Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Case: Nate McMillan For Coach Of The Year

There are very few mysteries in the NBA. It’s a league of scouts. Everything there is to know about a player or team is annotated, analyzed, reanalyzed and synthesized into a handy report, known in these parts as “a book”. Once you’ve put in that work and put together that book, you’ve got a solid idea of the strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of an individual or team. The quantifiables are out there. They’re studied and research endlessly. The end result is that there are no secrets when it comes to personnel.

But some mysteries do exist, such as why Nate McMillan is seemingly persona non grata when it comes to Coach Of The Year discussions. You hear and read names like Mike Brown of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Stan Van Gundy of the Orlando Magic and Rick Adelman of the Houston Rockets as the frontrunners for COY, but Nate McMillan? Nary a mention to be found outside of the Portland media.

It simply doesn’t make any sense.

One of the more common rationalizations when it comes to voting on COY seems to be the notion that if a team outperforms expectations, then it must be a case of good coaching. Team plays better than the pundits expected, pundits give the credit to the coach. Maybe a bit simplistic, but not necessarily invalid. And if you’re a voter and that’s one of your criteria Nate McMillan has to be at the top of your list.

People expected the Trail Blazers to be good, but this good? Most assumed they would have to fight tooth and nail to secure a playoff spot, which was a perfectly reasonable assumption to make. Young team, few veteran leaders, concerns about potential injuries, tough division, tougher conference. All true statements about the Blazers. But here we are on the last day of the season and Portland has a legitimate shot at home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the Western Conference playoffs. Anyone see that coming?

But you look around the Coach Of The Year discussion, and it doesn’t seem like Nate McMillan is getting his share of the credit for that improvement. If the Trail Blazers win tonight (knock on wood), they’ll have a regular season record of 54-28. That’s 13 more wins than last season. What’s more, that 54-28 record would be a 33 game improvement from McMillan’s first season as head coach. Where’s the love for that? He certainly hasn’t done it on his own, and who know how the season would have played out if guys like Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge hadn’t taken the next step in their progressions as stars in the NBA, but the coach, the man who sets the tone from the rest of the team, has to be a large part of the equation, right?

In looking at the other nominees for COY, it’s hard to argue that any of their teams have exceeded expectations like McMillan has with the Trail Blazers.

Mike Brown has probably comes the closest. People knew the Cavs were going to be good, but 67 wins, top of the Eastern Conference and only losing one game at home good? That’s exceeding expectations. Having the best player in the game doesn’t hurt, but they had the best player last season as well.

Has Stan Van Gundy exceeded expectations with the Magic? Doesn’t really seem like it. Assuming the Magic win tonight (which is a rather large assumption considering they’ve dropped four of their last five) they’ll finish with 59 victories, seven better than last season. That’s decent, but not exactly earth shattering. Did anyone think Orlando wouldn’t be at the top of the Southeast Division or that Dwight Howard wouldn’t be the best bigman in the game?

They’re a very good Eastern Conference team, but are they a threat to win the East? Doubt you’ll find many willing to make that argument. So for the most part the Magic, in the words of Dennis Green, are who we thought they were.

The same could be said for Rick Adelman and the Rockets. Assuming they win tonight in Dallas, the Rockets will end the season 54-28, which is actually one game worse than last season. They’ve got the inside track on winning the Southwest Division, which is admirable, but that might say more about the decline of the Spurs than the improvement of the Rockets. Give some credit to Adelman for keeping Ron Artest in check and getting by without the services of Tracy McGrady, but is that worth winning COY? Adelman is getting a lot out of that roster, but it’s a nice combination of veteran pieces to begin with.

Another thing Coach Of The Year voters seem to value is a coach overcoming the loss of a key player to injury. Must be a case of good coaching if a player goes down and the team continues to get wins, or so the logic seems to go. That seems to be one of the reasons why Adelman (loss of Tracy McGrady) and Van Gundy (loss of Jameer Nelson) top McMillan in COY talk, but it shouldn’t be. Anyone who follows the Trail Blazers knows that McMillan has been without the services of Martell Webster, who was all but penciled into the starting small forward spot, all season. Is losing Webster on par with losing McGrady or Nelson? Maybe not on the surface, but when you consider the replacements, the loss of Webster might be the most significant.

McGrady was replaced by Shane Battier, who is arguable better than McGrady at everything outside of volume scoring. Nelson was replaced by midseason acquisition Rafer Alston, who is a marginal downgrade from Nelson. Webster’s replacement? A 19-year old French rookie whom many assumed would spend the majority of the season pulling stints in the D-League. If that’s not an indication of superior coaching prowess, then what is?

And while on the topic of rookies, how about Coach McMillan integrating four first year players into the rotation, and ending up better for it? The Cavaliers and Rockets added veterans and the Magic basically stood pat, but the Trail Blazers added four fresh faces and still improved dramatically. What other coaches have been put in that kind of situation, let alone excelled when confronted with it? In fact, the Portland Trail Blazers are the first team in NBA history to win 50 games with four rookies appearing in 50-plus contests. Read that again and then try to make a case against McMillan for Coach Of The Year.

Of all the playoff bound teams, Portland has the least amount of NBA experience (that’s including the Raef LaFrentz’s 11 years in the league). When you add up the years of NBA experience on the Trail Blazers roster, you come up with 51 seasons, which is 16 seasons fewer than any other Western Conference playoff team. If Portland can manage to win tonight, they’ll have 1.06 wins for every year of NBA experience, making them the only playoff team to have more than one win per season of experience (the Lakers come in second among playoff teams with .956 wins per years of experience, after which there’s a rather precipitous drop off).

The reality is that there are a number of great coaches in the NBA, but Nate McMillan has the credentials this season to go toe-to-toe with any of them. Why he’s not given the same consideration for COY as Brown, Van Gundy and Adelman is tough to grasp, and even tougher to stomach.


CHRISdotTODD said...

This is the best piece you've written all year. Go Nate!

Kristin said...

Well said. You should just make this an official press release from the franchise. Maybe it will get someone's attention.

Robert said...

very much agree...Nate did a wonderful job integrating Rookies!!!

Some of the COY talk was about how a couch integrated a veteran pickup traded mid is that even slightly as difficult as making a team with 4 rookies, 2 of which are European at that.

Nate has done an amazing job for the blazers, and deserves his rightful recognition

Robert said...

The young Blazers, with very little playoff experience, and none as a team, finished off the season with the best ten game record of any team, 9-1

The Blazers got talent, its easy to see, but so do many other teams in the league. This was all about good coaching, keeping the team focused to the end, and not letting them settle for good enough.

corybauer said...

He is the Coach of the Year. The Cavs are a veteran team and have Lebron James. They'd have done their thing with or without Mike Brown. The Rockets didn't get home court and they have Yao Ming. That doesn't make Adelman coach of the year either. Van Gundy????? Puh-LEASE! A guy who ridicules Shaq on a national outlet and already has Superman on his team? I actually expected them to do a little better.

McMillan won't be chosen as coach of the year. Even though he has had to work with the youngest active team in the NBA, one which wasn't even expected to get a 6th seed! He makes up more of the equation in his team's success than any of those other coaches do on their team, simply because of the experience our players have. Hands down.

Ben said...

Excellent piece, Casey… I hope the nationals pick this up and run with it.

Scott said...

I think the media like the "good group of guys replacing the jail blazers" story so much that they want that to be the reason for the success.

The Blazers have also come on so strong at the end, that they snuck up on people - who had already decided who should be in the COY discussion. After all, just a couple of weeks ago, we were looking like we might be fighting for that 8th spot, and only as good as expected.

You do have to credit Adelman with keeping Ron Artest from destroying the team. That is almost worthy of the COY award, in and of itself.

jwoo73 said...

I'm a little late, sorry...but I have to respond.

First, excellent post, Casey. I totally agree with your comments and analysis and have been arguing similar points for some time. I can't believe we had fans, people who supposedly follow the team and watch the games, who were saying that firing Nate would be the only way the Blazers would ever succeed. Even if we were sitting here with home court, Nate is an AMAZING COACH!!!

We should also mention the fact that Nate has done a remarkable job of fostering an excellent chemistry. Off of the court, this team really does appear to have something special that only increases the likelihood that they will perform as a unit on the court. And Nate has done an excellent job of balancing minutes, making players recognize that - top to bottom - every player is truly valuable to this team. That takes skill in a league where most players want to be "the guy." Props to Nate for his outstanding work as well as to the organization for bringing Mr. Sonic to Portland.

Sean said...

This is a really interesting, well-written post. So much so that I immediately wanted to comment, then sat here for about 15 minutes trying to figure out exactly what it was I felt I needed to say.

1) You make a really good case for Nate as COY. 1A) This is the first time I've heard his name mentioned in this race, and I don't know why.

2) As with any other voting award, the media will push the stories they've been pushing, directing public attention to the biggest ratings-grabbing story.

Rick Adelman -- the media will try to maintain their angle on TMac as a playoff goat, and so are pushing to show that the team (thanks to Adelman) are better off without him.

Mike Brown -- any story to draw attention to the league's poster boy will do, right?

Brandon Roy -- I've heard some buzz lately about him making a case for MIP... plus, he's just now entering the ranks of the Superstars, carrying his team, all that. Perhaps they don't want to take away from that story? Just a thought. Also, as Scott said, you've got that whole anti-Jailblazers movement going, although I would think that could be logically attributed to good coaching/mentoring. It just doesn't seem to be playing that way in the media.

Stan van -- I honestly have no idea what this is about. He has Dwight Howard, for god's sake. If he doesn't win 50 in the East, he shouldn't be a coach at all, let alone COY. Did this push toward COY start after his verbal smackdown from Shaq? Not really sure on this one... just thinking out loud.

Anyway, excellent piece. A++, would read again.

jwoo73 said...

oops...the last sentence of my first paragraph should have read: Even if we were NOT sitting here with home court advantage, Nate is an AMAZING COACH!!!

chuckieluckie said...


hope nate get coy i would like to see another coach do want he with one of the youngest rosters in the leauge.