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Why one past regret could inform on Nate McMillan’s future coaching style

McMillan has been mum about his plans for the 2016-17 Indiana Pacers, but one rotation decision he regrets from his time in Portland speaks volumes.

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NBA: Indiana Pacers-Press Conference Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

As pivotal as Myles Turner’s development will be in determining the height of his team’s ceiling next season, the whole house of that of 2016-17 Indiana Pacers will only be as sturdy as its foundation and architect, new head coach Nate McMillan. This is because the subsoil that the house rests upon, Indiana’s talent-over-function roster, has the very real potential to be vulnerable to scour and erosion if the new build is not constructed both properly and creatively.

Barring the highly unlikely last-minute acquisition of a starting-caliber sharp shooter, the Pacers will have to rely heavily upon outrunning opponents to compensate for their potentially leaky defense and suddenly dwindling supply of off-ball threats. The Pacers have a slew of speedy guards to tip the odds of this risky proposition in their favor, but being fleet of foot is of limited benefit when defenders are free to converge on drivers and there is only one basketball to satisfy the needs of multiple backcourt players more effective off the bounce than the catch.

Using Monta Ellis as the second unit’s primary ball-handler and inserting C.J. Miles into the starting lineup to open up driving lanes and pry defenders away from Paul George seems logical. However, even this solution has its pitfalls. Miles has proven himself prone to extended shooting slumps, and pairing Ellis with Rodney Stuckey would likely only serve as an invitation for opponents to clog the paint and double Al Jefferson.

Adding Aaron Brooks, who shot 35 percent from three last season with the Chicago Bulls, should reduce the likelihood of the reserve backcourt becoming a thorn in Jefferson’s side. Nevertheless, the savvy post scorer would be best served, as was the case alongside Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky in Charlotte, if his frontcourt partner isn’t someone who will take up space on the opposing low block, where as it so happens Thaddeus Young’s gritty game thrived alongside Brook Lopez.

Yet again, this is easier said than done. Turner possesses the ability to spread the floor, but more minutes next to Jefferson means less time spent playing at center, the position Bird and company see as his best position long-term.

Georges Niang showed flashes of potential as a pick-and-pop shooter and versatile playmaker at the Orlando Pro Summer League. Still, leapfrogging him over Lavoy Allen, who started 28 games last season, assumes that the 50th overall pick will be rotation-ready in his first season as a pro, which is certainly possible but not necessarily probable.

Given that the roster’s fit is not particularly clean, McMillan’s ingenuity will arguably be as much, or more, crucial than Turner’s growth as a defender.

Rightfully so, Indiana’s new hire has been reluctant to divulge what system he plans to implement when training camp opens in September; instead, making it clear that the team’s style of play will be based upon the roster rather than any predetermined decisions.

Paul George echoed a similar sentiment while disregarding the notion that McMillan’s teams in Portland, which were among the slowest in the league in terms of pace, would be predictive of his coach’s success with the Pacers, “Back then, (McMillan) coached to what his team’s style was,” the two-way star told Sean Highkin of ProBasketballTalk. “You had Brandon Roy who was one of the best guards at the time, LaMarcus Aldrdige who was young and was a post player trying to find his way, so he kind of tailored that team towards them. I don’t think he’s going to look at it as, how he coached the Trail Blazers. He’s going to coach this team for this team.”

While the 2016-17 Pacers and 2005-06 through 2011-12 Trail Blazers are obviously unique unto themselves, it is possible that a past regret from Portland’s 2010-2011 season, which McMillan has long-harbored, could inform on how he goes about making future playing time decisions in Indiana.

“As I look back on it now, if I would have done anything different, I would have kept Nic (Nicolas Batum) in the starting lineup,” McMillan told OregonLive’s Jeff Freeman upon his first return to the Moda Center after being hired by the Indiana Pacers as Frank Vogel’s assistant. “Wallace wanted to go in the lineup, and I ended up trying to make that work. But I felt like Nic and Wesley (Matthews) were the right wings for us — and I think right now it’s showing that they’re the right wings. If I had that, to do it over again, I wouldn’t have done that. Nic was the future.”

There are no easy fixes for Indiana’s potential roster problems, but some of the possible remedies may require sacrifice on the part of one or more established veterans.

Back in 2011, McMillan, whose “Sarge” nickname was on the brink of becoming more of an insult than term of endearment, was caught between the rock and the hard place of wanting to do what was best for the future of the team on the court and needing to placate sulking veterans to avoid losing the locker room.

Here, (well, at least for the next three seasons) the expectation is that things will begin differently than they ended in Portland. When Vogel wasn’t retained, the old school in McMillan was part of the reason Bird hired him.

“I like the job he did in Portland. I like his demeanor. I like the old school and I like the players to be held accountable. I like structure. I like a lot of things that Nate brings to the table,” Bird told the Indy Star’s Candace Buckner. “Not saying that Frank didn’t have them, but I’ve always admired Nate from afar and that’s one of the reasons why it didn’t take me long to make my decision about him.”

So, what type of house will Nate McMillan build?

Big or small, rest assured that, this go-around, it will be designed by the specifications of his blueprint, not by the appeasement of a few potentially unhappy tenants.