McMillan and Miller: What Happened and What's Next?

The earlier post regarding a verbal confrontation between Nate McMillan and Andre Miller at the end of this morning's practice was getting a bit unwieldy. First, the latest updates.  Then, my thoughts below.

Jason Quick of The Oregonian checks in with Miller's side.

On Thursday, the normally quiet and introverted Miller erupted. Shortly after leaving the team's practice facility, Miller sent a text message to his agent, Andy Miller, the agent said. 

When reached by phone, Andy Miller said he had yet to speak with Andre, but when he heard an account of the day's events, Miller didn't sound  that surprised.     

Click through above for Andre Miller's agent's statements.

Brian T. Smith of The Columbian with his column-length take on this morning's action.

Thursday, the broken communication between McMillan and Miller was loud enough for the whole world to hear. And as the coach and player drifted farther apart, it was clear that the only thing uniting them was their division.

John Canzano of The Oregonian blames Kevin Pritchard...

Miller doesn't fit with Portland. He'll never fit. You know it. I know it. The Blazers players know it. And even though Miller's been successful on the court in spurts, and played lots of minutes, all along this Miller-Blazers marriage was headed toward a blow-up encounter that was fueled by mutual frustration.

...

What's true is that general manager Kevin Pritchard, who made so many good decisions before the strange signing of Miller, caused this crisis and must now fix it.     

There are plenty of angles to this story that provide cause for concern but none that should necessarily inspire panic. For perspective, let's state the important obviouses.  Fights happen among professional athletes and coaches from time to time. Usually the media is not privy to them until after the fact.  Fights can serve either to unite a team in the wake of open lines of communication or to drive a team apart in the wake of hurtful comments or perceived slights.  One could fairly argue that this specific situation could still go either way.  We won't know until we see how the team, and Miller in particular, respond to the challenge over the next week or two.

Here are some major issues that could potentially linger as we go forward.

First, a lack of communication between McMillan and some of his players has been an underlying problem for months, if not years. Multiple players on this team have complained about a lack of clarity as to their roles and similar complaints were raised last season, particularly among role players. At the same time, though, McMillan's rotations have been fairly clear all along to the media.  So either McMillan is more effectively communicating with the media than with his players, or his players are disagreeing with or refusing to hear his message.  Kevin Pritchard seemed to indirectly acknowledge this tension when he spoke about seeking "calm waters" earlier this season. Even if this morning's argument hadn't taken place, a lack of clarity regarding roles caused by a breakdown in communication between coach and players will continue to impact on-court performance if not addressed.  

Second, Miller's timing and method in raising the issues has to be frustrating for both his coaches and management, regardless of their comments this morning.  Considering all of the circumstances, the confrontation is downright galling.  Really, it's difficult to call what went down this morning a true practice.  Miller, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Steve Blake all did not practice due to injury.  Shavlik Randolph was waived.   Only seven players wound up participating in 3 on 3 and assorted other drills.  The most anticipated game of the year is set for tomorrow night.  The team had been given a full day off on Wednesday to rest and collect its thoughts after arguably the most frustrating, disappointing loss of the year.  It's fair to call the team's situation, even prior to the outburst this morning, as close to a crisis as this level-headed group gets.  

Miller plays the single leadership position on a basketball team, is a veteran and claims to be a professional.  His fundamental grievances involve increasing his playing time and receiving respect.  Surely going head-to-head, yell-to-yell with his coach, in front of a group of mostly younger players, including multiple rookies, is not the message a team needs from a player in his position, no matter how legitimately frustrated.  Miller must find a different, better way to communicate his frustrations and he has to find a different, better time to do that.  Period. Even if he was 100% correct on every issue he raised this morning, he was dead wrong.

Third, we've been down this road before and more recently than you might think. While all sorts of comparisons are being drawn to previous practice confrontations between Blazers coaches and players, this situation could not be more similar to the one facing Sergio Rodriguez last year.  A fundamental rift in offensive philosophy and a distance and difference in personalities combined with the aforementioned lack of communication to create a very real potential for damaging discord that could carry on indefinitely if not resolved.  We saw how the last one ended and it wasn't very pretty or productive.

Rodriguez was, like Miller is currently, difficult to trade because he struggled to bring back fair value in return.  Pritchard waited and waited and hoped. And eventually he literally paid for Rodriguez to move along to Sacramento.  That's doing it wrong. 

Moving Miller, especially considering his advancing age and the money owed to him next year, will be a similarly difficult challenge.  Indeed, one could argue that even a healthy, happy Andre Miller at $7 million dollars is a below-average value on today's market.  

Could the Blazers just admit that last summer was a complete mistake and undo the signing by swapping Miller for an expiring contract? Given their cap situation next season, an expiring contract wouldn't do much good except save the money owed to Miller in 2010-2011.  That's something but not very much.  You would essentially be dealing him just so you didn't have to deal with him.  That's a last resort.

And, really, are the Blazers better off without Miller than with him? I don't believe so.  And, from his behavior and attitude today, I don't believe that Pritchard believes so either.  Miller has made valuable contributions this season, although not as valuably and not as frequently as everyone expected.  But even with a healthy Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum -- as the Blazers expect to have in as soon as three weeks, still prior to the trade deadline -- this team remains better with Miller if only because he has been healthy all season (until today, coincidentally). 

When McMillan spoke about himself as a player earlier this fall, the picture he painted was of the model teammate, a player willing to change positions and sacrifice his own minutes and touches for the betterment of his group.  As he well knows, not every player approaches the NBA the same way.  McMillan did the right things without needing to be told to do them.  Since the summer, there's a fair body of evidence that suggests Miller does not comport himself in this same manner.   

The onus, therefore, falls on McMillan to do everything in his considerable power to avoid a Rodriguez rerun. To admit that his personality management style has not been as successful as his on-court strategy and that this time it's happening to a potentially key player -- one who is quite difficult to jettison -- rather than a role player who will be quickly forgotten.  Adjusting that management style does not necessarily mean altering his gameplans or rotations. But it does mean being more proactive in addressing questions of roles, team needs and, let's face it, egos.  The "My Door is Open" philosophy needs to shift to, in certain situations, "Hey, man, how's it going? Got a minute?"

As for Miller, his choices are limited.  Fall in line behind Brandon Roy or play well enough to interest a trade suitor.  There's no question: this morning he got everyone's attention.  Now it's time for him to prove that he's worthy of either the respect he so covets here in Portland or the contract that casts a shadow over any potential exit. Forget "play me or trade me."  It's "put up or shut up."

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter
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