This post (my first) muses about some of the threads since the 2008 NBA draft, viz., how many wins should we expect for Portland next season, who will be on the Black and who on the White units, etc.
All Blazer fans celebrate the creativity of our general manager, and everyone delights in the talent of our players and depth of our roster, but the discussion about the future thus far lacks any consideration of the role Coach McMillan played in the success of our Trailblazers last season.
Last season, most experts predicted the Blazers to win around 25 or 30 games. This might be explained that, in the NBA, experience usually trumps untested raw talent. We may believe that in perhaps a majority of games last season the Blazers fielded a more talented rosters than opponents, but everyone expected that wily veterans would outfox our naive youngsters more often than not.
But a funny thing happened to that projected 25 win season; the Blazers achieved 25 wins already by the All-Star break. While Roy and Outlaw achieved breakout seasons, while Aldridge was acknowledged as the third most improved player in the league, while James Jones had a career year, and while many of the other pups grew by leaps and bounds, it seems to me McMillan must be given credit for putting the players in a position to succeed. When playing against Utah's Foul Ball defense, body checking anyone who dared to come near the paint, can you think of a better strategy than letting Webster go crazy from behind the arc? Can you think of a better use of matchups than McMillan created for the San Francisco and L*ker games we won? Can you think of a better defender against Denver's Carmelo Anthony than Roy in the closing seconds of the thriller in December? Whose idea was it to transform Outlaw into Mr. Fourth Quarter coming off the bench? What about that zone defense during The Streak? While James Jones launched daggers that drained the opposition of all hope, it was Coach McMillan who set the timing for bringing Jones to work his magic. At the close of the regular season the Wall Street Journal reported that the Portland Trailblazers were by far the league's most effective team coming out of timeouts. While the players executed, the plan was Coach McMillan's.
it is easy to multiply these examples ad nauseam. Given the historical precedents, it is difficult to comprehend how the players could by themselves have accounted for a win total much above the low 30's, in spite of the roster's talent. I cannot think of any other explanation for 41 wins than Coach McMillan's leadership, his game strategy, his tactics, his ability to create matchup problems for the other team that limited exposure of our own weaknesses, and his innovation of 5 man combinations that opposing coaches would never see coming until it was too late. I cannot see how his calls did not result in 5 to 10 more wins that we could rightfully expect, and more wins in close games than we could rightfully hope for. He took a talented but inexperienced roster of players who did not yet understand how to defend, and deployed his assets in a way that compensated for their collective inexperience and that maximized their talent. It took half the season for opposing teams to respond. I in no way want to diminish the accomplishments of the players, but Coach McMillan put them in a position to succeed.
If this analysis is not entirely off-base, it is premature to handicap next season's starting lineups. Coach McMillan is likely to continue to innovating lineups a least until the players are judged experienced, to learn who plays well with whom, what combinations work best in what situations, give the players an opportunity to mesh their styles, and, most of all, the maximize the talent available on the Blazer's bench while minimizing its weaknesses. Assuming no more roster changes (a big assumption), we should expect Roy and Blake to start when experience is THE key to the game, but not necessarily otherwise; perhaps Bayliss in place of Blake when the opposing team fields a super-quick opposing point guard to defend. Based on the evaluation of the experts alone, I think we might expect Fernandez to become Roy's most frequent back court partner at the start of games. Can you imagine a small-ball back court of Bayliss, Fernandez, and Roy? We will undoubtedly see it. We should expect Diogu to back up Aldridge when we want to respond to a Utah or Houston's power game with power, and Frye when finesse works better. Outlaw will play small forward when we need points, and Webster or Batum when we need defense. 82games.com had blake-jack-roy-outlaw-aldridge as the league's third most effective 5 man unit last season. What will it be next? Coach McMillan will find out.
I think we can attribute 5 to 10 "extra" wins from the recently ended season to his leadership. Perhaps we might expect his strategy and tactics to assume a less central device for racking up extra wins once the roster learns how to play in the NBA, but there is no reason to believe Coach McMillan's importance to inflating our win column will diminish before then.