A couple of weeks ago, the Indiana Pacers gave Nate McMillan a one-year extension on his contract as a coach, which set off a rash of Michael Scott memes, F-bombs, and plaintive repetitions of the word “why” in a desperate tone previously reserved only for Nancy Kerrigan’s Skyrim guard moment at the hands of Tonya Harding’s goons in 1993.
Fun coincidence: The 1993-94 season, Nate McMillan led the league in steals despite only starting eight games and made Second Team All-Defensive; McMillan, for his career, is third all-time in steal percentage behind Alvin Robertson and Pacers broadcaster Quinn Buckner. In fact, when I was in high school in the early ’90s, I modeled my game on McMillan’s play—he was one of my favorite athletes. But I digress.
If you’ve read this site at all, you know the animosity I’ve had toward McMillan the coach. He has failed every statistical test this site has to evaluate coaching ability and broken every rule of good basketball in the era from which this site takes its name.
He was so thoroughly outcoached by Erik Spoelstra that the sweep in the Bubble Playoffs was all but a foregone conclusion.
In terms of D’Antoni Index—this site’s metric to measure a team’s ability to get three-pointers, shots near the rim, and force its way to the free throw line, the hallmark of efficient basketball that is named after the current coach of the Houston Rockets for a reason—McMillan leads only Gregg Popovich, a guy who gets a pass for having won five championships but whose coaching style is the biggest reason the Spurs missed the playoffs this year, the game having passed him by.
Defensively, McMillan benefited from having Dan Burke—a guy who if this were the NFL, would rate right up there with guys like Wade Phillips and Buddy Ryan in the greatest defensive coordinators ever role—as the architect of Indiana’s top-tier defensive strategy.
Burke’s been around so long that he was coaching defensive principles on those Pacers teams that made the Eastern Conference Finals and led the league in Defensive Rating in 2013 and ’14. Indiana rated sixth in defense this year and third last season. The new regime should keep him around in that role, just let him coach the defense as he always has.
But offensively? What a train wreck. Under McMillan, the Pacers have been 15th, 11th, 18th, and 19th in Offensive Rating, and it speaks volumes about just how good the team is in terms of personnel that they’ve even been that good. If guys like Bojan Bogdanovic, Victor Oladipo, and T.J. Warren had been let off the leash to actually shoot 3-pointers the way modern teams do, it’s hard not to see the last two years giving Indiana at least a two-point boost in Offensive Rating purely based on the idea that three is more than two…and even that conservative estimate of improved offensive performance moves Indiana from 18th and 19th up to 11th and tied for 11th respectively.
From three or four places below league average to three or four places above it is monumental, and that’s assuming just two points of offense per 100 possessions from having a better coach.
Considering the Pacers’ woeful 3PAR (29th in 2019 ahead of only the Spurs, dead last this year), there’s room enough in the Pacers’ shot chart to change fully one-third of their long twos into threes, something that would change eight shots a game into 3-pointers at a make rate sufficient to generate closer to 2.7 points?
Well, now you’re talking an Offensive Rating that would have tied for eighth in 2019 and ranked seventh this year.
Give a team with a top-6 defense a top-8 offense and that’s a conference finalist at worst. Teams have won championships with worse than that.
And therein lies the Achilles heel of the Pacers; they have, going all the way back to when Frank Vogel coached them, a mentality that kneecaps their ability to win games by handing two or three free points a game to the other team just on three-pointers alone. And that’s before we even talk about rim finishing or forcing contact.
So after presiding over a 3-16 playoff record, including the only three playoff sweeps in the entire history of the franchise, Nate McMillan has finally been shown the door, hopefully to head off to a nice retirement or a broadcasting job the way other terrible coaches like Mark Jackson have been able to do.
Oh. About that. Please, please, PLEASE, Pacers, DO NOT HIRE MARK JACKSON.
Thank you. Rant over. Nate is gone. And there was much rejoicing.