Column: NBA coach of the year belongs to McMillan

Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan suddenly turned into a child.

He smiled, put his head down and stuck his index fingers in his ears. All that was missing was a wavering, outstretched tongue and a funny face.

But McMillan was not joking. He was reacting.

Asked what he thinks when he hears “NBA coach of the year” attached to his name, McMillan responded with stubborn ignorance. He said he pays the reference no mind; gives the compliment no credence. Talk is talk, and McMillan is only about action.

“I don’t evaluate myself. I’ll look at it at the end of the year,” McMillan said. “I look at myself at the end of the year, as far as what kind of year we’ve had. Right now, it’s on you guys to talk about it.”

Will do, coach.

With the regular season drawing to a close and the Blazers still standing strong, it has become increasingly impossible to ignore McMillan’s impressive achievements.

The fact that the injury-riddled Blazers are still in the Western Conference playoff chase is remarkable. The idea that a Portland team that has dealt with an unsavory mix of disappointment, setbacks, rotation changes and behind-the-scenes drama could actually present major problems for whomever it will likely face in the first round is even more so.

For that and so much more, McMillan deserves to be named the 2009-10 NBA coach of the year.

Just don’t tell him. At least, not right now. McMillan still has work to do. Calls to make, speeches to give and players to inspire.

For McMillan, everything is about staying even. Never reach too high, never dive too low. The mindset has helped him hold up a constantly caving middle this season. The philosophy guides his everyday actions, all while keeping the impermanent nature of his chosen profession in perspective.

“It’s a huge challenge to coach in this league and to win games,” McMillan said. “Every day it’s a challenge. Every day you’re judged on what you do. In about a week you can be that guy they’re talking about that’s good. And then the next week, they’re talking about your job.”

Unlike the recently fired Tom Penn — and perhaps unlike general manager Kevin Pritchard — McMillan’s job is safe for now.
Sarge has been a rock for Portland this season. He’s adapted and adjusted on the fly. He’s pushed when needed — going head-to-head with Blazers guard Andre Miller — and pulled back when restraint was required. And while the Blazers have missed 287 games due to injury, McMillan has never wavered.

“As you coach more and you get more experience and you have these different types of years, you become a better coach; you become a stronger coach,” McMillan said. “And this has been … a different type of challenge this year.”

Portland forward Juwan Howard, a 16-year veteran, said there was no doubt in his mind that McMillan should receive the award. Asked about the direction and leadership McMillan has provided this season, Howard said McMillan has often been as perfect as a coach can be.

“I love him,” Howard said. “Great coach. And he’s not a guy who feels it’s his way or no way. He communicates with his players. He trusts his players.”

Trust has been everything for Portland this season. As everyone from Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla to Brandon Roy have fallen, McMillan has been forced to dig deep. And while other coach-of-the-year candidates — Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks, Milwaukee’s Scott Skiles, Phoenix’s Alvin Gentry — have more often than not been blessed with good fortune, the Blazers most definitely have not.

Point blank: Portland does not move forward this season without McMillan holding the reins.

Voters need to get this one right and put this season’s award in his name.

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

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