Sports

It’s time to put some ‘respek’ on Nate McMillan’s name, as the Indiana Pacers should have

The Pacers did Nate McMillan wrong.
Image: AP

A legitimate Woj Bomb dropped last night.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Indiana Pacers’ first-year head coach Nate Bjorkgren is already at odds with some team members, ending the offseason with his future in question.

“Amid a year of difficulties with players and staff, Indiana Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren’s future with the franchise is uncertain as the regular season nears an end, sources told ESPN,” Woj reported.

Woj continued: “Bjorkgren has work to do on relationships with key players in his locker room, sources tell ESPN, and has thus far shown a willingness within the organization to try to address those issues.”

Bjorkgren, a former assistant with the championship-winning Toronto Raptors of 2019, currently leads a 30-34 Pacers club that is ninth in the Eastern Conference with eight games remaining, and will likely remain in a Play-In slot. It’s a disappointment considering where the Pacers found themselves earlier this season, 11-7 on January 28. They’re currently on pace to have the franchise’s worst winning percentage since 2014-15, with the possibility of going back even further to at least 2010-11.

Meanwhile, even though the Pacers accumulated a 183-136 regular-season record and four straight playoff trips between 2016 and 2020, they fired the head coach who helped get them there: Nate McMillan.

McMillan, who was brought in as a top assistant on the Hawks coaching staff this season, saved Atlanta’s 2020-21 season, one it entered with actual expectations for a change. Lloyd Pierce, the previous Hawks head coach, was fired following a 14-20 season start, despite myriad injuries, right after the conclusion of Black History Month. Would the Hawks have hired another white guy instead of promoting McMillan if this had taken place in the offseason? Who knows, to be honest. But McMillan and his 16 years of head coaching experience were thrust into the role, and all he’s done is lead the team to a 22-10 record since.

The Hawks haven’t been at least a .500 team since the 2016-17 season, where their 43-39 record and .524 winning percentage most recently brought them into the playoffs. McMillan has been above .500 for all three teams he’s coached, has a career regular-season record of 683-598 and counting, and has had a winning record coaching in 11-of-16 seasons. This will be 12-of-17, since the Hawks are 36-30 with six games left. (And the 683 regular-season wins are the 20th most in NBA history!)

What will be held against McMillan is his playoff record, which is 17-36. (Only 51 of the 337 head coaches in NBA history have at least a .500 postseason record.) McMillan was also 3-16 in the four playoff trips with the Pacers, but there’s nuance required in order to make a genuine assessment.

In year one, the seventh-seeded Pacers were swept by the eventual 2017 Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers, who were the No. 2 seed. The Pacers jumped from 42 to 48 wins in 2017-18, led by Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo, and pushed the No 4. seed Cavs (again, eventual NBA finalists) to seven games. In 2018-19, the Pacers won 48 wins again, earning a five seed again, but were swept by the Celtics in Round 1. However, on January 23, Oladipo suffered a ruptured quad tendon, and the Pacers — who jumped out to a 32-15 start — went 16-19 the rest of the season with Bojan Bogdanović as their leading scorer.

Then last season was especially perilous. The Pacers had their highest winning percentage (.616) since their 2013-14 team, and that was despite Oladipo playing just 19 games while less than 100 percent, equating to the least productive basketball of his career. Additionally, the team’s All-Star, Domantas Sabonis, never played in The Bubble due to a foot injury. I dunno; maybe not having your best two players, one at less than 100 percent and one not at all, is essential?

But nah, McMillan was fired, and replaced by a Raptors assistant because everyone is trying to get that Nik Nurse juice. Despite being a four-seed last year, they were underdogs against the Miami Heat, who reached the NBA Finals weeks later. McMillan probably won’t win Coach of the Year, but he should get some recognition for the work he’s done. Trae Young is not even as good as this season as he was last year. De’Andre Hunter, who made a leap early in the season, has only played 20 games. Bogdan Bogdanović, who is surprisingly unrelated to the aforementioned Bojan, has jumped up to 20 points per game on 49 / 47 / 88 shooting splits in his last 24 games after only posting 8.5 points per contest on 36 / 31 / 92 beforehand. Kris Dunn, who was supposed to be a meaningful signing this offseason, has only been limited to three games due to injury. And we’ve seen improvements in Clint Capela, Kevin Huerter, and even John Collins, though his counting stats aren’t as gaudy as usual.

Sometimes, going from your ex to your next is a step up, but other times… what’s best for you is getting that old thang back.

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