When Nate McMillan was hired as the Pacers head coach few people outside their front office thought he was a good fit. President Larry Bird had just fired Frank Vogel, whose .580 win percentage was the second-highest in team history - behind only Bird himself. Bird had two justifications for firing Vogel: he believed the team needed a new voice and he wanted faster play.
McMillan had seen moderate levels of success as head coach for both Portland and Seattle. His teams have made the playoffs five times and won 50 or more games three times. But his teams never finished higher than 24th in pace of play. 2010 and 2011 were McMillan's two most successful seasons yet Portland still ranked dead last in pace of play.
What's worse is that between McMillan's last year as a head coach in 2012 and taking the Pacers job in 2016, the league has completely changed. The average pace of play in NBA in 2012 was 91.3 with teams averaging 96.3 points per game. By 2016, the average league pace was 95.8 with teams averaging 102.7 points per game.
But on May 16th, 2016 Bird ignored the seemingly glaring flaws and introduced McMillan as the Pacers next head coach. McMillan didn’t know it at the time but in his first two seasons, he would have two completely different rosters. However, at his first press conference, he gave some insight regarding how he was willing to change his coaching style.
“You hone on a system that you want to put in place,” he said. “To say what’s my style, it's based on the roster I have in place. You do have to adapt this generation of players.”
His first season with Indiana was, for lack of a better word, fine. The Pacers went 42-40 before being blown out of the playoffs by a superior Cleveland team. Despite that, it never really felt like his team. It seemed like Paul George and Bird were hovering over every decision McMillan made.
Shortly after the season, a surprise came for everyone including McMillan: Bird was retiring and Kevin Pritchard had been promoted to president. Maybe it was planned from the start when Bird hired McMillan; he had worked with Pritchard when they were in Portland together.
However, the team's biggest change came from George stating he had no future in Indiana, forcing Pritchard to trade him. In a single offseason, the Pacers lost both their president and their star player. For any other team, it would be rebuilding time.
McMillan is known for valuing consistency. In previous head coaching jobs, he ran long intense practices, earning the nickname of "Sarge" from Trail Blazers star Zach Randolph.
McMillan’s hard-working attitude can work in some situations and it has seemed to with Indiana this year. The Pacers offense has been fine-tuned by McMillan and his staff to focus on certain players in certain situations.
For instance, in fast breaks, the players always look for Bojan Bogdanovic on the wing. When things are in jam they run a pick ‘n’ roll with either Domantas Sabonis or Myles Turner and let the center lag off their defender to get an open jump shot. When the offensive is really flowing Victor Oladipo and Thaddeus Young are driving towards the rim, either dropping in floaters or layups. McMillan developed these and it's clearly worked in their favor.
For a roster that added three starters and five new rotation players in the off-season, the Pacers started off surprisingly well. Through eight games they went 5-3 with wins over both Cleveland and San Antonio. There were no apparent chemistry issues even with the return of Lance Stephenson, Indiana's locker room cancer from 2013.
There were no early signs of fatigue issues despite the Pacers dialing up the speed. It looked as if McMillan and the conditioning staff had the team on the right regimen to stay in shape.
McMillan was visibly excited at the announcement of adding Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Darren Collison. He gushed about his desire to play with a speed that he couldn’t during his first season. Finally, he had the players he needed to run a fast-paced offense.
“Look at these two guys, Darren and Victor,” McMillan said during their introductory press conference. “They play at a faster tempo. Right away I intend to let this guy go and play their games, we want to be aggressive.”
Indiana is aggressive on both ends of the floor. They aren't afraid to shoot early in the shot clock if they have a good look. They are sixth in the league in these shots with 16 per game. They are always looking to score easy points off turnovers, making them sixth in the league with 18.8 points per game.
The Pacers also lead the NBA by making 43.7 percent of their pull shots, including 40.3 percent of their pull-up threes. Watch Oladipo, who's shooting 46.3 percent on pull-up threes:
On the defensive end, two Pacer players are in the league's top ten in deflections. Thaddeus Young is second in the league with 3.6 per game, and Oladipo is ninth with 3.0. Just watch them go to work early in the game against the Magic:
Oladipo has clearly been the X-factor to the Pacers success. He’s been able to fill George’s void with better shooting and around the same amount points per game. But McMillan has clearly built an offense to play into Oladipo’s strengths of speed and ability to make plays going to the rim.
Oladipo’s player efficiency rating (PER) last season was 13.62; through this current season, it is 22.67. The real difference though is Oladipo’s coachability versus George’s. McMillan was never George’s guy and it was hard for him to buy into a new offense. You could constantly see George fall back into playing his old style.
On the other hand, you can see McMillan's coaching all over Oladipo. He has clearly told the now current front-runner of “Most Improved Player” to push the ball no matter what happens on the defensive. By using this tactic Oladipo is able to make easy layups against unset defenses.
After losing four straight games early in the season, McMillan said the Pacers' problem was slowing down in the fourth quarter. They took that statement to heart and quickly changed the style of play. Since that fourth loss, the Pacers have won seven of their last ten games.
McMillan certainly hasn’t done it alone and has been put in a great position by Pritchard. But clearly, the two men worked together to construct this roster. So far there is not a single Pacer playing below expectations. Bogdanovic, Oladipo and Sabonis are all averaging career highs in points. Turner is close to a career high in points and Collison is averaging a career high in assists. McMillan’s new offense and coaching scheme might just be the tide that raises all boats.