You can do better than Nate McMillan. He’s going to slow your team down, he doesn’t care about threes. Going by his nigh-anomalously consistent record over the past seven seasons, you’re almost definitely going to lose in the first round of the playoffs. But it’s not all bad, there’s a reason he keeps getting hired. You can count on Nate to teach your team proper defensive principles and reward effort on that end. He’ll get your team organized, crack down on silly mistakes. He’s boring in pressers and doesn’t pick fights with his players. Nate McMillan’s a decent coach and that’s worth something, especially to small market franchises that aren’t built around superstars. If you want someone to reimagine what your offense can be, you want Erik Spoelstra, who isn’t available. Same goes for Nick Nurse, Rick Carlisle. Doc Rivers is a big-markets-only option at this point in his career. When you bring a new skipper aboard, you’re taking a risk. McMillan’s about as un-risky as it gets. He’s a reliable pro.
The Hawks have been more than pleased with him, since he replaced Lloyd Pierce in early March. He has stabilized a previously underperforming squad, and while they’re probably not quite as scary as their 23-and-10 record during McMillan’s interim tenure suggests, they’re at least sure that GM Travis Schlenk didn’t totally strike out last summer when he added Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanović to a theoretically promising roster, thinking a couple vets would provide what Atlanta needed to shift from rebuilding to playing competitive ball. Gallinari has provided scoring punch off the bench, just like Schlenk drew it up, and Bogdanović is having the best season of his career putting up 15 points per night and serving as an inspired secondary playmaker alongside—sometimes even standing in for—Trae Young.
An ancillary benefit of having Nate McMillan coach your team is that you find out where you are, from a talent perspective. Your roster’s going to play to something like its median ability. It won’t be a mid-aughts Popovich Spurs situation, where Pop’s ingenuity makes a role player look like a borderline star, but Nate’s not going to screw anybody up either. Turns out the Atlanta Hawks are a solid team, with a steady hand at the helm. That’s valuable information.
We’re sure the Pacers aren’t bad, or at least that they shouldn’t be. We know this because the Pacers are never bad. The year doesn’t matter; they’ve inevitably got three players you like and clock in for duty at playoff time. But your 2020-21 Pacers are as close to obsolescence as they’ve been in quite a while. Some of that is due to injury. About half the league can claim they’ve suffered treacherous luck in that area, and Indiana’s among them. T.J. Warren essentially hasn’t played this year. Myles Turner’s been out with a foot issue lately. When Indiana shipped out Victor Oladipo, they thought they were getting Caris LeVert in return but he had a serious scare when the post-trade physical discovered a tumor on his kidney. Shockingly, that sidelined him for only about two months, but he did miss the time. Jeremy Lamb, being understandably careful with the left knee he tore last season, has been sitting out since mid-April.
But by themselves, the injuries are no excuse. Under McMillan, the Pacers won 48 games in 2017-18. That was the season after they sent Paul George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Oladipo and Domas Sabonis. Oladipo was third team All-NBA, kind of a diet Dwyane Wade around whom the entire team’s offense revolved. The next year, he was banged up, in and out of the lineup, missed more than half the season and was mostly pretty shaky when he was well enough to play. The Pacers won 48 games again. McMillan held them together.
About Warren’s absence: he’s definitely been hurt, recovering from a stress fracture in his left foot, but he’s also not been eager to rush back under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, going so far as to get elective season-ending surgery in hopes that maybe by the time he’s 100 percent ready to go, Bjorkgren won’t be around anymore. That’s the most damning detail from an extensively reported Jake Fischer piece that describes Bjorkgren as, at best, an extraordinarily difficult boss. The long and the short of it is he’s got no people skills. He talks past his players, he yells at low-level staff, freaks out over the most minor details. He was hired due to his apparent Xs and Os expertise—and his relationship with GM Chad Buchanon—but the Pacers skipped over the part where they asked around to see if anybody actually likes the guy personally, which based on various quotes from former colleagues, they resoundingly do not.
This year has been hard on everybody, the whole league seems depressed, and it would make sense that the Pacers have gone from beleaguered to all the way checked out because their coach just will not let up. The game is at least as mental as it is physical, and especially in the regular season, effort moves the needle. Most nights, the Pacers look thoroughly beaten down. Now we know what’s been bumming them out.
And it’s not like Bjorksen’s strategic acumen has shined through the team’s general gloom. They’re a pretty baffling outfit, just in terms of their approach. Like, why is Indiana running so much—fifth in the league in pace—with the personnel they have? And, as Indy Cornrows recently catalogued in exhaustive detail, their defense in some games is completely busted. They’re rolling out principle-free zones, doubling everything that moves. Bjorksen and his staff have lousy ideas, aren’t communicating good ideas properly, or are communicating lousy ideas poorly. It’s a mess. The Pacers are 31-and-35, which in the East is enough to qualify for a play-in spot, but they don’t look prepared to do anything with that opportunity. This season’s going to end up in the loss column overall, and they’ll hope that it was a blip, that they can get it together in 2021-22. That’s likely going to involve replacing Bjorkgren, though it remains to be seen if typically conservative owner Herb Simon will want to employ three different head coaches over three consecutive seasons.
You can’t blame the Pacers for moving on from Nate McMillan. That’s what teams tend to do with him. He comes in, establishes a baseline level of competence, and then you try for someone else when you feel ready to truly ascend. If he sticks around in Atlanta, you can bet that two or three years from now, the Hawks will be appreciating all that Nate has done for the franchise in a press release about how they’re not renewing his contract. But the Pacers were hasty and reckless, and too easily dismissed what they had in McMillan. It’s something we’ve seen over and over again: the older black coach, almost always an ex-player, getting shoved out of the way for a forward-thinking white assistant. Front offices used to poach them from San Antonio and now Toronto’s staff is getting raided regularly. We can’t tell teams not to sign the guy that they like best in a given hiring cycle, but the process itself stinks, rife with nepotism and implicit bias. It wouldn’t be an overwhelmingly black league with overwhelmingly white coaches, if that weren’t the case.
The Pacers wanted to move on from Nate McMillan, and fair enough. It turns out they probably would have been better off sticking with him. For all his flaws, he knows basketball and he knows how to treat people. That’s not something to be taken for granted. Good for him, that he’s finding the appreciation he deserves in Atlanta. Meanwhile Bjorkgren has a lot of work to do, to match McMillan’s long record of moderate success. And he might never get there. It’s not easy to be as good a coach as Nate McMillan. It’s worth pointing that out, until everyone fully understands it.