Nate McMillan came to the Portland Trail Blazers in the summer of 2005.
Having finished the prior season 27-55 the Trail Blazers had two things going for them. The first was first round draft pick Martell Webster, a player the Blazers felt was destined to be a star to the point they passed on Chris Paul and Deron Williams to get him. The second positive development came: the signing of McMillan himself. Every other positive that could possibly be extracted from the roster--coming from players like Zach Randolph, Darius Miles, Sebastian Telfair, Ruben Patterson, Theo Ratliff--was tainted by injury or malfeasance. Webster and McMillan were the new faces of the franchise.
Known as a hard-nosed player and coach with the rival Seattle Supersonics, McMillan was perceived to be in high demand across the league that summer. Having led the Sonics to the second round of the playoffs McMillan found himself entangled with a less-than-appreciative front office. Paul Allen took the opportunity to sew up one of the league's fine young motivators, offering him a salary that commensurate with the elite head coaches in the league though Seattle had been his only prior appointment. After years of "Jailblazer" antics had brought desertion into vogue among Blazer fans, here was a rock to which they could cling. McMillan was the closest thing to "elite" this franchise had seen since 2000 and the people were going to celebrate...or at least tune in to see how this went.
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Portland's celebration of its new coach continued well into McMillan's first season despite a lowly 21-61 record. He became an instant cult hero by standing up to the team's inner circle of talent, led by the increasingly unpopular Randolph. McMillan sparred with Randolph and wingman Miles during his first training camp as both attempted to subvert his directives. Standing up to the team's highest scorer and most promising young player earned him credit and the nickname "Sarge", bestowed by Randolph himself. Given Zach's behavior, the intended insult became a supreme compliment in the eyes of Blazer fans.
Portland's abysmal winning percentage in Nate's inaugural season made clear that whatever rules, regulations, prodding, or motivation he employed wasn't going to change this team without better talent in place. That same poor record plus some shrewd front-office finagling brought the Blazers two high picks in the 2006 NBA Draft: Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. From the opening of their first Summer League contest their gifts became apparent. Having been there in person, it was hard to miss the looks on the faces of Portland's brass, including their head coach. They were a clowder of cats after eating a flock of canaries. Randolph looked indifferent.
Roy earned immediate playing time in '06-'07 and Aldridge's responsibility grew as the season progressed, only a heart condition derailing his pursuit of Randolph's minutes. Midway through the year rookie Roy confronted the veteran Randolph in the locker room, usually a faux pas. Not only was this rebellion tacitly supported, it was publicized. Even Randolph knew his time was done by the end of the season. 32 wins wasn't anybody's dream total but with Roy holding a Rookie of the Year trophy and the team trending upwards, confidence ran high.
The crowning moment of the early McMillan years came on draft day, 2007 when Randolph was shipped to the Knicks for Channing Frye and the Blazers drafted #1 overall selection Greg Oden...two revolutions in one day. Portland had a new young core, talent to burn, and nearly every position covered two deep. Plus they had an excellent coach who would raise these young kids into champions. Life was sweet.
The first major road bump of McMillan's Portland tenure came courtesy of Oden's late-summer microfracture surgery, wiping out his rookie season. Up until this point the team had seemed charmed: rising from infamy, putting down rebellion, tossing out bad apples, drafting impeccably, winning the draft lottery, and earning more victories all the while. Oden's knee was the first black cloud to darken Portland's skies. But McMillan's lessons were not about luck, rather hard work. Even though the hole in the middle of the Blazer rotation was obvious, Nate kept his charges toiling. Brandon Roy improved on his rookie numbers. Aldridge became a solid starter. Travis Outlaw registered his best season to date. The Blazers went 41-41 on the year. A non-losing record was like blinds being raised in a dark room for a team that had known nothing but futility for years.
The 2008-09 season became the pinnacle of the McMillan era. Brandon Roy went from star to superstar, earning All-NBA 2nd Team honors. Aldridge pushed closer to the 20 ppg threshold. Rookie Nicolas Batum surprised with his defensive ability, starting at small forward in place of the injured Webster. After battling more injuries the returned Oden played 61 games, raw but imposing. The team won 54 before getting hammered by the Houston Rockets in the first game of Portland's first playoff series since 2003. Unable to recover from the thrashing, the Blazers bowed out 4-2. Still, they had made the post-season. Future expectations ran high, but this also marked the point where hopes turned into expectations. The Blazers had returned. Roy and Aldridge had risen. Oden was playing. It was time to see where they were all going.
Curiously that pinnacle 2008-09 season also gave birth to the first rumblings of discontent McMillan had experienced in the Rose City. The secondary talent on Portland's roster was considered the envy of the league. Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless, and Rudy Fernandez were the young, hype-laden wildcards. The two Spaniards carried mythical reputations from Europe. Bayless wowed with incredible summer-league performances. Three slightly older prodigies--Outaw, Webster, and Frye--stood besides them, seemingly poised for growth. Yet none of these half-dozen players had fulfilled their perceived promise. Fernandez came close with his marksmanship, Outlaw with some last-second finishes, but Portland fans had anticipated more. Whispers floated: "Why isn't [insert favorite player here] getting more playing time? He performed great in [some other venue]." 56 wins and reaching the playoffs trumped most complaining, but the summer was long and the "potential"-laden players many.
Two events defined 2009-10 for the Trail Blazers. They acquired super-veteran Andre Miller to man the point, an area of concern ever since the fateful 2005 draft. They also watched Greg Oden crumple to the floor with yet another season-killing knee injury a quarter of the way through the schedule. At the point Greg went down Miller's transition into Portland's framework hadn't gone well. A notorious slow-starter, Andre failed pre-season conditioning tests, a huge Nate no-no. A ball-dominant guard, Miller clashed with McMillan's offensive vision and the Roy-centric game plan.
When Steve Blake continued to start over his more-accomplished teammate, last summer's murmurs became this season's shouts. Why would the most talented players not start? Why wasn't Jerryd Bayless getting more of a chance? How could Nate ignore the talents of Rudy Fernandez? Was he shafting all of Portland's young players the way he had shafted the now-departed Rodriguez? Perhaps Nate wasn't a good developmental coach at all! Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, all of whom developed under McMillan, were either ignored or their success attributed to innate talent or assistant coaches.
Victories would have overcome the din but Oden's demise ensured there wouldn't be as many during the regular season as forecast. Knee injuries to Roy did the same for the post-season. The Blazers fought hard. Miller and McMillan finally found common ground (aided by Roy's temporary absence and the team's desperate need for another dribbler/scorer). But it wasn't enough. After winning the first game of their playoff series the Blazers fell to the Phoenix Suns by the same 4-2 margin as they had previously. Now a new grievance was added to the list: Nate couldn't win in the playoffs (without his franchise-changing center, with his superstar hobbled).
Upon losing long-time assistant Monty Williams to the New Orleans Hornets, McMillan recycled almost all of his coaching staff during the summer of 2010. New coaches and a new season provided fresh hope and a new round of expectations. Having acquired defensive center Marcus Camby midway through the previous campaign, the Blazers now had a potential center corps of Camby, Przybilla, and Oden. Nobody was getting past that trio! With a summer of rest Roy's knees were supposedly better. Aldridge had bloomed in the absence of his co-stars and was now a 20-point man himself. Batum and Fernandez were maturing. Miller could play a full season without the drama. This could be the year!
The crushing 1-2 blow of another missed Oden return and Roy's knee problems being diagnosed as incurable hamstrung the season early. A mid-season trade for Charlotte star Gerald Wallace lifted hopes temporarily. The Blazers notched a quite-reasonable 48 victories. But the Dallas Mavericks dashed Portland's miracle hopes by the now-predictable 4-2 margin, this despite full effort from Wallace and a surprising burst of superhuman effort by Roy in the 4th game of the series in what would turn out to be his swan song with the franchise.
After three straight first-round playoff exits voices now cried out in earnest, their imprecations unfiltered. "Can't win in the playoffs," and "Horrible X's and O's coach," and "Stifling the young guys" became oft-repeated refrains. In the ultimate irony the development of Brandon Roy, two years prior heralded as the cornerstone event of the decade, was now turned against McMillan as phrases like "awful Roy-centered offense" came into vogue. "Sarge" became a sarcastic insult. Even Nate's good points had become sources of criticism.
The summer of 2011 brought little joy. When it became clear that the latest of Greg Oden's comebacks would fail and that Roy's knees would not allow him to play at all the Blazers scrambled to fill positions around their new core: Aldridge, Batum, Camby, Wallace, and Wesley Matthews. Single-year hires Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford joined the roster.
In honor of his new, veteran rotation McMillan changed his offensive system, encouraging up-tempo pushing and calling fewer plays. Nate's posture during games changed from sideline-crawling to chair-sitting. Despite a hot start the Blazers experienced puzzling losses, notably to Phoenix but later to Detroit and Sacramento, all in lifeless efforts. When Portland fell at home to bottom-feeding Washington on Valentine's Day, their coach's neck was on the block.
Troubles were legion. Point guard Raymond Felton was not performing. Reserve rookie Nolan Smith wasn't getting playing time. Both of these developments echoed earlier struggles (Miller, Rodriguez, Bayless, etc.) in the minds of fans. New hire Jamal Crawford played streak-laden offense, near-absentee defense. Only forward Kurt Thomas performed anywhere near predicted levels. Just when the need was greatest, the new-guy cavalry turned up lame.
Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby, normally dependable, seemingly fell apart every other game...victims of age and fatigue or the general malaise. Youngsters like Luke Babbitt and Chris Johnson were no help. Only Aldridge kept his head above water. Batum joined him occasionally, bobbing up for a gulp of air. That wasn't enough.
A road win against Golden State and a hard-fought home blowout of Atlanta followed the Washington debacle. Those would prove the last quality victories of McMillan's Portland career. Following that too-brief recovery the Blazers would go 3-8, winning only against the under-manned Spurs and Hornets plus those same awful Wizards. A humiliating loss to the Boston Celtics and a final 42-blowout against the awful New York Knicks in the third week of March sealed Nate's fate.
On Trade Deadline Day, 2012, the Blazers took care of all their family business at once. They dumped all of the recently-hired veterans they could, trading away Wallace and Camby, unable to unload Crawford and Felton despite heavy rumors. This act waved the white flag on the season, committing the team to rebuild through the draft rather than winning now. That same day they released Oden to clear roster space for incoming youngsters, closing the door on one era of hope. Finally they fired Nate McMillan, ending another.
From beginning to end Nate's stay in Portland was defined by the gap between reality and hope. In his early years McMillan's teams exceeded expectations. In his latter years they fell well short. The eternal question will be how much of that gap was determined by McMillan's coaching and how much by forces beyond anyone's control. Which changed more as the years progressed, expectations or Nate's coaching ability? The gains from 2006-2008 were significant but still incremental in most people's minds. The negative distance between three first-round playoff losses and the championship runs that were expected from 2009 on looms larger, by proximity if not depth.
How much did McMillan really disappoint this franchise? How much did the franchise's expectations, betrayed by injury and bad timing, doom it to disappointment no matter what Nate did? These questions will be debated whenever this era is considered. No satisfactory conclusions can be found in the realm of "what if". History will regard Nate McMillan among the Blazers' three best coaches, mentioned in company with Rick Adelman and Jack Ramsay. Both other coaches had more victories. But Adelman had his Drexler-Porter combo, Ramsay Walton and Lucas. Two-thirds of McMillan's terrific trio were taken from him untimely. We'll never know what his legacy could have been with a healthy roster.
We do know that 3.5 players--Roy, Aldridge, Batum, and Oden--developed into high-quality talents while under Nate's watch. We know that no player who has left the Blazers has made the kind of league-shattering impact that their youthful promises implied. Many have fared worse elsewhere than they did in Portland. We know that 54 wins in 2008-09 was an unprecedented number for a team so young. We know that despite complaints about offense and defense, the Blazers generally fared well in both categories when coached by McMillan.
We also know that whatever Nate was saying this season, many of his players weren't buying it. We saw poor performance on the boards, half-hearted effort defending in transition, no movement on offense, no ability to come back from even the slightest adversity. These characteristics were diametrically opposed to those of prior McMillan teams. Nate lost his club. But even then, look at the players reported to be sources of discontent, those performing inconsistently or lackadaisically on the floor: Felton, Crawford, sometimes Camby, sometimes Wallace. None grew up in Nate's system. Their complaints may well have been valid, but their solution of giving up was anathema to players raised by McMillan. In the end the Blazers' "quit" doomed their coach, but the players who fomented that coach-killing "quit" learned it somewhere else. Nate's players may not always have been perfect. Nate's players may not always have been happy. But they were still good for a comeback whenever they got down. At least Nate's players played.
In the end coaches are judged by wins and losses, not circumstance. By that criterion Nate McMillan's firing was justified. That the losses were so pitiful, exposing a serious rebuild as the only road forward, confirms Nate's sentence. But history will treat Coach McMillan more kindly than this week or his current players have. Once the mist of unrealized expectations clears away Portland fans will likely judge that 90% of the reasons for the team falling short of its championship aspirations were beyond McMillan's control. When the bitterness of an era lost has drained we'll be left looking at the man who provided a steady, if uncompromising, hand lifting this franchise out of the darkest era of its history into an era of hope...ironically the hope which would doom him. We'll remember a coach who stood by his principles, who demanded that his players do things the right way, who taught about stopping the easy buckets, taking care of the ball, and contributing on the defensive end instead of just scoring. We'll remember a man who preached effort and sacrifice, who comported himself with a dignity and strength that this organization needed during years that swirled with chaos in the front office and on the court.
Even if the record isn't everything hoped for, those aren't bad things to be remembered for.
Nate McMillan was a good coach for his teams and an even better coach for this franchise. Though he won't be deemed its best ever he can at least take comfort that between rebuilding, the inevitable trial and error process in finding the "right coach", and the years necessary to equal his accomplishments it'll be a long time before the Portland Trail Blazers find better.
Nate McMillan came to this franchise in the summer of 2005. He leaves it in the spring of 2012. Hopefully even those who think this move was overdue can join in the phrase that should wrap up Coach McMillan's time as a Trail Blazer: