Pacers go old-school, seek accountability in promoting Nate McMillan to head coach

Nate McMillan was named Pacers head coach on May 16, 2016.

Nate McMillan was named Pacers head coach on May 16, 2016.

He just completed his third year on the Pacers bench, but not once have we ever seen him jump on a player or erupt with emotion. That’s because he’s been one seat down from the lead position of head coach.

Can Nate McMillan be a fiery guy as the leader of this team for the foreseeable future? You bet he can.

“Oh yes,” Pacers General Manager Kevin Pritchard said with a grin. “Behind the scenes. I think he does it right in that he never wants to publicly embarrass anybody. I’ve seen him in the locker room. He’s stern, strong, and to the point.”

Over the weekend, team president Larry Bird worked fast in interviewing McMillan and then offering him the role as this franchise’s next head coach.

It was nearly two weeks ago when Bird announced that they would not retain Frank Vogel as head coach after five and half seasons. After 31 wins and five playoffs appearances, including two stretching to the conference finals only to fall short to LeBron James’ Miami Heat.

[Paul George thanks Frank Vogel, calls him ‘one of the most influential men’ in his life]

Larry Bird was clearly unhappy with the way his team finished Game 5. [Photo: @CBSSportsNBA]

Larry Bird was clearly unhappy with the way his team finished Game 5. [Photo: @CBSSportsNBA]

That signaled a change in the attitude, the approach, and the accountability of the team.

Where does Bird, who has publicly stated his desire for more accountability in the locker room for several years now, want to see improvement?

“I think (in) our practice habits; I think respecting one another little more,” he explained. “There’s a lot that goes into it but everyone has got to be held accountable, not just one or two guys. Everyone on the team, they’re all important. You don’t have team unless you have everyone pulling together and I think the coach is the guy who sets the tone for it and you treat everyone basically the same.

“… It’s not like you got to get up in players’ faces anymore and yell and scream, but you do have to have control and you do have to have their attention. And I’m sure Nate will have that.”

This is McMillan’s third time being a head coach in the NBA, a league he played in for 12 seasons (1986-98) with one franchise, the Seattle SuperSonics. Two years later, he coached that franchise for five seasons, and then Portland for seven more.

In his almost 12 seasons as head coach — he was fired after 43 games in 2012 — his teams reached the postseason in five of 11 years. He won a playoff series just once, in 2005. So it’s been some time. Experience is on his size, having coached 930 games and served as an assistant for USA Basketball for three gold medals.

He’ll have his motivation stories, too.

“I saw Kobe in 2008, his routine of getting stretching, weight training, going to the gym, getting up his shots, coming back to the breakfast the meeting and then going back to the arena for practice,” McMillan shared shortly after being hired in July, 2013. “And, he did all of this before noon.”

In the year and half or so before being hired by Vogel as his top aid, McMillan spent time to learn from other elite coaches and to enhance his knowledge of the game. He traveled to Duke, North Carolina and NC State. He observed practices at Boston, Denver and Dallas. Later, he interviewed for head coaching positions with Atlanta, Detroit, and Milwaukee, and he had a phone conversation with the Clippers.

But McMillan, who’ll turn 52 before the season in August, wasn’t sure if he would be a head coach again. That was mostly due to what was brought up probably a dozen times on Monday, his old-school approach. So many teams had been looking to fill their vacancy with a rising, young assistant who geeked out on analytics but may not have had the experience.

AUDIO: Listen to the full 29-minute press conference with Bird and McMillan

McMillan took part in a celebrity softball game last June.

McMillan took part in a celebrity softball game last June.

Since replacing Brian Shaw on the Pacers’ bench in a basketball-centric role with less responsibilities than a head coach, McMillan took a risky approach — wait and see.

“The past three years, I’ve had one interview and I haven’t had my agent out there pursuing jobs because I felt like if you liked what I did, then you would call me,” McMillan said after the press conference. “I pursued the two teams that called me. Sacramento called during the season and asked Larry for permission to speak with me and when I came back from Sacramento, Indiana called me and pursued me.

“… He’s a little bit old-school and so am I. It needed to fit for me to pursue it and accept it and I thought with this team, I’ve seen this team, I’ve worked with this team for the past three years, I know what Larry wants. We as a coaching staff, working with Frank, we’ve been right in it for three years.”

The Pacers didn’t complete a typical search for a head coach. It at least has the appearance that Bird knew McMillan was there along.

“We knew the list,” Pritchard said to a handful of reporters after the press conference. “We had talked about, it seems like ad nauseam, who the coaches were out there. As soon as there’s a change, everyone in the world calls you. So you know the list. The list isn’t secretive.

“To coach Paul George, that’s pretty special for any coach. There was a lot.”

Finally, for the first time last Friday, Bird got with McMillan for a formal interview where they talked basketball strategies and McMillan’s approach to leading a team.

“Assistants don’t talk to upper management, unless they’re called up there,” McMillan emphasized as I was shocked those two hadn’t talked hoops on flights, at practice or just around the Fieldhouse.

That was the first time Bird knew for sure McMillan wanted to be a head coach again. (Bird later called two Pacers players, one of whom is surely Paul George, to discuss McMillan as their coach.)

“After finding out that he was going to Sacramento in search of a head-coaching job, it made it pretty easy for me to ask Kevin Pritchard a lot of questions and spend a lot of time with Kevin and found out we had our man right here.”

Pritchard worked for the Trail Blazers for a half-dozen years and was the GM from 2007-10 during injury-riddle seasons featuring top pick Greg Oden and Brandon Roy.

“He told me the pros and some of the cons,” Bird said of Pritchard. “The positives outweighed the negatives by a large margin.”

While coaching the Trail Blazers, McMillan picked up the reputation for being too hard on players.

“I always felt like early on we needed that,” Pritchard said. “We needed an old-school guy to come in and put our principles in. What we’re about: Playing hard, playing smart, and playing together. Nate will do that from day one.”

“I’ve learned a lot,” McMillan added, when asked about what he takes away from his last stint as head coach.

“I think my approach will be a little different than it was back in 2005. It seems like when I started with the Blazers was so long ago but things have changed. The players have changed. How you coached these plays has changed and I think the biggest thing is being able to adapt.

“There is a lot of old-school in me and I won’t lose all of that. But I do understand that you do have to adapt to this generation of players. They call them the ‘millenniums’ as far as you communicate with them, prepare them, and that’s something that we started talking about when I was with USA Basketball, Coach K and his staff.”

Fans can expect a McMillan-coached team to mentally and physically come to play hard every night.

“Every single night,” he stressed. “Once you come back and you start the season, you’re totally committed to doing the things you need to do to perform.”

McMillan works with Mahinmi on free throws after a practice.

McMillan works with Mahinmi on free throws after a practice.

Sensing a theme here? Again, it all goes back to accountability.

“If you’re supposed to be somewhere and do something, do it,” McMillan said. “It’s not rocket science. If you’re supposed to be somewhere and you’re supposed to do it, then do it. If not, then we’ll address it. We’re working to make sure that the Pacers get the best from us. Point blank.

“Nobody’s bigger than anyone. It’s about how do we work together, meaning the coaching staff and the players, to perform out there in our highest level and get it done. We will do what’s necessary to make sure that we are getting that. Holding them accountable, I got to make sure I’m No. 1 in making sure that I’m doing the right thing.

Ultimately, it’s going to come down to the team Bird fields for McMillan to coach. This past season under Vogel, the Pacers slightly overachieved winning 45 games and pushing the Toronto Raptors, a team now in the Eastern Conference Finals, to seven games in the playoffs. They have two key pieces in George and Myles Turner but this team needs more.

A true point guard, a stretch-4 (Bird and McMillan both believe Turner is best at center), and reliable bench. McMillan is the new voice Bird was seeking, but he’s going to need a roster boost to take this team to new levels.

See Also: Pacers 2016 pre-draft workout attendees

“I believe in Nate,” Bird said. “I liked the job he did in Portland. I like his demeanor. I like the old-school. I like that players will be held accountable. I like structure.

“I’ve always admired Nate from afar and that’s one of the reasons it didn’t take me long to make my decision about him.”

First Call

After accepting Bird’s offer over the weekend to become the 15th coach in franchise history, McMillan’s first call was to … Frank Vogel. They talked for nearly an hour.

“We talked about a lot of things and I told him that I have been offered the position and he was really excited for me,” McMillan told me. “I’ve heard that he endorsed me in that situation. I wanted to thank him for the opportunity that he gave me to work with him. We talked about a lot of things throughout the three years, just as we did this weekend.

Vogel endorsing McMillan for the job he previously held and tried to fight to keep? Yeah, that sounds like him. Total class.

Um, Awkward

The Pacers current and former head coaches are both share represented by Lonnie Cooper of CSE. That could make for awkward negotiations, right? Moving on from one and wanting to hire another. So I asked Pritchard how it all went down.

While he worked the phone and communicated with agents, as usual, it was actually Bird who worked with Cooper.

“The one thing I know is Larry does things right,” Pritchard said. “When Frank was not retained, we got in a room and we put up our list. And part of that list was Nate and then Nate is being represented by Lonnie so he made a call to Lonnie. We had a Chinese Wall and we knew what it was.

“Larry went to him after the fact that Frank wasn’t retained. And there was a gap in there.”

Quote of Note

Larry Bird: “In this situation, I think because Frank (Vogel) was well-liked, I think he had some success here. We didn’t butt heads too much but I do think our offense was stagnated at times.”

It wasn’t a secret that Vogel wasn’t Bird’s guy and that they disagreed at times.

This was a strange note because it was part of his response to whether Bird talked with any other candidates and if he got any feedback from players on hiring McMillan. In addition to answering the question, he mentioned his coaching history, Vogel, and how Dan Burke has led the defense for decades.

One Response to Pacers go old-school, seek accountability in promoting Nate McMillan to head coach
  1. […] When the Pelicans were in Indianapolis earlier this year, I spoke with Jamelle about growing up in and NBA family and choosing to remain in it. Also, he said he didn’t even consider or ask Nate about joining his staff last summer when he was promoted to Pacers head coach. […]

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