Nate McMillan is putting together another overachieving season with the Indiana Pacers despite losing their star player, Victor Oladipo.
When looking at the field for the Coach of the Year award, a few notable ones stand out. You have Milwaukee Bucks’ coach Mike Budenholzer, who leads the NBA’s current best team into battle. Mike Malone has taken the Denver Nuggets and turned them into a legitimate contender. Kenny Atkinson has revived the Brooklyn Nets into not only a playoff contender but one of the league’s most exciting teams. However, one man stands above the rest of that field and his name is Nate McMillan of the Indiana Pacers.
Last season, the Pacers’ unexpected rise to Eastern Conference contention saw McMillan garner some attention for the award. He ultimately fell to Dwayne Casey but his performance elevating a Pacers team who many expected to bottom feed was impressive. Victor Oladipo‘s emergence as a true star in this league helped bolster his case.
Like the other NBA awards, coach of the year is often a narrative-driven award. Coaching one of the league’s best team is a pre-requisite for this award, yes. But having a strong narrative backing the team’s success is an important pillar in receiving this award as well.
Otherwise, Gregg Popovich would have taken every other award in the last two decades. You wouldn’t give the award to Pop every year just as the NFL wouldn’t give the award to Bill Belichick every year, despite him being the unanimously agreed best coach in the league.
Nate McMillan’s coaching is steering the Indiana Pacers the right direction in spite of adversity
Fortunately for McMillan, he’s captaining a ship with the strongest narrative of any coach in contention for this award. Early in the season, the Pacers saw Oladipo miss 11 games, in which the Pacers went 7-4.
McMillan helped Indy stay afloat despite missing their superstar, which was impressive considering the Pacers collapsed every time Vic was absent last season. Oladipo would return after those 11 games but was clearly playing injured and his season ultimately came to a close after an injury against Toronto on January 23rd.
At that point in the season, the Pacers had the league’s fourth-best win percentage (68.1%) and the fourth best record in the league (32-15), sitting third in the Eastern Conference. After Oladipo’s injury, most expected the Pacers to tail off towards the middle or bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
And after four straight losses without Oladipo, that outcome seemed likely. But Indiana never quit fighting. Since their fourth straight loss on January 31st, Indiana rattled off an astounding 9-3 record in the month of February to remain at the peak of the conference.
As it stands today, Indiana holds the league’s fifth-best win percentage (65.1%) and the fifth-best record in the NBA, (41-22), currently batting third in the East. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The Pacers’ success without Victor Oladipo can largely be attributed to the leadership of McMillan. Before I go any further, let me get this out of the way. There is a faction of the Pacers’ fandom that believes McMillan is a terrible coach (some believe he is on the level of Jim Boylen, even).
Most of this frustration comes from his offense, which is admittedly not fantastic. He could run some more creative offense or utilize Myles Turner more but all in all, the Pacers are scoring and the Pacers are winning. Even without Oladipo for much of the season, Indy’s offensive rating is 15th in the NBA.
One of the most impressive aspects of McMillan’s coaching is his defense.
The Pacers under McMillan have consistently had one of the NBA’s best defense and this year is no different, even without arguably their best defender for much of the year. Posting the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, the Indiana Pacers are suffocating opposing teams.
More impressive than all maybe is McMillan’s ability to make defensive stalwarts out of almost anyone. Unlike many of the other top defensive teams in the NBA (OKC, BOS), the Pacers aren’t stacked with long, strong and switchable defenders.
More recently, Nate McMillan has gotten the most out of newly signed Wes Matthews, who was notably poor on defense in Dallas. Once slothing around on the defensive end down South, Matthews is making big plays in the Midwest:
McMillan and the Pacers are more than the sum of their parts
Up to this point, Nate McMillan has done the most with the least. Given the roster he has to work with, remaining as one of the NBA’s top teams is quite the feat.
The upcoming month brings an absolute gauntlet for Indiana, featuring matchups with the Bucks, Sixers, Nuggets, Thunder, Blazers, Warriors and more. If the Pacers can enter that warzone and escape relatively unscathed, Nate McMillan should be a shoe in for the 2019 NBA coach of the year award.
If nothing else, Nate McMillan should be in consideration for the award, even if he doesn’t win it.