I did three out-of-state interviews last week regarding the state of the Blazers. One way or another, the subject of Nate McMillan came up in each. For all the folks who readily criticize Nate, I'm pretty comfortable relaying that such criticism is of a mostly-local bent. Nearly to a person every figure I talk to nationally--in the media or in the league--is complimentary of Nate and is shocked to hear that anybody would have issues with the way he coaches. Perhaps Blazer fans have a better view of the process than others. Perhaps the forest is obscured by the trees. Either way, it's safe to say that the immediate view and the overall view do not necessarily mesh. But then we've known that for years. People have complained about how Nate has handled Sergio Rodriguez or Jerryd Bayless, how his defensive schemes have faltered, how the offense runs as fast as a molasses-encased tortoise on downers. During that same span the Blazers have risen from winning 20 per year to 50+ and most serious observers expect that rise to continue.
Many's the time I've been lambasted for not joining in the "Nate cost us this game" chorus. It sounded approximately 32 times last season plus 4 more in the playoffs. I've stayed out of it except to point out the times it's been ridiculous. (Case in Point: One of the refrains I'm hearing now is that Nate should have guided his team past the Suns last year, this despite Brandon Roy showing up for one game because of health reasons, Marcus Camby and Andre Miller showing up for a game apiece because of Phoenix reasons, Greg Oden down, Joel Przybilla down, and Rudy Fernandez nosediving. I think I've used this analogy before, but pick any subject you wish. Now write a three-paragraph essay on it using only one "E", no "T's", no "L's", and limit your use of "R" and "S". What? It doesn't look like your best work? Shocking!) I'm not a Nate apologist. I do believe that too much blame is placed on coaches to the point it becomes a less-than-substantial, even boring, topic. Coaches do make a difference on the margins. They can win or lose you a handful of games which could turn out to be critical in an otherwise edge-treading race. But no coach in the universe can take unsuitable ingredients and churn out a masterpiece. Coaching should be one of the last things people mention in the recipe for success, not one of the first.
Despite this, the Blazers are closing in on the time when talking about last touches will be appropriate. They are closing fast, in fact. The questions surrounding the team, while still pronounced, are thinning in number. Players once young and random are starting to look seasoned and more predictable (for better or worse). Portland's roster of the future is becoming the roster of the present. They're not there yet, but we're talking 1 or 2 seasons, not multiples. At this point more specific targets for players and coaches alike become reasonable.
That's why, despite the relative surprise of last week's interviewers, I was fairly bold in speculating that if Portland fails to make the second round of the playoffs this year Coach McMillan's job will be in jeopardy and my hunch is that he'll be let go. Part of that is reasonable. This roster isn't going to be overhauled in the near future. These specific players need to win. Failure isn't an option. How many years can they play together and not advance in the playoffs before they begin to doubt? Part of it is environmental. When doubts start to arise in this league the first, and easiest, turn-around is to get a new coach. Sometimes the fresh voice helps. Often it only confirms the futility of the situation. Either way, it's going to be tried. Plus you have to figure that Nate is not Rich Cho's hire any more than he was Kevin Pritchard's. Few coaches survive one regime change in management. Unless things go well, how do you survive two?
All of these trends point to pressure on Nate that he's not felt before. The team he coached to the playoffs in Seattle was a mild surprise. The team he's coached here broke the franchise's longest playoff drought. In both cases happiness erupted just making the post-season. That won't be true this year. It's not just win or go home, it's win or go ballistic. The fallout of that furor (and in some corners, maybe including in Blazers HQ, frustration and despair) is going to land on Nate. I believe that's part of the reasoning behind the massive changes in Portland's coaching lineup this year. There may have been pressure from on high to shake things up. Nate also may be saying he's going to sink or swim with exactly the guys he wants. All signs point to this being a make-or-break year.
I wondered about your opinion...not so much about Nate (we've heard plenty of back and forth on that) but whether this year is a hot seat experience for him. Should his job be in jeopardy specifically from what happens or doesn't in 2010-11? Register your thoughts below.