McMillan returning to Portland, reflects on tenure, regrets how he handled Batum

McMillan returning to Portland, reflects on tenure, regrets how he handled Batum
November 27, 2013, 11:30 am
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Batum, Wes, LA thoughts on McMillan

“The focus is going to be on trying to win a basketball game but yeah, of course it’s going to be weird."

"There were some players on that team that were probably lost before they even came there. They knew they weren’t going to be there long."

PHOENIX -- We’re roughly four months short of two years since Nate McMillan last stepped foot inside the building now renamed the Moda Center.

On Monday, Dec. 2, he will return to the place he had coached for seven seasons when he comes in as an assistant for the Indiana Pacers to take on the Portland Trail Blazers. This is the organization he helped transform from a laughingstock to respectability.

Whatever emotions he’ll experience from the reunion, McMillan admits it’ll be strange, but he makes it clear that the focal point is to get another win.

“The focus is going to be on trying to win a basketball game but yeah, of course it’s going to be weird,” McMillan said to via phone in Charlotte, N.C. “The last time I was in that building with basketball going on, I was on the other sideline. So yeah, I’m sure it will be weird just as any other players that come in and have been traded and moved on. But it’s part of what we do.”

Often when the McMillan Era is brought up, his last season in Portland tends to be the central topic of discussion. Did he lose the team? Did guys form a mutiny? Was he fired prematurely?

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All are logical questions to be asked. That 2011-12 (lockout year) Trail Blazers’ roster was assembled on the fly. Brandon Roy announced his retirement from the game prior to the season starting. Greg Oden experienced another knee setback and would not play that year before eventually being waived. And LaMarcus Aldridge suffered a heart condition that required treatment, keeping him out a couple of weeks.

Former Trail Blazers Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby were all on the last year of their deals that season. The team could have gone in one of two ways. Guys could have come together as a team knowing they needed one another to secure a nice financial bump in the offseason. Or guys could play as individuals in attempt to pad their individual stats.

We all know what occurred from there.

And unfortunately for McMillan, a 20-23 record for a projected playoff-contending team that lost seven of its last 10 games wasn’t going to equal job security. So taking that all into account, it’s fair to pose the following questions: Was he let go prematurely? Did the players give up on him?

“We weren’t performing, whether I lost them or not. We weren’t performing,” he said. “Again, there was some players on that team that were probably lost before they even came there. They knew they weren’t going to be there long. Some were free agents. So that wasn’t my group of guys. One thing about it is, it’s hard when you have a group that you’ve molded, and to bring in guys that are already molded and shaped, and the number of guys we did bring in that particular year, that was going to be a difficult challenge.”

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So the rebuild, or the retool had to begin and even if the organization elected not to change coaches, McMillan said that would have been something he wouldn’t have wanted to be a part of.

“Probably not, you know,” he said. “We don’t go through this game to get comfortable with losing. But it was never asked, so I can’t answer that. I had gone through [a rebuild] for seven years. For me and the fans and the organization, you’ve gone through that. And to go through that again with the same coach, I don’t think that would have been the right thing to do. If you’re going to rebuild it, you need to start with the coach, especially in that situation.”

There were other challenges McMillan faced during his Portland tenure aside from all the string of injuries and that last season – the handling of Nicolas Batum.

Batum grew frustrated with his role in McMillan’s offense. Batum’s agent Bouna Ndiaye told that Batum didn’t like playing the role of Bruce Bowen, a stand in the corner player that only shoots the ball when open and defends.

Under coach Terry Stotts, Batum has flourished into one of the most complete players in the league and he’s frequently on the triple-double alert.

When Portland acquired one-time All-Star Gerald Wallace via trade midway through the 2010-11 season, McMillan had a tough decision to make. And he made it. It’s one of the only things he regrets during his time as the Trail Blazers coach.

“Really, I felt like Nicolas was going to be a good player and a talented player. Again, he was drafted with that in mind, with being a part of the future. Probably the one thing when I look back on my time in Portland that I regret was the decision to take Nicolas out of that lineup and starting Gerald Wallace,” McMillan admitted. “That was something that I was battling with the time I was there.

“I knew that Nic was going to be the future. I knew Wesley [Matthews] was going to be the future. Those were the two best wings for us. But bringing in a veteran such as Gerald Wallace and trying to convince him to come off the bench and he did for about a week or two. He felt like he needed to be in the starting lineup. I went against what I really believed was right which was Nicolas and Wesley playing with LaMarcus because they defended and they shot the ball at the two and three positions. But we gave him as much as I felt like he could handle at the time.”

Luckily for McMillan, at the moment, he doesn’t have to deal with those type of situations. Pacers head coach Frank Vogel will have that task. McMillan jokingly says as an assistant, his naps are shorter and he now finds himself on that first bus to the arena on game days working players out.

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He has found being an assistant a blessing in disguise in terms of obligations. Oh yeah, and he’s enjoying that part of it.

“We [assistants] don’t even talk to the media. On Media Day for me, I went out and took a picture and I was back in my office within 15 minutes,” he said while laughing. “It was cool, man.”

Last season while out of work, McMillan took some time to travel the country and visit some team’s practices to keep his coaching mind stimulated.  He’s never had a year off from basketball so he filled his time visiting George Karl in Denver, Doc Rivers in Boston, Rick Carlisle in Dallas, Monty Williams in New Orleans and Coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

He knew he would coach again soon, so he wanted to make sure he stayed on top of his game by adding a few wrinkles from each coach. When the time came for him to look at some head coaching opportunities this past summer, he said there were some jobs he was interested in and some he wasn’t interested in.

At the end of the day, whether he was interviewing for a head gig or an assistant gig, it had to be the right fit. He wasn’t taking any job. Indiana was the right place for him.

“When this opportunity was brought to my attention, I never imagined that I would be working in Indiana with Frank,” McMillan said. “A lot of what they do, I believe in. They are a team that believes that defense is the No. 1 priority and team chemistry. They’ve built a solid foundation and I thought it was a good fit. Me and Frank share the same agent so it was a natural fit.”

It’s going to be strange seeing McMillan on the other team’s bench. He said he doesn’t know exactly what it’s going to feel like or what the reception is going to be like if/when he is shown on the jumbotron screen.

However the Moda Center audience decides to greet McMillan, he just wants them to know that he had a great time when he was there and he’s very appreciative of the opportunity he was given.

“I’m really thankful for the opportunity that was given to me by Mr. [Paul] Allen,” he said. “My plan was trying to build a team and building a championship team. I had never done that before and when I came there, I was a young coach. I just saw an opportunity with an organization that was passionate about the game and I felt that they would invest in building that type of team, and it almost happened.

“Everything that is happening right now for the Blazers was in the timeline of what we were talking about five years ago. We felt like Brandon Roy, LaMarcus, Greg Oden right now would be in their prime and the West would be falling off. We felt like San Antonio would be taking a step back. Those guys are incredible, but no one expected San Antonio to be this good still. We felt like the Lakers would be getting older, they would be falling off. We felt like Phoenix would change. At that time they had Amar’e and Steve Nash. But we felt like if you gave us three or four years, our guys would have developed and this would be our time. I’m happy for Portland and have many fond memories.”

Excerpts from our conversation: 

When was the last time you spoke to Paul Allen?: “We spoke probably right after that (firing), and we’ve haven’t talked since then.

Will you speak to Paul Allen at the game on Monday?: “Nah, I don’t think so. If I see him, of course, I’ll speak. If I see him and we come across each other’s paths, yeah, we’ll speak. But I don’t hold any hard feelings or grudges. And I don’ t think he does either.”

How do you feel about your overall tenure in Portland?: “We had a plan that was going well. When I first spoke to Mr. Allen and he talked about his plan when he offered me the position to come to Portland, the plan was in place and it was working. We had some unfortunate situations where we just had some injuries that we just could not overcome. To have everything really going according to plan, we had talked about building through the draft, that we were going to be patient. We were lucky enough that some guys did some good things. Kevin Pritchard and our scouts did a good job of drafting. But when you lose a Brandon Roy and Greg Oden in the same year, it’s going to be hard for anybody to survive. You take Kobe Bryant and Paul Gasol from the Lakers. You take LeBron James and Dwyane Wade off Miami, it’s going to be hard for those organizations to survive. We had that happen in our lockout year. I got caught in a storm.”

Was it justifiable firing you?: “Larry [Miller] and I talked about that. I felt what they did, they needed to look at rebuilding that team before it crumbled. We brought in some players and the timeline wasn’t the same as the group that was there. Because of Brandon’s retirement and knowing it was going to be Greg’s last year as a Trail Blazer, we had to make some decisions in a lockout year. And we made some decisions that we thought could help the organization, but it didn’t work out. And at that time, I felt like the organization really needed to look at everything. They needed to look at the future and the future was do you continue with me and do you continue with this team? They made the decision to do something and it started with me. I understood they were going to go a different direction.”

Thoughts on Damian Lillard and Portland’s start to the season?: “That kid is sparking that city and that team like Brandon Roy did. He’s having that type of impact on that team. “Yeah, Portland is legit.  I think they are. You know I’ve seen Lillard play a couple of times, but just watching him, he has the poise and the demeanor of a Brandon Roy. He seems to be really calm under pressure. The point guard play was something we were really searching for throughout my time there. Andre Miller came in and really helped us at that position, but he was really passed his prime. So that was really what we were searching for and they got it. They got that guy who looks like he can lead a team and I know LaMarcus, Wesley and Nicolas, those three fit each other. LaMarcus is a low-post guy who can do a number of things and Wesley and Nicolas both defend and can shoot the three ball. Now you got a point guard to go with them. You take LaMarcus and put him at his natural position by bringing in Lopez. You got experience coming off the bench. You got a Mo Williams coming off the bench. You got to be kidding me? Come on now.”

Sounds like you would have loved to coach this team: “We had that type of team, but I never had the opportunity to coach that team when we brought in Andre Miller. That year we brought in Miller (2009-10 season), I think my starting lineup would have been Steve Blake, Brandon Roy, Martell [Webster] or Nicolas, LaMarcus and Greg. Coming off the bench we would have had Andre, Rudy [Fernandez], Martell, Travis Outlaw and Joel [Pryzbilla]. So we had a team that would have been deeper than what they have now. But Travis broke his foot, Rudy had some issues, Greg got hurt and Joel got hurt. So we never had an opportunity to see, what I thought talent wise, was one of the better groups we had there but we never seen it in regular season games.”

How is it being an assistant?: “Ah man, it’s a lot different. Gee-wiz. My naps are shorter. I don’t take long naps. Yeah, you get fired up for the game but it really is different in a sense. I really enjoy working out with the guys. I did it my first couple of years in Portland and I did it throughout all my years in Seattle, spending more time talking with the guys. When you’re the head coach, because of all the other commitments that you have, you end up kind of distancing yourself from those guys. Your assistants develop more of those relationships. So I’ve enjoyed the teaching part. Being able to stay after practice and work with the guys on the floor and watching film. And then there are the other things you don’t have to do as an assistant such as all the appearances, the speeches and the media. It’s different and it’s a great opportunity. I’m working with a great group of guys. I couldn’t be happier.”