In Managing Andre Miller, Nate McMillan Looks to His Own History

Predictably, Nate McMillan did not want to directly address Marc Spears' article regarding Andre Miller's apparent unhappiness. His direct comments on the matter are nearly word-for-word what he told us last year when Sergio Rodriguez raised similar questions about his role with the team: "My office is open to my players. I didn't read that [article]. I don't really want to comment on that."  Again, mirroring Sergio's situation, McMillan stated quite clearly, "until [something] is said to me, it's not something that I'm going to concern myself with. My players can come to me if there's something that's a concern, if they don't know a role, I'm here every day." He also went on to say that the lines of communication between himself and Andre Miller were open.  That was pretty much the extent of his direct discussion of Andre Miller at this morning's practice.

But there was a different story told by Nate McMillan today, a story that took the better part of half an hour.  A story, ironically, about an established point guard locked in a battle for playing time, a point guard who was "very frustrated" over his role with a team. 

In the 1990 NBA draft, the Seattle SuperSonics selected a brash young point guard with the second overall pick in the first round: Gary Payton.  Their incumbent point guard?  Nate McMillan.  I could clearly make out some lingering animosity as McMillan described how the Sonics handled that transition, "We drafted Gary and that day they basically said Gary was going to be the starting guard without us coming to training camp." While the team was building its plans in the media around Payton, McMillan was left feeling like he deserved better.  "[My mentality] was like, 'let's come to camp. let's see.'" Nobody seemed to care or listen.

McMillan says his frustration wasn't caused by a feeling that he was better than the upstart rookie, "It wasn't about being better. No. I didn't look at it that way. I didn't take it like that. Gary was my teammate."  Instead, the frustration came from a feeling that he wasn't getting the respect that he felt he had earned, that the decision had been made, in part, for non-basketball reasons before the first day of training camp, "I understand the politics of the game where a lot of times salaries dictate whether you start or not. Where you were drafted. As a coach, it's like you're sometimes forced to put guys in that position and that guy hasn't earned the right to be there."  

With the team's mind made up to start Payton, McMillan found himself in a tight spot: to publicly express his frustrations with his role or to swallow those feelings?  

According to McMillan, his first move was to proactively seek out Payton to ensure that there would be no personality conflicts between the two guards, "[Gary] came in with the idea that I was going to have a problem with him. And I came in by welcoming him to the team. We became the best of friends. He didn't know how to take me the first day or so. But it was like, 'Welcome to the team. Play your a** off and I've got your back.'"

His personal relationship with Payton settled, McMillan ultimately decided to stay silent, opting to channel his frustrations on the court, "What I said was, 'I'm going to make this work.'  When I get on the floor, I gotta play, I gotta be productive to get minutes."  McMillan admitted today that the silent approach turned into something of a personal crusade against the coaching staff on the court, "I've always been one as a player, I'll play, I'm going to make [the coach] live with [his] conscience. You know what I can do... I'm going to play and do my thing and if I'm playing well enough and you're [still] going to sub me... that's on you. I'm going to go out here and do my best when I'm on the floor... But my thing was: I've never said anything to a coach about [playing time]. "  In other words, let the play do the talking.

McMillan drew a parallel between his situation and that of one current Blazer in particular. "I understand how players feel.... I can moan about [my role] or I can go out and play and make the coach put me on the floor, which is what Rudy [Fernandez] is doing," McMillan said, "He's going out and playing. We'll try to find a way to get him more minutes because he can do certain things on the floor."  McMillan went on to further compare Fernandez's situation with his own, "I ended up getting more minutes by playing point guard, off guard, I would play guard with Gary and Gary would move to the 2.  I would be at the point. I played some 3. Having that versatility, the bottom line was, 'I'm going to make this work. And I'm going to make Payton better.'"  Hence the talk about moving Rudy to the point or perhaps going small and using him at the 3, to somehow play Rudy alongside Brandon Roy. 

With years to reflect back on the entire ordeal, McMillan did note with a smile, "Gary ended up being a Hall of Famer, [starting him from day one] ended up being the right thing."  

The right decision, sure, but one that he still feels was reached the wrong way.

The unorthodox approach that McMillan has tried his best to stick to -- opening up every starting spot for a battle and deferring to incumbent starters even when new, perhaps more talented players are brought aboard -- doesn't seem so unorthodox when accounting for McMillan's own personal experience.  Almost 20 years later, McMillan clearly still feels that as a veteran and an incumbent he wasn't given his proper due during the Payton situation.  In this light, it seems obvious that the last thing in the world Nate McMillan would do is put Steve Blake through a similar trial.  Indeed, McMillan admitted that his philosophy towards starting roles was derived from that time in Seattle. He also stated emphatically that his earn-your-role approach is, simply, "the way to compete."

Stepping back from the discussion of minutes, McMillan seemed to paint his team-first approach to Payton's arrival as an allegory for achieving true success in the NBA.  Individuals don't win; teams do. And every last benefit will be earned, right down to the offensive touch.  "I went 12 years without a play being called for me," McMillan joked. "They didn't have no play for me. I went 12 years and I didn't have no play except for where to pass the ball. But we were having [success] year after year in the 90s, some 60 win seasons in doing that."

Ultimately, McMillan's championship vision can be boiled down to an unselfish team-oriented approach that finds the star players, those who have earned the touches by performing time after time, with the ball when it matters. "The teams from the old Lakers and old Celtics. They had a ton of talent. You had Parish, McHale and Bird. Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson. A ton of guys that could f****** play," McMillan remembered.  "You're talking about touches? [Just] play the game. Everybody will get their opportunities. You had Kareem, Worthy, Magic, Cooper, Byron Scott. You play the game the right way, you're going to get your touches. You take advantage of some matchups at the end of the night but the bottom line [is that] the ball is going to be in Magic's hands when it's clutch time. And Kareem. Worthy and the rest of them would play off that. That's basketball. Same thing with our championship team. That ball is going to be in Walton's hands, ok? We're going to play off of that. That's how you do it. Years ago, it's not going to be in Jerome Kersey's hands. It's going to be in Porter's and Drexler's hands."

Asked if this approach, these historical references and this philosophy of the game still resonate with modern players, whether it's possible to get 15 truly talented guys in this day and age to buy into a single team-first vision, McMillan stared straight into my eyes and said flatly, "We're going to do that. We're going to do it. It's not about me. It's not about you. It's about the Blazers. We're going to play the right way.  For me, if it takes me losing my job, we're going to play the right way."

He wasn't done, his voice rising and falling to make sure his point was absolutely clear. 

"We're going to play the right way. It ain't about you. It's about us. We can be successful if we play together. And that's what it's about. In this league, playing hard, playing together. Your numbers shouldn't matter. If we're not winning then you can say some things. But if we do it the right way, we should win, and you still shouldn't say anything."

Nate McMillan cleverly used the second person, and he skillfully drew upon his personal experiences, but I think we know exactly who he was talking to.

-- Ben (benjamin.golliver@gmail.com)

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