How Nate McMillan turned the Pacers into the NBA's biggest surprise
Victor Oladipo is an All-Star, Indiana is having fun again and McMillan should be a COY candidate
There was no way the Indiana Pacers could win the press conference. At Bankers Life Fieldhouse on July 7, coach Nate McMillan and president Kevin Pritchard sat at opposite ends of a table with three new players between them. The front office had been skewered over the previous week for trading Paul George -- a franchise player in his prime and the best Pacer since Reggie Miller -- to the Oklahoma City Thunder. In return Indiana received 25-year-old guard Victor Oladipo and 21-year-old big man Domantas Sabonis, whose combined scoring average didn't match George's last season.
McMillan repeatedly said he was excited about the team's new direction. Pritchard called it "a little bit like a rebirth," insisting that the Pacers planned to be competitive in 2017-18 rather than sink to the bottom of the standings. It was not clear if anyone actually believed them.
When the George trade was reported, the Oklahoma City Police Department tweeted that it was a legal and savvy theft. Oladipo's four-year, $84 million contract was seen as a bit of a burden, unless he managed to make significant strides in his fifth season. Sabonis had underwhelmed as a rookie, shooting just 39.9 percent and losing his starting job in March. When McMillan said Oladipo and free-agent addition Darren Collison would allow Indiana to play at a faster tempo, it was met with skepticism. This was not the first time Indiana had publicly pledged to speed things up.
Three months into the season, the Pacers have exceeded all external expectations. They are 26-22 and tied for fifth in the East entering Friday. In three weeks, Oladipo will make his first All-Star appearance andwill represent them in the Rising Stars game. Last month, Pritchard favorited that OKCPD tweet, presumably cackling while doing so.
"A lot of people didn't expect us to have much success early," McMillan told CBS Sports. "We did. But we're still trying to create an identity, develop this potential that we have and at the end of the season we'll see what we have, what we accomplished this season and how we need to build going forward."
Everything that was said in July suddenly sounds sensible. Indiana is not tanking, but it is investing in young players that can grow together. There is more pace, more ball movement and, crucially, more excitement around the team. McMillan hasn't received much Coach of the Year buzz, but if they stay in the mix for home-court advantage in the playoffs, that will change.
The case for McMillan is based on how adaptable he has proven to be. While he has coached some extremely efficient offensive teams over the course of his career, they have almost always been slow. Back in 2015, Indiana made it a mandate to push the ball, play smaller lineups and create easy baskets. The lack of commitment to that style was one of the justifications for replacing Frank Vogel, but the Pacers actually played slower in 2016-17, McMillan's first year in charge.
It was notable, then, that they started this season with a 140-131 win in a 114-possession game. Indiana was 11th in the league in pace through Christmas, and while it has slipped since then, McMillan would like to avoid playing against a set halfcourt defense as much as possible.
"We've been able to, different nights, establish a tempo, a faster pace, but that's something that we're still trying to establish and become," McMillan said. "With the personnel, the makeup that we have this year, we're a small team. We're not a big team, we're not a physical team. We're trying to become a scrappy team on the defensive end of the floor: force teams to miss, create steals so that we can get up and establish that faster tempo."
McMillan is aware of the reputation he had for preferring a more deliberate style, but does not think it is accurate. With the Portland Trail Blazers, he said, he wanted to play faster, but when he tried it, their young players turned the ball over until he abandoned the experiment. It never made sense to run and gun when their best playmaker, Brandon Roy, was more comfortable picking defenses apart in the halfcourt.
"I don't listen to what people say about my style of play," McMillan said. "As coaches, we put our players in position to be productive. If they can go fast, and that's effective, you're going to go fast. If that's having to slow it down and execute, then that's what you do."
When McMillan said this, he sounded a lot like San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "If you don't adjust, you die," Popovich said before a recent game, adding that all coaches must look at their players' skills and then decide what their offense should look like, not the other way around.
"You just can't say, 'This is the way it's gonna be, come hell or high water,' and that's what you do and the team's gotta do it," Popovich said. "I don't think we'd be good if we tried to play like Houston. Can you imagine Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge sprinting down and shooting quickly like that? I don't think that would work for us, so we gotta figure out something else."
McMillan's mantra this season is simple: Play early or play late. "That's been our go-to all year," Sabonis said. The Pacers have been instructed to advance the ball and look to attack whenever possible, trying to create an open look or a shot at the rim in the first four or five seconds. If a high-quality shot isn't available, then they're supposed to get the ball moving from side to side and make the opposing team work on defense.
The goal, McMillan said, is to get 25 assists every game. They have accomplished that in 16 games, and six times they have reached the 30-assist mark. While nobody will confuse them for the Golden State Warriors (who have recorded 30 assists 150 times in the Steve Kerr era), it is obvious that they are emphasizing passing and trying to be more than the sum of their parts.
"Last year we were a different team," McMillan said. "We had veterans who needed the ball. Paul George, he needs the ball, he wants the ball and he's capable of doing some good things with the ball. Monta Ellis needed the ball. So we had a lot of guys who needed the ball and the ball stopped. This group, we're getting more ball movement because there's not a pecking order."
Indiana forward Thaddeus Young called last year's Pacers an isolation team. This year, by contrast, is about playing with "organized chaos," he said. McMillan said that George is "not a runner like that," while Oladipo is at his best when zooming past defenders in transition. McMillan can see his players are enjoying themselves more.
"I think it's more free," Young said. "Free basketball. We're playing free, clear of our minds. We're just playing basketball. We're having fun. When you have a team that's just full of ISO players and it's just isolation basketball, it's not as fun. You're just standing around and watching."
Young said that everybody trusts the offensive game plan that McMillan's coaching staff has put together. Last season's team had an identical record after 48 games, but the mood and mindset were not the same. Before that season even started, George told Yahoo Sports' Michael Lee that he was ready to battle LeBron James in the conference finals and Indiana was capable of challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers. The pressure to do that -- and the endless questions about George's future -- vanished when the trade was made.
"The culture and how we came in this year and went about this year, it's completely different than last year," Young said. "We're not just putting it on one guy or two guys. We're all feeding off each other."
For the first time since Roy Hibbert and David West patrolled the paint the paint and Vogel talked about "smash-mouth basketball," the Pacers have a distinct personality. McMillan knows they must improve defensively and rebound better. He thinks Oladipo will need time to adjust to all the double-teams he is seeing now. He believes, however, that they are building something that can be sustainable.
As they add to their core of Oladipo, Myles Turner and Sabonis over the next few years, they can do so based on who will complement them. McMillan's job, as always, will be about making sure the pieces fit.
"People always talk about pace and you want to play faster," McMillan said. "You gotta have personnel. It's like baking a pie. If you don't have the ingredients to do it, it's not going to happen. It's not going to turn out. If you have the ingredients for a cake, it's going to become a cake. If you have it for a pie, it's going to become a pie. If you don't have the proper ingredients, it's going to become a mess."
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