008, and 2012. What he lacks in adaptability (of the interpersonal and in-game X's and O's varieties) he makes up for in indomitable will, dedication, and the ability to guide a team in playing hard, high-percentage ball.
Detroit fields a couple bright, young bigs and hopefully will retain a nice point guard in Jose Calderon. Calderon's efficiency, if not his style, would endear him to McMillan. If Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond are willing to work, they should be fine under McMillan too. The Pistons might want to get rid of Rodney Stuckey before he and Nate meet.
If you like and/or respect McMillan's system then you will like and/or respect him forever. If you're not a fan of his style you'll find few reasons to support him. The Pistons will need to decide whether Nate's approach is what they need at this time. If the answer is yes, they'll not find a better representative. If they're not in love with it then they better steer clear because he's a righteous man and he's not changing for anybody.
Thanks again to Dave for contributing -- be sure to check out Blazer's Edge.