caseyholdahl

Apr 15

The Case: Nate McMillan For Coach Of The Year

By caseyholdahl

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.

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