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Three ways Nate McMillan coached Pacers to impressive season

There is plenty to appreciate about Nate McMillan coaching the Pacers to maximize their potential this season.

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NBA: Indiana Pacers at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Based on the consensus NBA review of the regular season and various media exposing their thoughts on post-season awards, Nate McMillan won’t have to put any remarks together to accept the NBA Coach of the Year award. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t win the award. He played a big role in the team’s surprising season with a CoY-level effort on the Pacers’ bench.

There were three areas in particular where McMillan’s impact on the Pacers was most apparent. For starters, he adjusted the style of play for a new roster and the results exceeded expectations. Speaking of that new roster, he had to manage a lot of change, with six new faces in the playing rotation which included a new leading man in Victor Oladipo.

Finally, he was able to keep all of the new faces on the same page in their various roles without putting them in a rotation rut. That included Lance Stephenson, whose emotional play can both dictate a winning effort or distract drastically from the task at hand. Suffice it to say, there were no drastic problems with Lance throughout the regular season (talk to me after a playoff series with LeBron).

Put it all together and this how McMillan was able to get the most out of his team, most of which had nothing to do with technical X’s and O’s, but instead exceptional management of people.

Play early, play late

National NBA analysis of the Pacers often looks at the team’s standing in pace (24th in NBA) and determine the Pacers are boring to watch, failing to mention they are fifth in the league (and first in the East) in fast break points per game. Nate McMillan preaches playing early and playing late and those numbers tell you his team is following his lead quite well.

The idea is to get the best shot possible and with the speed on this team, grabbing a rebound (or steal) and going can certainly create a great shot at the rim or open look on the perimeter. Option one is to push in transition (play early) and hunt for that quality scoring opportunity.

If the transition options dry up without a good shot, then it is time to play late. Work the half-court offense by moving the ball to create a quality shot anywhere on the court AND in the process, force the opponent to expend energy playing defense for a good chunk of the shot clock. The starting unit is built real well to play this way and when they do so with a lead, it can be magical.

Managing new faces and new star

The execution the Pacers showed throughout the year is even more impressive when you consider McMillan had to manage six key players in the rotation who were not with the team last year. On top of that, Victor Oladipo emerged as the new star of the franchise which was apparent from the time he arrived at the Fieldhouse for preseason work.

Oladipo’s emergence is often cited as a reason McMillan’s impact as the coach should be minimized but again, that theory whiffs hard. Oladipo didn’t just show up and take over. McMillan and Oladipo spent time together before and during the season going through film, making sure both saw the same things to work through how to best utilize Vic’s skill on the floor. Those film sessions with McMillan played a big part in Oladipo’s success on the floor and also made it easier for the new star to preach from the same page while becoming a leader in the locker room.

But the Pacers were 0-7 without Vic. While that fact highlights Dipo’s value, it also exposes the small margin for error this team played with (and won much more than they lost with) all season. They were 11-2 in games decided by three points or less, quite often executing down the stretch to make a small lead stick for the W. Plus, a closer look at those seven games, which includes the throwaway last game of the year, only the losses to Dallas and Chicago stand out as games the Pacers most-likely would have won.

Simply put, this team was ready, willing and able to play to win — just like their coach.

Managing issues, egos and, well, Lance

One thing that stood out early in the season was McMillan’s willingness to mix and match rotation pieces and ride with what was working in a particular game. With the new faces and sporadic injuries, he never fell into a regimented rotation with similar minutes doled out to the same players. If Myles Turner was struggling, Domas Sabonis often played more minutes and finished games. Darren Collison, Corey Joseph and Lance Stephenson all finished games at various times based on their production. Sometimes McMillan went small, sometimes big but much of it was determined by how a game was playing out on the court.

McMillan also had to work in Trevor Booker and Glenn Robinson III over the last two months of the season and now heads into the playoffs with a reserve rotation that can go small with Booker at center and let GRIII create mismatch issues if he has it going. The culture of this team and chemistry among the players, led by Thaddeus Young and Oladipo, always puts the team first and allows McMillan to make personnel decisions that won’t create dissension. It is now well established that if you keep working, your opportunity will come and if you produce, the minutes will extend. Pretty simply, really.

Handling Lance Stephenson deserves separate mention because his impact on the game can vary so greatly from one night to the other and all of his emotions are laid bare on the floor. McMillan has handled that balancing act with Lance magnificently this year. Even when he’s rolling, usually at the Fieldhouse, Lance can cross the line after getting himself and the crowd overhyped. McMillan is always aware of the line and let’s Lance know when to simmer down or if needed, take a seat. When Lance doesn’t have it, he just doesn’t play as much and again, Lance knows his minutes are tied to effort, execution and production. He wants to play all 48 minutes but understands his role and has become a valuable part of the rotation that is often tough for opponents to handle.

So, yeah, McMillan had a fantastic year coaching the Pacers even if other more media-friendly coaches get more credit for having comparable impact. You surely won’t hear McMillan complain since, much like the team he’s guiding, his concerns are with his team and what they control, not with any subjective individual awards. All he has to do is point to the scoreboard since along with handling all of the human interaction factors mentioned above, his team far out-performed expectations.

Here’s the updated NBA over/under wins scoreboard based on the Westgate SuperBook over/under wins numbers prior to the season. Not only were the Pacers the first to crush their over, they exceeded the number more than any other team and it wasn’t close. McMillan won’t have any hardware to show for his efforts this season, but he should have the full appreciation of Pacers fans for his part in making this a memorable season for the Blue and Gold.