After two years in Indiana Nate McMillan has done as good of a job as you’d expect for a coach that lost three starters -- including its two top players -- between his first and second seasons.
McMillan was hired to little applause in 2016 after Larry Bird decided to dismiss Frank Vogel for dubious reasons. In his first season, the last for Paul George, McMillan won fewer games than Vogel but landed Indiana the same number seven seed like in playoffs.
It would have been easy to assume that after the Pacers traded George and let Jeff Teague walk in free agency, McMillan’s tenure in Indianapolis would be short-lived. But two things happened that changed his fortune: Victor Oladipo emerged as an All-NBA player and Kevin Pritchard replaced Bird as the Pacers’ president of basketball operations.
McMillan and Pritchard have a long history from their days of working together in Portland. They seem to have a great working relationship based on their media interactions. Listen to Pritchard get choked up during his end-of-season presser talking about McMillan’s coaching (start the video at 4:40).
With one year left on his contract, it’s not a matter of if McMillan will receive an extension but when.
When evaluating McMillan you have to look at his tenure in three tiers: his successes, his failures and whether or not a different coach could have done better.
Some of McMillan’s successes in the 2017-18 season were integrating six new players into his rotation rather seamlessly in terms of chemistry, changing his offense to fit Oladipo’s strengths and striking the right balance of pace and defense.
As the Pacers demonstrated time and time again, the locker room chemistry of this team was a world of difference compared to 2016-17’s. Some of that success goes to the veteran leadership of players like Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison, but it’s also a testament to the play style McMillan developed.
Oladipo was Indiana’s best player this past season, but no matter who was on the floor McMillan tried to get each of his players into favorable matchups.
One of the Pacers’ best plays was a screen assist which is a screen that leads directly to a scored basket.
A play like this, for example:
While this play doesn’t involve the precision or setup of a traditional assist, it takes a special kind of relationship between players to be willing to constantly put their bodies on the line by setting screens.
Indiana ranked tenth in the NBA in screen assists averaging 9.9 per game. The screen assist was a critical play in the team’s offense because of their ability to hit the pull-up two-point jumper. They shot 44.6 percent on these type of shots, ranking them third in the NBA.
McMillan deserves credit for giving his guys the freedom to take pull-up two’s, especially in the new three-point era. Originally he wanted to play fast and shoot a lot of three’s but as the season continued he learned his players’ strengths, finding the right balance of slowing the ball down enough to get the offense and defense in sync with one another.
McMillan had his flaws as a coach though. He mismanaged the Pacers’ playoff rotation when it mattered most by playing Lance Stephenson and Trevor Booker too long and Oladipo not enough.
But his biggest knock this season was the lack of development in Myles Turner. McMillan couldn’t do anything about Turner’s injuries but it always seemed like the offense didn’t fit to Turner’s style of play.
Maybe McMillan just didn’t trust Turner’s post-game or his ability to have the ball in his hands, but it seemed that Indiana would run almost no offensive plays for Turner for a considerable stretch of games.
Hopefully, that changes in the 2018-19 season because ultimately Turner’s development will be tied to McMillan’s success in Indianapolis.
He will undoubtedly receive an extension. So now the question is...for how long?