Jerry Sloan is out. Stan Van Gundy is out. There are plenty of names left in the scramble of the Milwaukee Bucks’ search for a new head coach, with the latest scoop being about the front office waiting to contact Lionel Hollins once his Memphis Grizzlies’ season ends. However, while much of the early buzz was on high profile candidates and former Bucks/current Houston Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson, there have been surprisingly few words about the franchise’s possible employment of Nate McMillan.
Maybe that’s because there are important roster developments on the horizon as Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick — also known as 75 percent of Milwaukee’s guard rotation — may enter free agency in one way or another this summer. (Editor’s note: calling Ish Smith 25% of the Bucks’ guard rotation is like calling Ringo 25% of the Beatles. It’s true only in mathematical abstraction.) Another reason could be the former Portland Trail Blazers coach’s style of play: slow, low scoring and everything that puts the casual fan to sleep. The abilities of quick guards such as Jennings and Ellis do not necessarily lend themselves to that kind of basketball, if the two do intend to continue their careers as Bucks. With the scenario of turning over the entire backcourt within two years, the Bucks could certainly find players with the correct patience and skill sets to work within McMillan’s schemes.
It is also worth noting that McMillan never had a young, tough-nosed, defensive center such as Larry Sanders in his service while in Oregon, either. For many years, he had Joel Przybilla or Channing Frye, then leashed to the inside before being unchained on the perimeter in Phoenix. The Blazers drafted Greg Oden in 2008 with the intention of him being a powerful interior presence, which Oden showed he was capable of doing while not being out of commission with a litany of knee injuries. With Sanders anchoring a slow-paced defense like McMillan’s, the Bucks could potentially give up the fewest points in the paint among all NBA teams.
During his seven years with the Blazers, McMillan’s teams only finished three seasons with sub-.500 winning percentages, including 2011-12, during which Portland was 20-23 before the coach’s firing. The franchise was still dealing with the “Jail Blazers” hangover at the beginning of McMillan’s tenure, when the other two losing seasons occurred. For three consecutive seasons afterward, he led Portland to playoff appearances that ended in first-round exits. But in the Eastern Conference’s current landscape, anything more than 41 wins is likely to get a team into the playoffs and McMillan bested that number four times with the Blazers and twice in Seattle before that, plateauing at 40 victories in 2002-03 — another mark that could gain a team entry into the postseason in the East.
The Bucks are on a never-ending quest to grab a low-seed and McMillan’s teams can achieve just that, but does he command the proper locker room respect that the Milwaukee brass are grasping toward? Scott Skiles seemed to have it during the Fear the Deer season before letting it slip away over the course of the next few seasons and allowing his teams to become increasingly porous on defense. That is the kind of the thing the Bucks were trying to avoid by reaching out to Sloan and, to a lesser extent, Van Gundy. (The Dwight Howard melodrama in Orlando slightly diminishes Van Gundy’s resume in this respect, but a strong argument can be made for Howard being the problem given his current situation in Los Angeles.) McMillan, while not as widely respected as either of those coaches, was the coach who finally cleaned up Portland’s image.
McMillan was also on coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Team USA staff for two Olympic gold medal runs in 2008 and 2012, as well as 2006, giving McMillan experience working with big personalities and over-sized egos. He stepped down from that position this week, perhaps a nod to the fact that he will soon be steeped in the head coaching duties for an NBA team.
The majority of McMillan’s strife in Portland, and the impetus of his eventual firing, was caused by friction between the coach and Blazers owner Paul Allen. Whereas Allen is (or was) a micro-manager, Bucks owner Herb Kohl and GM John Hammond are most concerned with securing playoff appearances and to them, a coach like McMillan, who had just enough success to meet that standard before stepping away from NBA coaching for a year, could be a very attractive candidate, which is dangerous in the long-term.
Is a win-now coach what Milwaukee needs? Yes, if the organization wants that kind of synergy from top to bottom, but a cultural change is what seemingly needs to occur. That is a challenge for a general manger, not a coach, although McMillan has shown an ability to be a factor in such a large change. Hiring McMillan would dictate a change in direction for Bucks basketball, but it could also be the first step toward a larger transformation. It’s Hammond’s move.