The Indiana Pacers season is over after being swept for the second time in three years during Nate McMillan’s tenure as head coach. Should they start searching for a replacement to get them deeper into the postseason?
If you only look at the team’s overall performance this season, it’s hard to see why the Pacers would want to move on at this current moment. Victor Oladipo missed 46 games and the Pacers impressively matched their win total from the previous season at 48. That’s a huge accomplishment. They’ve exceeded all reasonable expectations in each of the last two years and he’ll deservedly get a few votes for Coach of the Year this season because of that.
Indiana had the third-best defensive rating in the league and the team gave maximum effort every game, never giving up no matter the circumstance. McMillan’s disciplined approach clearly has had its effect on this group, and the players have bought into the culture of the 3Ts (Toughness, Togetherness, Trust) and have praised him at various times in recent memory.
“He was awesome,” Oladipo said during last summer when asked how good his coach was for him in his first season in Indiana. “… He’s honest with me, but at the same time he holds me accountable, tells me what I need to do better.”
Oladipo launched himself into super-stardom with the Pacers, but McMillan put him in that situation that let him fully reach that point. He’s not the only veteran who has had his best season under his tutelage: Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison both hit their peak of their careers to this point in the last two seasons. He’s maximized the abilities of these players and generally enables players to utilize their strengths.
Bogdanovic said during the series against the Celtics that he prefers the no-nonsense coaching styles of guys like McMillan and assistant Dan Burke and that the coach will be an important factor in choosing a team in free agency according to the Indy Star. He has mentioned in the past how they remind him of European coaches in that way with their hard-nosed approach.
Is McMillan the right coach for the team to go farther in the postseason?
However, while McMillan is terrific at managing the locker room and cultivating a culture, he isn’t perfect or immune to criticism. The Pacers may not have been able to rise much higher than they did this season with any coach without their All Star, but the question of whether McMillan is the man that can take them farther when they are full strength or with an upgraded roster is a valid one. There have always been areas of concern and there are some examples in recent NBA history of teams ditching a coach that’s had some success and getting better with a new one.
Exhibit A would be Mark Jackson, who was also liked by his star player. Jackson, who like McMillan had an offensive system that was widely criticized during his tenure, led the Warriors to 51 wins in 2013-14 but they lost in the first round in seven games. He was fired and Steve Kerr took over and the Warriors won an NBA Championship that same season. Mike Budenholzer got a gig with the Bucks and has launched them into a contender with his modern offense after the team had underachieved greatly with Jason Kidd.
Dwane Casey had numerous years of regular season success with the Toronto Raptors, but even after he finally embraced a more modern offense for his team and won coach of the year, he was let go in favor of his assistant Nick Nurse after the Raptors were swept by LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
Whether the Pacers have the talent to make a jump like one of these teams with a more modern approach on offense is another question. They probably don’t quite have enough right now to make that big of a leap especially with Oladipo coming off an injury, but McMillan’s playoff resume doesn’t inspire confidence if the team does get more talent.
The Pacers coach has never had tremendous postseason success. McMillan is just 3-12 in the postseason with three first-round exits with Indiana (including the only sweeps in a 7-game series in franchise history), and his teams only made it past the first round once during his time with the Sonics and Blazers. To be fair, he’s also only been coaching the higher seed in two series (1-1).
Somehow, despite being 3-12, the Pacers have only been outscored by a total of six points combined through those 15 games. It feels like a few quicker adjustments or perhaps a more modern approach to his offense and the Pacers may got over the hump against the Cavaliers in 2018 in one more of those close games they lost or at least made the sweeps more competitive series overall.
McMillan appears to not believe in garbage time
One of the more puzzling aspects of McMillan’s coaching is his decision making during garbage time for when to pull the plug with starters and rotation players. The Pacers and McMillan in particular openly pondered whether they had run out of gas before the playoffs. Indiana looked exhausted throughout the last month and a half of the season and you have to wonder if those extra minutes during games that had long been decided contributed to the team’s fatigue. Especially for a team that is known for playing extremely hard every night, those minutes seemed to add up.
Finding times to rest and keep guys fresh would be seem a necessary addition to the team next year with Oladipo returning from a major knee injury. Part of the challenge for McMillan is that the players like Domas Sabonis and Bogdanovic don’t like to take games off but there are still opportunities to find rest for guys.
For example, Oladipo was questionable for a game against the lowly Hawks early in the year due to his knee, and instead of resting the star player against a team that the Pacers later beat in the last game of the season with basically their Summer League squad playing the entire fourth quarter, Oladipo played and aggravated the injury in the first quarter. He ended up out with knee soreness for a few weeks. Sabonis tweaked his ankle in a game that was out of hand late against the Pistons and missed a few games after the All-Star break during a crucial stretch of the season. Giving guys the occasional night off against lottery-bound teams and avoiding playing key rotation players late in blowouts could help with the wear and tear of a long 82-game season, but this has been a consistent issue during his three years in Indiana.
Giving guys a breather also allows some of the younger players to get a chance to play. There were many games where 2-way contract players Edmond Sumner and Davon Reed were using one of their 45 allotted days with the NBA team and the game wasn’t in doubt in the fourth quarter but they’d barely play if at all. The Pacers signed Fort Wayne Mad Ants player Stephan Hicks to a 10-day contract but he never saw the floor during that time. These players along with Aaron Holiday and Alize Johnson could have used some valuable development time in NBA games more often than they got it this season.
His offense is ancient and slow to adapt
McMillan’s old-school offense that overly embraces the mid-range jump shot and posting up has long been a source of frustration for fans, and it seems the offense bogs down even more when the playoffs arrive, especially down the stretch of tight games as they seem to run high screen and roll after high screen and roll with or without a hero to play this kind of hero ball.
After two years of Myles Turner and Domas Sabonis playing sparing minutes together, the Pacer still have major spacing issues on offense the majority of the time they share the floor and haven’t found many creative solutions for finding ways to use them more effectively together. The Pacers have been slow to embrace Turner’s spacing ability with his 3-point shot as he took a career high this season but still only 2.6 per game and his apparent knack for attacking bigs closing out on him from the perimeter like this one that resulted in a mammoth dunk (RIP Gordon Hayward).
When you look at McMillan’s whole tenure in Indiana, you may wonder how much credit he deserves for the chemistry and culture of the current group. In his first season as the head coach, the Pacers weren’t a hard-nosed, all-out effort team with fantastic chemistry. Granted McMillan was in a challenging situation in his first season with Paul George dreaming of Los Angeles, Monta Ellis being Monta Ellis, and a flawed roster, but he wasn’t able to make that group seem anywhere close to cohesive. I listed McMillan as the second-leading cause of death to the Pacers 2016-17 season. Were the last two years more of a result of the players and their meshing personalities?
It’s impossible to know for sure and maybe he could have had a better shot at dealing with those type of challenges now that he’s been the head coach for a few seasons. His time in Portland ended in the middle of his seventh season because he had “lost the ability to motivate the players and go out and give 100 percent.” With how high roster turnover is the league these days, it seems less likely that his voice will become stale. But the coach once nicknamed Sarge can probably wear players down after multiple seasons. He showed up on the list of coaches you’d least like to play for in The Athletic’s player poll at 4th.
Why he likely won’t and probably shouldn’t be fired this season
At least for now, even with these cons laid out, I don’t believe McMillan should lose his job and I doubt Kevin Pritchard is even thinking much about it. Unless there’s more to McMillan not joining the Team USA staff this summer than “scheduling conflicts.” Pritchard has long been a huge fan of his coach since their Portland days and last season was nearly brought to tears in the team’s end-of-the-year press conference when he talked about how proud he was of McMillan. He’s not going anywhere after getting to the same amount of wins as the previous season without Oladipo for over half the season. The timing would be a hard sell.
If the Pacers are going to cut him loose, they’d have to have someone in mind to replace him. Is that guy out there right now? Is there an assistant somewhere in the league that is ready for the chance to become a head coach? Coaches that are great at both Xs and Os and managing the locker room seem hard to come by. McMillan checks enough boxes to make him a good coach in the NBA at least in the regular season. Pritchard will have to be confident in someone new to ditch his coach after a relatively successful year.
Do you really want to start over with a new coach in Oladipo’s-return-from-injury year? Oladipo probably won’t like it much after all the coaching turnover he experienced in Orlando and how he’s thrived under McMillan.
If he’s fired, I don’t think it happens until next year. Give him at least one more season with a (hopefully) healthy roster and see what he’s able to do. If another first-round exit and poor playoff showing occurs after whatever Pritchard is able to do this summer, then it’s time to go a different direction.
However, I believe something the Pacers should look to do this season is add an assistant coach to the staff to essentially run the offense and modernize it. Similar to Dan Burke as the defensive guru, the Pacers need an offensive one. Perhaps the coach recently cast off from the Suns, Igor Kokoskov, would be interested. He reportedly had issues controlling the locker room at times so he may be better suited as an assistant in the NBA. Even with a poor roster in Phoenix, he showed a lot of creativity in his offensive sets.