Is Nate McMillan In Trouble?

When a team suffers a humiliating defeat as the Trail Blazers did last night at the hands of the Washington Wizards speculation swirls around the head coach. Granted, invectives fly after every loss but the difference here is palpable. The atmosphere has changed from outrage to weary resignation, the difference between screaming before you see a train wreck and standing in stunned silence after. That's never a good sign for a coach.

Should Nate McMillan be closer to dismissal today than he was 24 hours ago? Possibly not. The Blazers played last night without LaMarcus Aldridge. Granted the lowly Wizards were the foe. The Blazers should have the talent to defeat that team even without Aldridge. They should have been able to compensate. But that's easier said than done. So much of Portland's attack revolves around Aldridge that the team would require a whole new training camp to get comfortable playing without him. Can you drive a stick shift? Most of us can, though it would take a little practice to get used to it again after years of driving automatic transmissions. Now try driving a stick after somebody cut off your right arm. That's what the Blazers were trying to do last night on the fly.

Furthermore, Ben quotes Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum saying last night's loss was not Nate McMillan's fault. It's funny, fans will read tea leaves, play recordings backwards, and consult hieroglyphic tomes to try and read in criticism against a coach. "Player X said blah blah...you can tell he means he hates the way Nate is coaching!" But when two of the team's star players say directly that the loss was not on McMillan, that'll be ignored or explained away.

Then again, last night still happened. And there's still that palpable fear in the air that the loss didn't change the team's trajectory but confirm where they were always headed.

Nate McMillan has been the victim of plenty of bad luck. Since he took over the team in 2005 he's never had a complete roster to work with. This summer's blitz to stock the backcourt with Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford was just the latest attempt to fill gaping holes created by injury and misfortune. The pieces have been there at different times but never together in a way a coach could shape and prosper from. Save that single 54-28 year when his team won more games than any team that young ever had, Nate's tenure has been more about preventing total disaster and holding onto a winning attitude in the face of adversity than it has been about actually winning. He's done admirably well. The team has won and hasn't slipped into disaster...except last night. That's part of the chill running down Portland's collective spine. We haven't seen that kind of breakdown since the 2005-06, 21-win campaign. And even then it was more about talent than effort.

The other part of that story is that we've been through all of this before. You can say, "LaMarcus was missing last night" but that comes against the backdrop of Brandon Roy retiring this year, Roy being injured most of the last two years, Greg Oden being injured forever, Zach Randolph not being the player to lead this team, Martell Webster not having the talent to justify his draft position, and so on. Aldridge turning his ankle is a small thing, but it's the 152nd adversity, big or small, that has afflicted this team in the last few years. The first 150 times something happens out of a coach's control you tend to give him a pass. After that the excuse, though justified, starts to wear thin. That's human nature. "But Aldridge was out!" isn't enough to save the coach anymore, at least not automatically.

Also human nature is the belief that things are supposed to be better than they are. This is a quid pro quo for fan participation in sports. If your team isn't doing well and you feel they have no chance to improve you simply quit watching. Therefore by definition everybody who pays attention is also someone who believes in their heart of hearts that their team will get better. Reality doesn't always follow that assumption. Sometimes the talent isn't there or the circumstances aren't right. Most folks can't see it until long after the fact. When you carry the assumption that your team is very good and your eyes tell you that your team is playing relatively poorly, somebody has to take the rap for that. That "somebody" is usually the coach.

This is important because management, while certainly holding different perspective than the common fan, is not immune from this line of thinking. In some ways they're more invested in it, as they built the team. If your darling small forward draftee plays brilliantly but sporadically, if the point guard of your future is stinking up the floor, if the free agent you sweated and toiled to sign is busting out...whose fault is that? You believed in these guys or you wouldn't have acquired them at such effort and cost. Is your perception really that bad or could there be another reason? (Sidelong glance at the bench here...)

At some point, protests aside, even players begin to think this way. Yes, they take responsibility for their own actions but if they can't get over the hump no matter what, where do they turn? Are they going to say, "We suck, let's quit"? In the short term they do. That's when you start seeing efforts like the Washington game. But that can't last for long, else all of them would be bound to retire from the league. If they don't stink, where does the finger point? It doesn't take long to speculate that new leadership, a fresh voice, would benefit everyone. Whether the old voice is saying the right things is beside the point. If nobody's listening and following up with execution, the voice doesn't matter even if it's right.

Should Nate McMillan be in jeopardy? In objective terms, probably not. Subjectively, knowing how the human mind and the league work, probably. Coaches have been dismissed after far less struggle than Nate has been through. Coaches often get dismissed after horrific losses like we saw last night.

As I mentioned in last night's recap, the thing that really has me worried is the timing. The Blazers have Golden State on the road tonight, a tough place for them to play in the best of times, let alone on the second night of a back-to-back and either without Aldridge or with him limping. Nobody would be surprised to see a loss. Then Portland returns home for the surging Clippers on the third night of three in a row...again easily imaginable as a loss. At that point we're looking at three straight losses, perhaps fatigued blowouts, two at home. We're also looking back at heartbreaking losses to the Thunder and Mavericks...the first under extenuating circumstances, but again that card won't play for Nate. Then you have to consider the row of playoff-quality opponents to follow. We could be looking at a massive sinkhole of losses exacerbating the problem, driving coach farther away from fans, players, and management. If you covered up the names of coach and franchise and asked whether in this kind of situation your average coach is in danger the answer would be a definitive "Yes".

I'll admit I hate speculation like this. That's partly because I don't see a good alternative to Nate for the rest of the year. Whatever move you make it won't turn around this season, nor turn this group into contenders. Bernie Bickerstaff or Bob Ociepka wouldn't provide major departures from Nate's style. You could throw the reins to a young guy like Kaleb Canales and just let him loose, but I'm not sure the resulting turmoil in the locker room would give him a fair chance.

I also hate speculation like this because it's inherently unfair. It can't be answered. If the team says nothing it's seen as confirmation that they're displeased, letting all this speculation run wild. If the team gives their coach the dreaded "vote of confidence" it's even worse. Nobody survives those. Because the team can say nothing to quell or refute the speculation, I feel bad even advancing it.

Despite those qualms, I think it's fair to say that circumstances justify the speculation at this point. It's also fair to say that things could get much worse before they get better. The only thing that would solve it is the players banding together and playing amazing games against Golden State and the Clippers, coming up with two wins. That's the only way to silence this and protect their coach. Otherwise we're left wondering.

Coach McMillan may not be on the brink of getting fired exactly, but he's closer to that precipice right now than we've seen him. It'll be interesting to see how he, his players, and Portland management respond to this unprecedented situation.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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