"Is Nate McMillan in Trouble?" Chapter Two

Following last week's loss to the Wizards I ran a post questioning whether Nate McMillan's job was in jeopardy. The gist was that objectively he probably shouldn't be on the chopping block. The team was within expected parameters for the season overall and a mid-season firing wasn't likely to produce enough results to justify the accompanying chaos. Nevertheless coaches have been fired before after humiliating defeats, particularly when it appears their players aren't putting out effort...certainly a concern in the Wizards game. The speculation appeared justified after such a shocking event.

Public opinion on a potential release fell all along the spectrum, from "About time!" to "No way!" to "Not right now...but soon." We didn't find a definitive answer, just more questions.

After a deep-dug win against the Warriors in Oakland, a punch-drunk and Aldridge-free narrow loss to the Clippers at home, and a weekend manhandling of the Hawks those questions appear to have been answered. The most important folks save the owner himself have weighed in. Portland's players have spoken. Nate McMillan is still the coach of this team and, barring something from left field, it appears he'll remain so at least through the season.

As we said in the earlier post, there's no way of telling how close Nate was to the brink without knowing the mind of Paul Allen and the Portland brass. Maybe firing wasn't ever a consideration. But it's not hard to imagine the possibility coming up since it was being discussed everywhere. The only thing we could say with confidence was that Nate was probably closer to that precipice than he's been in his Portland career. Even if management hadn't entertained the thought, lifeless losses to the three teams the Blazers have played in the interim would have brought the issue to a head. Any of those three potential losses could have been explained away by schedule and quality of opposition, but had the players come out like they didn't care, like they had no chance, like the losses were a fait accompli, all eyes would have turned to Nate. The atmosphere would have crackled with the accusation, "He lost them."

Granted we've heard from a couple grumpy guards in the last week but the team's on-court play has spoken for itself. Even when fatigue robbed them of the ability to execute, these players left everything on the court in each of their last three games. They've been on the floor, they've been on the boards, they were even on the rack after that loss to L.A., their anguished, exhausted eyes telling how much they wanted the game, that they felt they should have won it. Portland's response to the Washington loss was not resignation, but pride. They didn't fracture, they fought. Maybe they fought for themselves, maybe they fought for each other, maybe they fought for their coaching staff. Maybe they just fought because they're professionals. Any way you slice it, that effort was not the response of a team begging for new leadership. It was the response of a team listening to its current leaders and providing extra effort of its own on top of it.

Make no mistake, had these players--or even a significant number of them--wanted Nate out they could have accomplished it this week. All it would have taken was some one-on-one play, inattention to defense, rebounds not grabbed, picks not worked around. Maybe three players in the top eight looking out for their own interests--bailing out on their coach--would have made these last few performances look as dismal as the Washington game. Even those inclined to play would have no recourse but to throw up their hands in disgust as the team disintegrated around them.

That's not what happened. Not even close. Instead we saw three hard-fought games. The team showed more sustained drive than they have at any point since the opening of the season. The schedule wasn't easier. The opponent weren't easier. This team just dug down deeper and it showed.

That's not all on the coaching. It's on the players. But that's exactly the point. They saved this stretch from disaster and took their coach's name out of hot seat speculation by playing their hearts out. Whatever the intent, that's what you want to see from your team. That kind of unity shows things are going well just the same as the Tuesday night debacle showed things were going poorly. Whatever the reasons for that loss, it wasn't a referendum on the coaching staff in any sense bigger than a single game...or at least not in any sense meriting a mid-season change.

Unless that changes--meaning we see players giving up in droves, losses piling up from inattentive play, and rebellion fomenting around every corner--I'm satisfied this question is answered. The burden of proof necessary for an in-season change hasn't been met. The Wizards game was, if not a false alarm, at least an isolated incident. This team has plenty of losses left in it but it doesn't appear that those losses correlate with a team that's given up on its coach, nor a coach who has lost his players. Whatever the issues with the Blazers, they're not solvable by a headsman's ax, at least not without the kind of reflection and planning that only an off-season affords.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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