Column: McMillan blazes a path while making all the right moves

They spring up like small fires. Quick and darting, always taking the easiest, most destructive path.

They are thrown out on the cheap, posted by anonymous persons hiding behind a computer screen and using the invisibility of the Internet as a cloak.

And they inevitably follow a Portland Trail Blazers loss.

“Fire Nate!!!” some scream.

Others are more precise, questioning whether Blazers coach Nate McMillan has any idea what he is doing as one of 30 men leading professional basketball teams in the cutthroat business otherwise known as the NBA.

The critics pick and rip McMillan apart, all while offering up free, expert, anonymous advice.

Andre Miller should play more; Steve Blake should play less.

Brandon Roy should touch the ball more; Roy should touch it less.

Greg Oden needs to become the focus of Portland’s offense; Rudy Fernandez deserves to start; Travis Outlaw has no game.

With each issue, it is always McMillan’s fault. Even though the Blazers are 12-5. Even while McMillan has smoothly navigated major early-season injuries to Outlaw and Nicolas Batum. Even as Portland’s coach has guided his team from the NBA basement to a top-floor room with a clear view of the peak of the mountain.

“He has a lot on his shoulders,” Miller said.

McMillan does. And he deserves serious credit for what he has accomplished thus far, and where the Blazers are at right now.

McMillan has handled Portland’s loaded, talented roster like a pro. He has found time for everyone, and momentary complaints about minutes or roles have been washed away with reminders of sacrifice and unity.

And while so many have demanded immediate answers and instant dividends — treating the Blazers more like fast-food heaven than a professional business — McMillan has preached patience and perseverance.

“Sometimes if you just relax and let a coach work a situation out, they get better,” Roy said. “Instead of saying, ‘Let’s fire them. Let’s get them out of here.’ “

McMillan’s success comes down to balance. Knowing when to push and when to hold back. Understanding how to coach and how to be a player’s coach. And realizing that sometimes the hardest thing about teaching the game to young pro athletes is grasping the contradiction that lies at the heart of the job.

“It’s hard to teach guys that are already on the professional level, that are already that good,” Miller said. “And then they’re young — a lot of them deal with a lot of egos and stuff like that. He’s showed that he can teach at this level and still allow guys to play. And that’s pretty hard to do in this league.”

To Roy, McMillan is a leader who continues to evolve and adapt. The old Sarge would have kept Dante Cunningham on the bench, Roy said. But not now, not this season. McMillan recognized what his team needed, and he was willing to sacrifice wisdom for energy as he put the ball in the hands of a rookie.

“Coach Nate’s done a good job over the years of learning to trust his players more and more,” Roy said.

Portland lead assistant coach Dean Demopoulos referred to McMillan’s growth as a “nine-year evolution.” And while the rugged foundation of McMillan’s life and his belief in the fundamentals of the game make up who he is, Demopoulos described McMillan as an open-minded thinker who will readily make adjustments.

“The really great coaches, their persona is unbending and unyielding and everybody conforming to them,” Demopoulos said. “But the great ones have that ability to have that perception. Really, they’re always changing.”

Which is exactly what McMillan has done. As the Blazers have risen, so has he. And as the team has evolved, its coach has followed.

But McMillan’s biggest challenge still awaits.

Turning a modern pro sports team from a laughing stock into an annual contender is not easy. But it can be done, and it has been before.

And while a coach can shake up the system and change a culture, well-chosen draft picks and free agency are the modern remedies for what ails.

But keeping a sharp edge and staying within constant fighting distance are even tougher tasks. Everything from injuries to chemistry can rip apart best laid plans, while egos can shatter hopes and wreck careers.

“It is a big challenge. And NBA coaching is a challenge,” McMillan said. “Part of that is you communicating with the players. Because you’ve pushed them for the past three of four years. And if you’re not careful, they can tune you out.”

It has not happened yet. Not even close. McMillan has made all the right moves. He has shaken up lineups to find a spark. He has tightened up the Blazers’ defense while fine tuning its offense. And he’s prepared and put his team in place for a hard run through what should be a tough and trying December.

“I stay with what I believe in. If we do it the right way, we will win. And we will win big,” McMillan said. “And I don’t get caught up in what a lot of people are saying I should be or we should be (doing). I know where we are and what we are expected to do. And that’s what I focus on.”

And that’s why he’s the coach.

Brian T. Smith covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Contact him at 360-735-4528 or Read his Blazers Banter blog at Follow him on Twitter at

Today’s Game
Grizzlies vs. Blazers, 7 p.m. at the Rose Garden
TV: Comcast Sports Network (Cable Channel 37)
Radio: 95.5 FM
Probable Starters
Blazers (12-5)
Position/player Ht. Pts.
G Steve Blake 6-3 8.2
G Brandon Roy 6-6 19.4
F Martell Webster 6-7 7.4
F LaMarcus Aldridge 6-11 14.9
C Greg Oden 7-0 11.6
Coach: Nate McMillan (5th season, 160-185)
Player to watch: Roy — His scoring has been down in recent games, but he could break out against the Grizzlies.
Key reserves: Andre Miller, Rudy Fernandez, Joel Przybilla, Dante Cunningham, Jerryd Bayless
Grizzlies (5-10)
G Mike Conley 6-1 8.1
G O.J. Mayo 6-4 16.8
F Rudy Gay 6-8 21.5
F Zach Randolph 6-9 18.6
C Marc Gasol 7-1 15.2
Coach: Lionel Hollins (4th season, 36-82)
Player to watch: Gay — The Grizzlies’ leading scorer is one of the most underrated small forwards in the league.
Key reserves: Sam Young, Jamaal Tinsley, Hasheem Thabeet, DeMarre Carroll

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