Nate McMillan never won a first round playoff series in four years as head coach of the Indiana Pacers; three out of four of these were sweeps.
The Pacers were 19th in offensive rating in the most recent regular season, and many argue they have failed to adapt under McMillan to the new three-point NBA landscape, as they finished 29th in made three-point field goals this past season.
Watching the Pacers’ trying to score against the Miami Heat was like watching continuous failed takes of the final scene of an NFL film: weaving pass after weaving pass until someone drops the ball and the director looks frustrated and tells them to take it from the top. But firing Nate McMillan was most likely a poor decision by the Pacers’ front office.
Winning in the face of adversity
While the Pacers’ recent playoff record makes for initially damning reading, there are definitely some mitigating circumstances that you cannot ignore. This season they were without their only All-Star, Domantas Sabonis, in the playoffs. He is a physical presence crucial to the team when matching up against the physical prowess of Bam Adebayo and the tenacity of Jimmy Butler. The previous season the Pacers were in the same situation, without their leader and sole All-Star Victor Oladipo.
In both cases, McMillan was fighting with one hand behind his back, and now the front office have kicked him while he’s down. The most recent playoffs where McMillan had access to a fully healthy squad the Pacers took a LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers (that year’s Eastern Conference champions) to seven games.
After a less than complementary playoff record, which more commonly catches the headlines and the wrath of the fanbase, it is easy to forget McMillan’s impressive and developing regular season record in his tenure with the Pacers. Over the four seasons he had with the team, they went from a winning percentage of 51.5 to 61.6. That is no mean feat when you suffer the loss of a franchise player (Paul George) and have to restructure and redevelop the team while enduring continual injuries to key pieces.
McMillan instilled a next-man-up philosophy within the team, which enabled shining performances at intervals throughout the year from the Holiday brothers (Justin and Aaron) and others such as Edmond Sumner when called upon.
A key component in this winning improvement that the team have shown under McMillan is defensive mindset and solidity that McMillan has trained them to show. This season Indiana were fourth in the league in terms of opponent points allowed, sixth in defensive efficiency – and this was without Oladipo (an all-defensive team calibre player) for much of the season.
Another factor that lends support to the recently dismissed Pacers’ coach and his ability is the response from other coaches around the league, which appears to generally be of criticism and confusion. Rick Carlisle’s response was certainly a puzzled one, telling reporters that the decision was “shocking” to him and “very hard to comprehend”, while praising McMillan as “one of the most respected coaches in the league”.
Brad Stevens was also full of support for the former SuperSonic, letting the press know that he felt that he “didn’t know anyone who had gotten more out his team for the last three-to-four years than Nate McMillan”. Even the recently victorious Erik Spoelstra called the decision “totally ridiculous”.
While it is important to consider that all these comments may be influenced by it being a publicly favorable move, the fact that many successful coaches have been so unanimously perplexed doesn’t reflect well on those who decided to drop the axe.
A financial faux-pas?
The Pacers have always been one of the most frugal teams in the league and have stayed well away from the luxury tax (a significant reason they lost Paul George and possibly a chance at championship success).
In fairness, they’ve had to be – they’re a small market team with an owner (Herbert Simon) who has relatively lesser finances in comparison to the heavyweights of the league. It is also important to consider that the Pacers’ owner will have likely have suffered significant financial detriment due to Covid-19.
This may explain, at least in part, the current hold up in negotiations with Oladipo’s contract renewal. It does not, however, give much rhyme or reason for firing (and thus owing complete financial recompense) to a staff member a mere two weeks after a contract extension and thorough support from the higher ups. It is a difficult to understand decision from a fiscal point of view to say the least.
The grass isn’t always greener
The Pacers organisation has taken a decision that is considered fairly illogical by many. One has to assume that with much of the roster entering their prime, there would be a solid plan for who is to lead this team.
There are suggestions that Mike D’Antoni (currently of the Houston Rockets) could be a significant target of the Pacers should he become available. This isn’t an awful idea, the Pacers have speed in their arsenal if needed, in the form of Oladipo, TJ Warren, Sumner and others. And their-three point shooting, while currently underwhelming, could be a weapon that could be further utilized as they are in the top half of the league in three point-percentage.
D’Antoni recently took the Rockets to a Western Conference Finals (and was a Chris Paul hamstring and a few points away from an NBA finals appearance – something Pacers fans can currently only dream of).
This is however, a lot to hope for. The fit isn’t necessarily a clean one, the Rockets may continue with the small ball experiment (depending on the remainder of the playoffs) and Indiana is not a wildly appealing free-agent destination for players or coaches.
Hindsight in 2020
No one can really know the impact this will have upon the success of the team and the franchise until it happens. But until further moves are made, the Pacers’ future looks very up in the air.
Don’t weep too deeply for McMillan, he’s walking away with his pockets full, with certainly one or two suitors on the horizon, and many reasons to make Indiana’s executives look foolish for not seeing the bigger picture.