Nate McMillan and the Pacers’ Culture of Good Enough

Welcome back to Pacers Tuesday, here for another season on Pace and Space!

We begin this season with a reminder that unlike Pacers and Pacers-adjacent media, I am not here for Nate McMillan as the coach. I have written more than once about McMillan’s commitment to Dark Ages basketball, his aversion to the 3-pointer, and his tendency to get outcoached even by objectively lousy coaches like Tyronn Lue in the playoffs.

But Pacers media loves the guy. Pacers media has always loved the guys who at best coach the team to a high-40s win total and a first-round playoff exit and treat those seasons like they’re a runaway success.

Have these same people forgotten that this is a franchise that used to strive for better than that? As recently as 2014 they made back to back Eastern Conference Finals before falling in valiant defeat to a superteam led by perennial Pacers nemesis LeBron James.

Nate McMillan is not Larry Bird or Rick Carlisle or even Frank Vogel out there. Yet he gets more credit than he deserves for a team that, at the end of the day, goes fishing in April.

After McMillan got pantsed by Lue in the first round in 2018 with a team that should have won that series in six, it was the perfect opportunity for Pacers management to gently let Nate go, giving the whole stale platitudes “franchise moving in a new direction” speech to the media, then hiring someone like Kevin McHale or Mike Budenholzer (yeah, we could’ve had Coach Bud, the guy who turned Milwaukee from a perennial underachiever into a 60-win team overnight) or any other analytics-oriented coach in college or the G-League.

Instead, Nate got a four-year extension from his best bud from back in Portland, good ol’ Pacers president of basketball operations and possible Scott-Hollins Syndrome sufferer (consider what he’s said about big men in today’s game) Kevin Pritchard.

And the media points out that yes, the Pacers won 48 games despite Victor Oladipo getting wiped out halfway through the season, but at the same time, that’s a Pacers team that choked away home court in the first round by going 4-9 to close the regular season and, including playoffs, losing six in a row to the Celtics in March and April alone.

Dave Joerger (speaking of guys the Pacers could’ve had this offseason if they’d let Nate go) got run out of Memphis for collapses like that.

In the preseason, there are signs that Nate knows he has to evolve to keep up with the game today. He’s running sets with Myles Turner spacing the floor on offense and giving Domantas Sabonis room to work in the low post like a low-rent Giannis Antetokounmpo (which considering Sabonis’ 74.1 shooting within three feet of the rim, isn’t that far off of a comparison, one of scale rather than of kind.)

In the preseason game that immediately preceded this article going live, we even saw someone finally finding Doug McDermott for the open corner 3 a time or two, something Tyreke Evans infamously failed to do with alarming constancy in favor of instead charging into the lane to miss a layup in traffic.

But on the other hand, in the two games in India, the Pacers’ 3PAR was under 30 percent because same old Nate.

Watching this season unfold, it’s hard to be enthusiastic knowing that the coach will find a way to mess it up.

Nate has injury-prone players (Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Oladipo when he comes back) and yet just watch as he plays his regular rotation for 46 minutes in a game Indiana wins by 20. “Garbage time” is a foreign concept to McMillan, and that kind of wear and tear with no rest even when earned in decisive victory is how injuries happen in today’s league.

I’m not saying he should punt back-to-backs like everyone on the team is Kawhi Leonard, but it’s hard to believe that Brogdon and Warren won’t both suffer major injuries during a time in the game when they should be cheering on the young guys and castoffs with the game in hand.

Pacers media loves the guy. When I saber-rattle on Twitter about “fire Nate”, I get a couple of guys who are diehard Pace and Space readers and preach the same gospel I’m preaching on here about Nate being mired in the Dark Ages and needing to be shut out of coaching jobs…and I get blue-check Pacers media guys telling me I’m full of it without considering the numbers I lay out in the case for firing him.

McMillan can’t win in the playoffs. In his career as a coach, he’s got just one first-round playoff series win, in 2005 when his Seattle SuperSonics beat a Sacramento Kings team that was not only the lower seed (Sacramento was the 6 seed that year) but was well past its championship-contender window from three years earlier.

Every other time a McMillan-coached team has made the playoffs? First-round exit. Those Portland teams he had should’ve beaten somebody. His 2009 squad had home court, won 54 regular-season games, and got waxed in six games by the Rockets. The next year, they lost to the Suns. Year after that, the eventual-champion Mavericks. Then the lockout happened, the losing record happened, and Nate got fired.

We’re seeing that same thing happen in Indiana, following Nate like a curse in a Halloween horror flick.

But for Pacers media, “good enough” seems to be just fine by them. It threatens to create a culture of mediocrity in a franchise that’s supposed to be competing for titles the way they’ve done on multiple occasions when they peaked at the wrong time—there’s only so much you can do about LeBron James and Michael Jordan, and whoever let Isiah Thomas coach those teams during the butt end of Reggie Miller‘s career needs to never work in an NBA front office again.

The Pacers will probably have a fine season. Vegas has them down for 48.5 wins (although I’m forecasting more like 42-46).

They’ll make the playoffs…and then Milwaukee or Boston or Philadelphia will send them packing in the first round.

At that point, Nate needs to be fired. And if Kevin Pritchard won’t do it, they need to fire him too and let Kelly Krauskopf run the franchise as the first woman president of basketball operations.

Because “good enough” isn’t good enough.

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