Blazersedge Mailbag: How Blazers Coach Nate McMillan Should Be Viewed

I'm going to try and sneak in a few broad-stroke mailbag questions over the next couple days, addressing frequently-repeated subjects about which people are inquiring. We're going to start with a hot topic over the last couple weeks: how Nate McMillan's job should be evaluated this season.

Right off the bat, I'll tell you the one that's driving me crazy. "Nate isn't playing the bench enough." You can add in its cousins "Nate is driving the starters into the ground" and "Nate should develop [insert name of first- or second-year player here" and the unintentionally ironic "I love what The Rhino is doing so why doesn't Nate give the bench an opportunity?"

Look...Portland HAS no bench outside of the guys you're seeing regularly. Kurt Thomas is dependable for 12-15 minutes. That Craig Smith has made inroads may be the best news of the season. But for everybody clamoring for an alternative to Raymond Felton or Jamal Crawford, for instance, it doesn't exist. This team is built around its top eight guys, period. There's no move Nate can make which, on average, will give the team a better chance of winning. He's stuck with these players.

A variation of this is, "Just play [insert young guy here] because we need to develop him! Forget wins and losses and build towards the future!" First of all, everybody has to pick their criticism. At the beginning of the season several people were hot and bothered with, "This team is going to contend!" What would have happened had Nate crooked his finger towards deep bench players and lost 2-3 games because of it? The comment section would have flayed him alive. Now, in the absence of that, the criticism is that he's trying to win too many games. You have to choose one or the other.

Those who would advocate going younger also have to realize that this isn't a video game. A head coach has to work within an organization. On top of that, players are real people too. The Blazers got Crawford and Felton for a reason. The Blazers are keeping Marcus Camby so far for a reason. If the organizational plan was to spend the year developing Nolan Smith and Chris Johnson that money wouldn't be spent. Now that you've got the veterans, how would you explain subbing them out in favor of players less able to do the job? The team's primary goal is not to win anymore? Then what are Crawford and Felton doing there? For that matter, what is LaMarcus Aldridge here for? You would instantly lose a bunch of your players. You'd end up with another eight-man rotation but this time the 6th-8th men would be your rookies and sophomores while your experienced players groused their way through the season while counting the seconds until they could get out of town.

There's an example of a criticism that won't fly. Most others fare better. Plenty will end up as valid determinants of whether Coach McMillan did a good job this year. Click through for some perspective on those determinations.

Coach McMillan should be evaluated like every other coach in the league: by results. In the absence of an organizational directive, either stated or implied by roster moves, the most valid barometer of his season remains wins and losses. You have to start with reasonable expectations of where the team could end up and then judge whether those expectations are exceed, met, or failed.

The criterion here is big-picture all the way, in many ways only measurable once the season has finished. Game-by-game criticisms also arise and can be illustrative of the whole. Then again, every game and coaching style will have something to criticize. Otherwise you wouldn't need coaches, just a computer to figure the optimal strategy. Micro-criticisms have to be taken with a grain of salt. They are subservient to the macro view.

One of the great pains of my personal 2011-12 NBA season happened just before it started. For Christmas I got the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and the Lord of the Rings Extended Version Blu-Ray set. If you can find more intensive time sinks, I'd like to hear them. And I received both the day before the Blazers played their first game in a whirlwind, never-stops schedule. Where was this stuff during the lockout???

I've given up on Skyrim for now (and please don't spoil it for me) because there's no way that's happening until the off-season. But the new Lord of the Rings set has given me a chance to re-watch these movies in 30-minute doses. Taking my time with them has given me perspective.

I grew up with J.R.R. Tolkien's books. I'm not the world's biggest expert but I do know that Galadriel once crossed the Helcaraxe with the rest of the spurned Noldor and that Tom Bombadil wore the equivalent of a New Orleans Hornets away uniform. So when I first watched the movies I found tons of details jarring me out of the narrative. They skipped this. They transplanted that dialogue into this situation. I walked away frustrated...not enough to pan the movies, but I noticed. But then I recalled the first two movies of the Harry Potter series. Although I liked the later films the first two were as dull as plodding mules precisely because of author J.K. Rowling's apparent insistence that every...single...scene in the books be rendered faithfully without exception. When I re-watch the film now I have more of an eye for pace and story. I realize that those details I was complaining about probably wouldn't have helped the narrative. More properly, I realize that there's more to making a movie out of a beloved book than I once thought...that it isn't as easy as it seems...that you're often forced to make decisions where there is no right answer and sometimes you just have to go with whatever fits the overall plan best and hope it works. So I've let go of most of the detail-oriented complaints. If I can see why the filmmakers went that way I can go with it even if the decision seems off to me.

That said, there are a couple of trends which I find more distasteful. One of the chief ones is how chummy we all became with Gandalf. If you recall in the books Gandalf was a mixed blessing of sorts...not only an authority but an authority you weren't entirely sure was working for your personal good. He was powerful, usually beneficial, but also scary. That subtle fear added to his authoritative aura. This is a little hard to maintain when you have Frodo all but sitting in Gandalf's lap and cooing in Act 1, Scene 1 of the very first film. And it never got much better. Only Ian McKellen's strong presence saved that character. You could mention more. Shoving the characters into movie archetypes--Legolas as superhero, Gimli as comic relief--seemed a bit lazy and pandering even if it did help the viewer identify with them. Some felt there was too much talking in the films. Others felt they were too action-oriented. These things are not only more enduring, they provide a stronger platform from which to evaluate the filmmakers' work.

The movies even contained a stand-out horrific decision that I can't see anybody agreeing with: they neutered Sauron's Ringwraiths. Part of this came from the difficulty of the Enemy being largely implied in the book but needing to be shown explicitly on film. They did fine with the visual depictions of the Nazgul, but what they did with them was ludicrous. In the first movie the Ringwraiths were on horseback, chasing running hobbits, suspecting the ring was nigh. Though coming within inches in the forest, they somehow couldn't catch up to them (again, on horseback) before the halflings made their escape. These are the most powerful servants of Sauron? They can't steer a horse? But that pales to the end of the Two Towers movie when the writers had Faramir, the good guy of Gondor, kidnap Frodo and Sam in order to take the ring for his father. He carted them off to a battle, which definitely never happened in the book. They were totally out on their own here. At the end of the battle Frodo came face-to-face with a Ringwraith riding a dragon, pulled out the ring literally two inches in front of his nose, and yet somehow after searching for centuries to find this Ultimate Weapon which was the culmination of his existence and his master's desire the stupid wraith could not manage to grab the ring. From a hobbit. With a dragon. Hey Ringwraiths...you suck. Why should I bother paying attention to anything you do ever anymore? And why did we hide the ring from you and your master in the first place?

They wrote in a scene that was never part of the story to provide yet another battle in a movie that already had two other huge ones to provide a climax that wasn't effective and absolutely destroyed the credibility of the biggest baddies in the movie. This was the equivalent of being down by 3 with 5 seconds left and no timeouts and you hear the coach in the huddle demanding his players go for a layup. It was a huge mistake.

This is the point: with nagging detail issues, some annoying trends, and at least one overt blunder clearly identified, how do we now judge Peter Jackson and company? Were the movies perfect? No. Could they have been better? Probably. But at the end of the day, were they good? Yes...they still were. In many ways they were better than we had a right to expect of such a perilous endeavor. The filmmakers made wrong decisions, but they got many more right. More to the point, I'm not sure that another producer and director could have come up with a better product given the circumstances. They would have done things differently, but that doesn't mean better, let alone error-free. Robert Wise was a legendary Hollywood director when he took the helm for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That movie disappointed. William Shatner was the star of the entire series and made the worst movie ever in Star Trek V. You don't always know what you're getting into. You can't criticize imperfection without asking if there's a reasonable expectation that another person in the same situation could produce superior work.

I see some of the same details with Nate McMillan's work that people bring up game to game, though some of them are also errors in interpretation. I tend to dismiss those as the record will out, so to speak. I've disliked some of Nate's overall style. The switching defense drives me crazy. I've also seen the occasional big gaffe, usually in pulling a guy I don't think should be pulled. But at the end of the day I have to ask whether the Blazers have lived up to expectations. Given the circumstances, they have and continue to. I also have to ask whether I think another coach could do a better job or whether I'm just letting the imperfections I'm well-acquainted with blind me to other imperfections that a different coach would bring. My assessment of that is that, whatever faults Nate may have, the roster, depth, injuries, and drafting have influenced this team far more than any mistakes Nate may have made along the way. He's making more right decisions than wrong ones. The product is as sound as it's going to get. Therefore he's doing well.

The team's target this year is the playoffs. A first round loss is neutral, more than that is a thumbs up, missing the playoffs would be a strong thumbs down. Until we know what happens we won't be able to say definitively how Nate has done.

After that, well...one of the advantages of sports as opposed to a movie is that you get to do it all over again each season. If I were picking someone to re-do the Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson wanted another crack at it, I think I'd pick him first. For the same reason I've generally supported Nate retaining his position. At some point after Jackson has had 7-8 tries and the imperfections weren't ironed out I might be interested to see what someone else could do. In that same vein if the Blazers decided to go a different direction after the season I wouldn't scream. But that's a decision for later. Right now I see no reason to stop the movie to change directors. I'm involved enough to see how the story ends.

Go ahead and talk Nate or the Lord of the Rings flicks below if you wish. Consider it the rare dual-topic thread.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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