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Farewell To Nate, Now What?

Chris Hafner's excellent post on Nate McMillan is fully reproduced, courtesy of the author.

Ironically, I was driving to Portland tonight when, after switching
the radio away from the Mariners being pounded by the Royals, the
broadcast of the Seattle Storm being devastated by the Phoenix
Mercury was interrupted by the news that Nate McMillan is leaving
the Sonics after being drafted by the team 19 years ago to be the
new Trailblazers head coach.

Even hours later, I'm still a bit in shock - this is news that I
totally didn't expect. I expected Nate to flirt with the Blazers and
use any offer from them as a bargaining chip - not to actually sign
with them.

As I'm beginning to come out of shock, I find that I'm juggling a
bunch of emotions. I'm going to try to sort them out here.

GRATITUDE
Nate's time as a player and/or coach in Seattle had to come to an
end sometime. All coaches eventually move on (with the evident
exception of Jerry Sloan), and rarely are the circumstances pretty.

So really, this opportunity is no worse than any other to recognize
Nate's role in the last two decades of this franchise. Nate was
never a star, but his heady, intelligent play, his tough defense,
and his hustle made him an important contributor from the beginning
right through to the end of his career. It's easy to overlook the
job he did mentoring Gary Payton from a brash and unpolished rookie
into a likely Hall of Famer; or to lose the fact that for most of
his career he was an underrated playmaker and a terrific defender;
or to forget that McMillan's do-everything versatility at three
positions helped the Sonics achieve great success in the mid-90s
(and was greatly missed when hobbled); or to ignore McMillan's solid
record as a young coach in coaxing success out of a rebuilding team
with a transient roster - at least until 2003-2004.

Throughout it all, he's been classy, upstanding, and an example of
what is possible for those willing to work hard. As a player and a
coach, he has embodied and demanded effort, hustle, and good
defense.

When I'm in this frame of mind, I'm happy for Nate that after a good
season and a job well-done that he's getting a very nice contract.

CONFUSION
At the same time, I just can't get over the thought - what exactly
is Nate thinking?

Nate has little patience for malcontents, a fact that has been
demonstrated time and time again with the Sonics. The Blazers roster
isn't as stocked with bad seeds as some people assert - Zach
Randolph, in particular, seems to get a bad shake - but how exactly
is McMillan going to get along with Darius Miles?

McMillan has repeatedly expressed impatience with the Sonics'
rebuilding process and has made clear his desire to win immediately.
So now, right as the fruits of that rebuilding process are ripening,
just after the team re-signed the star, a month or two removed from
taking the team to six games against the eventual champions in the
Western Conference Semi-Finals, McMillan is moving to a team
seemingly years away from serious contention?

Especially with Damon Stoudamire, Nick Van Exel, and Shareef Abdur-
Rahim seemingly out the door, the Blazers roster is almost
completely bereft of experienced players who know how to win. Most
of the players have less than three years of pro experience; many
are straight out of high school or international play and have no
significant college experience.

The Sonics last year took on the character of their leader - tough,
gritty, physical. Leaving that behind for a team seemingly years
away from that seems to fly in the face of everything McMillan
values as a coach.

CONFUSION AND DISAPPOINTMENT
We don't yet know the terms of his deal with the Blazers, and I'm
not one to criticize somebody else for opting for a larger offer -
I've never been faced with a situation of that magnitude - but while
I can't fault McMillan for opting for what is reportedly a bigger
and longer offer, and I understand that loyalty is dead in the NBA,
I can fault him for some of the early explanations he and others
have put out about his reasons for living.

It's not about the money, McMillan took great care to say through
his proxies. I have a great deal of difficulty believing that. The
fact that Portland would offer a ridiculous amount of money for
McMillan has been public knowledge for weeks. What other causes
could there be?

Respect? The Sonics offered a deal that would have made McMillan one
of the best-paid coaches in the NBA - this after only one really
good season, which followed a year in which even McMillan admitted
he coached very poorly. The Sonics allowed the top replacement
candidate - Dwane Casey - to leave and didn't negotiate with other
coaches out of respect for Nate.

The chance to make his own mark on another team? I could see this -
after all, Nate has been a Sonic for almost two decades - but why
after a season in which he finally got his coaching chops together
and got the team to play the way he wanted it? Why now?

Because he's worried about the Sonics' financial outlook? Look - the
Sonics are negotiating for a new arena deal, so their comments about
their outlook can't be taken at face value. The Sonics' willingness
to pay $80 million or thereabouts to Ray Allen and a roughly $17
million offer to McMillan should indicate that the team is willing
to spend to retain its off-season priorities.

David Locke quoted Nate as saying that one reason for the move was
that the Portland situation would be the true test of his coaching
abilities. In one way, I suppose that's true - but if that's the
logic, the Atlanta job is more hopeless, so why not go there? I
would also imagine that taking a team potentially on the cusp of
something special and actually making real contenders out of them
would be a better test of true coaching talent than helping a bunch
of unseasoned young players aim for 30-35 wins.

Nate went for the money. I'm not going to rip him for that, but if
there was anybody in pro sports who I would have expected to look
beyond the dollar signs, it would've been him. Considering the
Sonics' offer, Nate's decision is both disillusioning and
disappointing.

If any situation in pro sports calls for loyalty, it would seem this
would be one of them. How about finishing the job that was truly
started this year, Nate? How about showing some loyalty to a
franchise that would have had every right to fire you after a
terrible coaching job last season? Or showing some loyalty to a team
that had taken the time and effort to groom you as the head coach of
the future? Especially when the offered amount would still have made
you one of the top-paid coaches in the NBA?

I wouldn't normally say this about anything in pro sports, but
McMillan's decision, and both his reasoning and supposed reasoning
for it, feels a lot like a slap in the face.

DISGUST
On my drive, I already heard calls from fans who blame McMillan's
departure on management. To be honest, that type of thinking is
ridiculous knee-jerk reaction without any sort of thought behind it.

Nobody can quibble with the quality of the Sonics' offer. The fact
that the Blazers are choosing to dramatically overpay a guy without
a long pedigree of success only slightly overshadows the fact that
the Sonics' offer would have overpaid McMillan as well - just not to
the same degree.

So instead, some are choosing to criticize the Sonics for not
extending Nate's contract last summer, or even during the year (when
Nate insisted that he wanted to wait until the end of the season).

The thinking goes, "The Sonics could have had Nate last year - all
they had to do was show him they wanted him back and extend his
contract!"

Steve Kelley is one of those people - http://seattletimes.nwsource.c­
om/html/sonics/2002363919_webk­ell06.html

It's a completely moronic point, made solely with revisionist
history.

Last summer, the Sonics were coming off an incredibly disappointing
season in which McMillan's coaching was the single biggest
identifiable source of the failure. His rotations were inconsistent
and bizarre; he too frequently relied on smallball; he alienated
many of his players. Most teams would have fired McMillan after last
season; even with Nate's goodwill in Seattle and the enormous time
investment the Sonics have made in his coaching career, Nate's job
wasn't entirely secure.

Extending his contract with a lucrative multi-year deal would have
been madness - regardless of the fact that Nate followed that up
with an inspired coaching job. The same short-sighted fans who are
criticizing the Sonics now would have pilloried the team had they
extended Nate last season.

The Sonics showed more than enough loyalty to McMillan for not
firing him after a dismal season. He repaid them with a sterling
effort. There's nothing to criticize about the Sonics' decisions
last summer.

RELIEF
As much as I like Nate, I'm a bit relieved that the Sonics didn't
match Portland's offer and are committed to more than $30 million
over five years to a guy with only one really sterling season as a
coach.

It also gets the Sonics off the hook a bit. When Nate was first
hired as coach, I thought the Sonics someday would find themselves
in a difficult position. When Nate wore out his welcome - as coaches
inevitably do in today's NBA - the Sonics would be in the unenviable
position of having to fire a local legend and the popular symbol of
all that is right about the Sonics.

TRYING TO HOPE
I'm trying to get excited about the coaching candidates who could
replace Nate. I'm having a little bit of difficulty doing so. This
past season, McMillan really succeeded in passing his philosophy and
personality on to the team, and the team really responded. For a
young team still congealing into a true contender, replacing that
voice with any of the available candidates seems like a step back.

The guys who IMO should get an interview are:
* Bob Weiss
Weiss' head coaching record is far from impressive, and I don't see
him as the solution at the top, but he is the incumbent and at least
deserves a conversation.

* Paul Silas
Former Sonic Silas has his quirks, but he is good with big men, a
strong motivator, and has more success than the other leading
candidates. He's available, and his style would probably be close
enough to McMillan's to make him a nice replacement.

* Flip Saunders
Seemingly the leading candidate - he has a good reputation as a
coach and took the Timberwolves to the WCF last year. Still, I can't
put my finger on what exactly sets him apart as a coach who can take
the Sonics to the next level, and he was too married to his system
in Minnesota. His easy-going nature and seeming lack of emphasis on
defense, combined with his reliance on a superstar to bring his
teams any success, remind me uncomfortably of Paul Westphal. Still,
he's too good a candidate not to get an interview.

* Terry Porter
It would be rather symmetrical for the Blazers to be coached by an
ex-Sonics guard and the Sonics to be coached by an ex-Blazers guard,
wouldn't it? Porter did a very nice job with the Bucks in his rookie
season, and the Bucks' collapse this season had more to do with
massive injury problems than anything Porter did. He is a young
coach with potential who did well in his first shot and deserves
another.

* Eric Musselman
Musselman is a polarizing, love-him or hate-him coach - he's either
a jerk or a guy who achieved something as close to miracles with the
Warriors as possible. I'd lean towards the latter. He at least
deserves an interview.

Obviously, there are a ton of assistants in the league and coaches
outside the league who could prove to be electrifying young talent.
I won't even pretend to know who they are.

Undecided:
* Marc Iavaroni
I remember the guy as a player, but what's the big draw to him as a
head coach? He was an assistant on the coaching staff in Phoenix - a
coaching staff whose claim to fame was letting Steve Nash call all
the plays. A good decision, yes, but does being an assistant on a
laissez-faire coaching staff signify an ability to be the head guy?

Coaches I would like to see not get an interview:
* Doug Collins
I actually like Collins a fair amount - more than most, I'd imagine.
But his emotionally-fragile, frenetic style doesn't work out well
long-term - and this choice has to be made with a long-term eye.

* Lenny Wilkens
Lenny is a legend both in Seattle and the coaching ranks, but I
think his time is done. His ultra-laid-back style is a poor fit with
this team's style.

* P.J. Carlesimo
Normally I would advocate the raiding of a successful team's
assistant coaching ranks, but P.J. doesn't have the right
personality to be a long-term head coach.

* Jim O'Brien
O'Brien has made a living by pacifying his stars by letting them do
what he wants, while alienating the role players by putting them in
positions in which they can't succeed. No thanks.

---

In the end, McMillan passed up a chance at furthering his success
with a young roster, 19 years of history with a team, and a contract
offer that would have made him one of the best-paid coaches in the
NBA - for a larger contract offer, a front office in at least some
degree of turmoil, and with an extremely young roster.

With some difficulty, I wish Nate luck - but I think it's a huge
mistake on his part and an unfortunate setback for the Sonics.

Cheers,
Chris Hafner