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The Season in Review: The Coaching Staff

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We come to the end of the Season Reviews with the one many of you have been asking for:  the Coaching Staff.  I mention the entire staff because it is certainly a team effort, though the guy we see is Nate McMillan so he's going to bear the brunt of the analysis.  Whenever you see Nate's name, assume an "and his staff" following.

As some of you have mentioned, I don't talk much about coaching during the season.  This is intentional. 

First of all, coaches and refs receive the lion's share of the blame whenever something goes wrong.  You can go to any fan site and see the list of complaints after every loss.  But we don't try to be just any fan site.  I don't find it productive or profitable repeating the same old saws you're going to read a thousand times over.  There are almost always plenty of reasons things went poorly besides whatever can be pinned on the coaches.

Second, these observations suffer from a near-universal lack of time and perspective.  People get angry at the coaching staff based on short-term stimulus when coaching is a long-term proposition.  You can't really tell what kind of job a guy is doing from one or two games.  You have to look at the whole body of work, which is exactly what we do here.  Van Gogh probably painted a couple of stinkers in his career.  The Beatles have released a few songs that only their most adoring fans would hail as great.  Both did alright when you look at the overall picture.  Besides, at least in those cases you can define what the artists are doing.  Coaching is a more nebulous endeavor with far less linkage between input and eventual product than a painter or musician generally experiences.  Coaches themselves don't often define publicly what they're trying to do.  Without that knowledge, trying to evaluate them becomes a game of blind man's bluff.  You only really get a sense of the environment by repeated experimentation.

We've had that experimentation now...88 games' worth to be exact.  Now's the time to figure out what's going on.

The primary measuring stick for any coaching staff is wins and losses.  Coaches themselves understand and accept this.  Nate McMillan knows he did well getting 54 wins this season.  He also knows if the team wins 41 next year in the absence of huge mitigating circumstances he will be called into question.  If the team wins 41 two years from now as well he'll be fired.  For this season, though, you have to find Nate's performance near faultless by this criterion.  As we've mentioned multiple times, this team played four rookies, starting two for much of the year.  This team was led by a couple of third-year players.  This team played in a generally tough conference.  This team still stuck 13 more games in the win column than in the previous year.  This was also the third straight year wins increased, all of them by 9 or more per season.  There's no debate here.  This is amazing.  If coaches live and die by their win totals then Nate is full of life.

Another coaching key is improving team performance as well as the performance of individuals.  The team ended up 2nd overall in offensive efficiency and 10th in defensive efficiency for the season.  They were 5th in the league in point differential.  Of the major rotation players on the team 6 of 7 returning players saw an increase in plus-minus this season (Channing Frye being the lone exception) and 5 of 7 saw an increase in PER (Frye and Travis Outlaw, who ended up almost even).  When most of the roster sees increases, that's not only a tribute to the individuals involved but a credit to the coaches who set them up to succeed.  Among the rookies Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum had very respectable seasons and Greg Oden had his moments.  Only Jerryd Bayless didn't step forward strongly and the reasons for that are debatable.  The vast majority of the roster did well, individually and collectively, under Nate.

Beside these factors the criticisms we've heard of Coach McMillan so far seem limp.  Some claim he can't develop young players.  The paragraph above belies that strongly.  Practically the entire roster is young.  Most of these players are flourishing.  From a distance "Nate can't develop young guys" looks an awful lot like "Nate isn't playing my favorite guy".  Those are two quite different things.  And even if we're considering the latter as a legitimate criticism, the players people question most have usually shown that they are out of their depth when circumstances force more time upon them for reasons other than Nate's choosing.

Conversely some have asked whether Nate is capable of coaching a veteran, championship-contending team.  I'm not sure how you'd know until he got one, but so far the win totals look pretty good.

It's worth noting that if both of these critiques are accurate Nate is basically good for nothing.  That clearly isn't the case, so something has to give here.

Pace is also a frequent criticism we hear about Nate's offense.  It's worth noting that near the end of the season he was caught on camera several times pleading with his charges to run the ball up and pick up the pace.  However there's little doubt he's enforced a controlled offense to this point.  How much of that is personal choice and how much is the result of him being forced to play so many players with five years of experience or less?  Also when considering a change of pace you also have to consider the threads that are linked to pace, such as low turnovers, efficient shot clock usage, lack of fast break points given up, and increased overall efficiency.  The Blazers were better this year in all of these categories than we've yet seen them.  Although the team will almost certainly open up more in the next couple of years, the timing and manner of the tempo change will need to be considered carefully.  Until the rotation is solidified and everybody in it is comfortable with their role, responsibilities, and with the flow of the game as a whole increasing speed won't necessarily increase performance or wins.  I'm not saying I'm in love with this offense as it stands but I also understand the rationale behind it right now.

For much of the season I had issues with how the team defended screens.  Constant switching and late rotations left us vulnerable not only to opposing buckets but foul trouble.  I found Nate's explanation telling that some of the defenders just weren't physically big enough to do what needed to be done.  If that situation remains the same next season, however, we're going to have to come up with a better answer sooner.

Overall I found the defensive scheme more than adequate.  Taking away the key and fast break points is the smart percentage play.  As the players saw more repetitions they got better at closing out on shooters in addition.  They mixed zone schemes with man-to-man more fluidly than they did last season, and with less of a reliance on the zone, especially as a desperation measure.  They never got over the need to double early in order to protect against the drive, however...a weakness which Houston exploited heavily in the playoffs.  I'm not sure how you coach a guy to move his feet quicker and body up more, however.  Generally speaking players can stay in front of their men or they can't.  Too many of the Blazers couldn't.  I suspect the coaches will spend a lot of time this summer trying to figure out how to compensate.

Nate has earned a reputation as a player-unfriendly coach, mostly with the "Sarge" persona.  I don't give complaints from the guy who gave him that name much weight, frankly.  That player is now on his third team in two years, none of them posting winning records.  Oregonian beat writer Jason Quick has mentioned the increasingly warm and respectful connection between Nate and his players.  It's just as likely that his tough persona was merited by the people surrounding him as it being a personality trait that's going to get in his way.

Because coaching is so easy to blame and coaches are made into such frequent scapegoats, the burden of proof for any accusation against a coach lies with the accuser.  If there's another possible explanation it's probably wise to credit that one instead of pointing fingers at the guy in the nice suit.  Few, if any, of the criticisms against Nate pass muster in this way.  Until further evidence comes up, he looks, smells, and carries the track record of a very good coach...not only in general, but for this particular team.

Whatever momentary quibbles people may have, I don't think there's any way you can give this coaching staff any grade lower than a strong "A".  When you look at the combination of age, experience, and achievement what the Blazers did this year was all but unprecedented.  Between the natural volatility of youth and the injuries suffered to potential starters this season could have turned out far, far worse.   That it didn't is a credit, at least in part, to this coaching staff.

Weigh in with your perspective on this frequently-debated issue in the comments.  What do you think our coaches do well and where would you like to see them improve--or at least see more evidence before you make your decision?

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)