A sidelined McMillan is not the only one coaching Blazers to victory
TUALATIN, Ore. — While the sight of Portland Trail Blazers such as Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla and Travis Outlaw not being on the court this season due to injuries has been unsettling, another view has in many ways been downright odd.
The scene: Blazers assistant coach Monty Williams walking the sideline and calling out plays, as Portland head coach Nate McMillan watches from the bench.
Factor in that lead assistant coach Dean Demopoulos assumed interim head-coaching duties for four games this season, and the Blazers’ coaching triumvirate has evolved by necessity into one of — if not the — most unique situations in the NBA.
McMillan said the relationship between him, Demopoulos and Williams is primarily based off trust and communication.
“For me, it’s being patient. I’ve had to calm myself down,” McMillan said Sunday, following a morning workout at the team’s practice facility. “Because I can’t move and I can’t stand. And I think Monty’s done a great job of relaying information to the players. And Dean, we still are working together, but I’m sitting more.”
Portland’s three-tiered coaching evolution began when McMillan ruptured his right Achilles tendon Dec. 4 while practicing with the team. Following his injury, McMillan was forced to undergo surgery. And he was left to watch a four-game road trip on television while Demopoulos took the reins.
Portland went 1-3 during the stretch. But several Blazers, led by star guard Brandon Roy, felt the run marked a major turning point in the team’s season.
Portland played just as hard for Demopoulos as it did for McMillan. Moreover, all the traits of McMillan-ball — hard, scrappy play; sacrifice and selflessness; defensive focus and offensive execution — were pushed to the forefront after being missing in action during an uneven start to the season.
A team suddenly playing without Oden — who suffered a season-ending knee injury Dec. 5 — refused to quit and give in. In doing so, Portland set the tone for a run of inspired, improbable victories that followed.
Despite losing key players such as Oden, Przybilla, Outlaw, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez to injuries, the Blazers have won 8 of their last 10 games. And Portland is 11-4 since McMillan ruptured his Achilles and the Williams-Demopoulos duo were asked to lengthen their stride.
While Williams acknowledged that he sometimes has had trouble receiving respect from referees and has been playfully teased by opposing coaches, McMillan said everything from timeouts to in-game adjustments have gone off without a hitch.
“I think it’s been pretty smooth,” McMillan said. “I haven’t really felt like we’re not getting the information to the players. … The players have responded to that style. And they’re listening, and they understand that this is what we’re doing.”
McMillan expects to wear a protective boot on his right foot for another month. Thus, the sight of McMillan sitting on the sidelines and Williams walking the wire still has screen time.
As for how McMillan decided which assistant would pace the court in his place, Portland’s head coach carefully stressed that the Blazers’ coaching hierarchy is still in place. Moreover, McMillan offered a humorous reminder that everything is not always as serious as imagined in the hands of Sarge.
“I said, this is what we’re going to do: Monty’s to my left; he’s quicker to half court,” McMillan said. “Really.”
McMillan’s inability to leave the bench and assume his normal coaching role has also provided an unexpected benefit: Many of the Blazers’ players, particularly rookies such as Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph, have been forced to hold themselves accountable on a higher level.
Blazers forward Juwan Howard said accountability is just another word for trust.
“He’s trusted us to know what’s at stake here,” Howard said. “More importantly, to know the game plan. Not only that, to go out there and get the job done. I think we have great direction. Truly it’s working, as far as having to make adjustments with injuries.”
Portland guard Andre Miller, who said that he had not noticed any difference with Williams out front, was more direct.
“Everybody knows they’ve got a lot riding on the season,” Miller said. “They’ve got to be out there. So, whether it’s unique or not, they want to have jobs.”
To Williams, the basketball intelligence and maturity of players such as Howard and Roy has made the transition easier.
“The thing that gets lost in translation is the leadership of Brandon,” Williams said. “If you look at his numbers since all of this stuff has happened, it’s unbelievable how he’s stepped his game up.”
Meanwhile, the bond that unites Portland’s top three coaches is an exceptionally strong one. They have been together since 2005. And all three have played a major hand in the rebirth of a Blazers organization that climbed from a franchise-low 21 wins in 2005-06 to a 54-win campaign and NBA Playoff appearance last season.
In addition, Williams pointed out that he and Demopoulos have grown accustomed to adjusting to adversity ever since they started wearing black and red.
“We’ve been together five years now. We’ve been here when nobody was in this gym. No music was playing, and we were out here working with guys on the floor,” Williams said. “So, all this stuff is cool. But it’s just icing. We’ve been here through the tough times.”
Williams’ situation is complicated by the fact, though, that he is viewed as a prime candidate for future NBA head-coach openings. The former Notre Dame standout was considered last summer for the Minnesota Timberwolves job that eventually went to Kurt Rambis. And his combination of intelligence, pride and youth make him ideal.
However, Williams pointed out that nothing is guaranteed — especially in the NBA.
Williams said McMillan is often quick to remind him, “We might not be here tomorrow.” And Williams stated that the best advice he ever received about coaching professional basketball came from the mouth of a chaplain.
Williams was told: “ ‘You can not look at this job like it’s yours, because it’s not.’ ”
Williams added: “This job belongs to (owner Paul) Allen. And when he decides he doesn’t want us in here anymore, it’s just somebody else’s job. I’m just managing it for a while.”
In the end, though, Williams said he, McMillan and Demopoulos are united by two major goals. And it is their collective vision that has helped guide the Blazers through a surreal, gut check of a season no one could have predicted just two months ago.
“The biggest thing is: How can you get the win, and how can you make guys better for their future? Bottom line,” Williams said. “And if you’re not here for that, that’s your fault. Because that’s what it should be. It’s always about the players. Helping them win games, and helping them get better. And that’s what everything is about.”
Miller said Sunday he is still unsure about his role with the team, and sounded doubtful when asked if he would be with the Blazers next season. “We’re almost halfway through the season, and I still don’t know what’s going on,” Miller said. “I came here to win; that’s all that really matters.” … Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge (ankle sprain) will not play in tonight’s road game against the Los Angeles Clippers, nor will he travel with the team. Aldridge, who walked lightly while shooting free throws at the end of practice, might be available for Tuesday’s home game against the Memphis Grizzlies. … Portland guard Rudy Fernandez (back/leg) said he is at least two weeks away from returning to action, but is feeling better.
Miller interview: Check the Blazer Banter blog at columbian.com/blazerbanter for a full transcription of an exclusive interview with Portland guard Andre Miller in which he openly discusses his role with and future with the team, among other topics.