Let’s get something straight. Expecting ball-dominant scorers and plodders to compensate for leaky defense and predominantly mid-range limited shooting wasn’t of Nate McMillan’s doing. He didn’t saddle himself with an awkwardly redundant roster prior to what ended up being the most pivotal season of Paul George’s contract. However, his stubborn rotation decisions, strict adherence to peculiar defensive ethos, and unimaginative offense did, arguably, hinder his team from reaching its modest ceiling.
Therefore, because he shouldn’t be scapegoated for Larry Bird’s decisions or completely absolved of his own, here’s some suggestions for how he should approach the post-Paul George era.
Be more willing to experiment:
(Note: This has already been discussed ad nauseam, but it begs repeating for those sitting in the back.) Given the lack of wing depth on last season’s roster along with how much the double-plodder lineups struggled to defend against spread lineups, attempting to pair Georges Niang with either Al Jefferson or Kevin Seraphin should’ve been given more of a look.
Per NBA Wowy, the Miles-Jefferson tandem wasn’t a net-positive per 100 possessions (minus-1.0), but it was closer to breaking even than Allen-Jefferson (minus-10.8) or Seraphin-Jefferson (minus-4.2). Outside of further extending the minutes of Paul George and/or Thaddeus Young, Niang’s modest ability to add some space to the floor was really the only option to facilitate the bench going small.
Alas, Nate McMillan never gave it a chance.
On the season, Indiana’s aggregate bench net rating (minus-4.6) ranked 28th in the league, which means that trying an untested rookie wouldn’t have been particularly risky — even if it was a long-shot.
Despite that putrid mark, it wasn’t until Lance Stephenson’s return that McMillan f-i-n-a-l-l-y moved Aaron Brooks off-ball and opted to shorten the rotation.
Without two paint-bound bigs clogging the lane, Lance’s forceful driving game had space enough to attack the paint, find shooters on the perimeter, and unlock his bromance with Kevin Seraphin.
Over the last six games of the regular season, the Pacers outscored opponents by 25.5 points per 100 possessions with Stephenson running point and Paul George and C.J. Miles acting as interchangeable forwards alongside Brooks and Seraphin.
All of which is to say that there is value in being amenable to change. That certainly will be the case next season, when the Pacers are projected to win 10 fewer games.
Experimentation should be the natural byproduct of lessened expectations and roster turnover. Evaluate whether Domantas Sabonis is better suited to be a small-ball five or spread four. Heck, try running a switch everything lineup in tiny bursts with Stephenson at point alongside Oladipo, Robinson III, Young, and Sabonis. Check to see if T.J. Leaf can contribute here or with the Mad Ants, rather than leaving him idle on the bench all season. Maybe even give Bogdanovic an admittedly dicey look at reserve power fauxward, where he played 55 percent of his minutes last season.
Dare to be weird.
Please, don’t insist that Bojan Bogdanovic guard his position:
This defensive strategy was seen all too often last season.
Take this late-March game against the Raptors, for instance. Rather than hiding Monta Ellis on DeMarre Carroll, McMillan stubbornly opted to assign the notoriously sleepy defender to DeMar DeRozan, who in the third frame alone scored 16 points including two threes while drawing five shooting fouls.
Per the Indy Star’s Nate Taylor, the head coach’s rationale for these type of decisions was usually, “We guard our position.”
Maybe he wanted to lessen Paul George’s two-way burden. Or, perhaps he feared Monta would lose his man in transition if cross-matched. Either way, it shouldn’t have happened as often as it did, nor should it continue next season.
At least not when it comes to Bojan Bogdanovic. ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM) graded the Croatian sharpshooter’s on-court defensive impact as the worst rotation two-guard in the league last season, directly behind 37-year-old Jamal Crawford.
Put simply, his one-dimensional specialty needs to be slid over to the league’s Andre Robersons while Victor Oladipo’s more versatile athleticism takes a knack at the Paul Georges, regardless of designated position.
This was covered in last week’s preview, but it applies here as well.
With eight new players added to the roster, the “...let them go and play their game” offense that Nate McMillan described at the team’s introductory press conference for Oladipo, Collison, and Sabonis needs to be more structured in the half-court.
Rather than being free flowing, Indiana’s read-based offense had a tendency to stall last season. On the whole, the Pacers played slow (18th), held the ball too much (24th), and didn’t move themselves enough within possessions (26th).
Lance Stephenson and Victor Oladipo are both more useful with the ball than without it, but that doesn’t mean it should stick in their hands without the benefit of misdirection.
Instead, try running Bogdanovic through a variety of off-ball picks to distract weak side defenders, let Robinson III set his man up for pin down screens, or make ready use of Domantas Sabonis doing the little things.
Those sorts of actions will draw attention away from the high screen and roll. Thus, making it easier for the guards to penetrate the lane and purposefully call Myles Turner’s number. One-on-one bailouts and last-ditch contested looks out of the pick and pop wouldn’t be the rule, they’d be the exception.
Nate McMillan shouldn’t be expected to drag this team to the playoffs anymore than he should be blamed for the inability of last season’s squad to consistently play with pace. When it comes to rebuilding, the number of wins he adds in the immediate isn’t as important as the degree to which he produces progress and demonstrates forward-thinking ingenuity. Moving forward, he needs to get more out of the pieces with which he’s forced to make do, not less.