Nate McMillan won dozens of regular-season games despite the Indiana Pacers’ continual injuries.
The playoff losses cost him his job: On Wednesday, two days after enduring a second straight first-round sweep, president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard fired McMillan.
“This was a very hard decision for us to make; but we feel it’s in the best interest of the organization to move in a different direction,” said Pritchard, whose relationship with McMillan dates to their earlier days in Portland. “Nate and I have been through the good times and the bad times; and it was an honour to work with him for those 11 years.”
The decision was a surprise, given Pritchard’s Aug. 12 announcement that McMillan had been given a one-year contract extension through the 2021-22 season. At the time, Pritchard cited McMillan’s ability to overcome major injuries – like the one that kept Victor Oladipo out for 12 months – and personnel changes, such as the trade of All-Star forward Paul George.
McMillan himself said then it was uncharacteristic for him to be working on a deal but the unprecedented season format caused by the pandemic made him rethink things.
“I felt that was appropriate for both sides,” McMillan told reporters two weeks ago. “Normally, I don’t do any negotiations ‘till after the season. But this has been an unusual season for all of us – coaches, players and management – and we’d been talking about this. We just thought a one-year extension really was appropriate.”
Another dismal playoff performance apparently changed the equation.
While McMillan’s 183 victories with Indiana rank third in the franchise’s NBA history and the Pacers made the playoffs in each of his four seasons as head coach, McMillan’s teams went just 3-16 in the post-season and were swept three times – the only three times the Pacers failed to win a single game in a best-of-seven NBA series.
They haven’t reached the second round since appearing in the Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and 2014. After Monday’s loss to Miami, Indiana has lost a franchise-record nine consecutive playoff games.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra offered very sharp criticism of the firing.
“It seems totally ridiculous,” Spoelstra said. “It seems like you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth. Just two weeks ago at the beginning of our series, you’re giving him an extension – but really it’s just a media fake extension to appease whatever they felt like they needed to appease.
“We have incredible respect for Nate and his staff and what they’ve done this year,” Spoelstra added. “And it does matter, whether people want to hear it or not, it does matter: A lot of what this bubble has been is who’s been available and who hasn’t been available. They have one of their best players not available, another rotation player not available ... it’s just disappointing to see that.”
Injuries were indeed a central theme in the early exits.
After getting swept by Cleveland in 2017, the Pacers lost Oladipo, a two-time All-Star, with a season-ending knee injury in 2019. Without its best player, Indiana was swept by Boston.
Oladipo didn’t return until late January and still was on a minutes restriction when the season restarted in Florida. Then All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis went down with a foot injury and never played in the bubble.
Without Sabonis, Indiana’s top rebounder, the Heat repeatedly took advantage of his absence including one sequence in Game 4 when the Heat grabbed three offensive rebounds before making a layup.
“Once you get into the playoffs, you need everybody,” McMillan said afterward. “You’re playing against the best. I really felt that we had everybody when we came down and (Sabonis) got injured and wasn’t able to play in any of these games. It was a tough adjustment for us.”
Asked what needs to change to win in the post-season, Oladipo said he wasn’t sure.
“It’s hard to gauge because unfortunately we haven’t been 100 per cent healthy the last few years,” he said. “They played four great games, they won four different ways.”
Whatever the answer, McMillan won’t be part of the solution. He finished his career in Indiana with a record of 183-136. McMillan is 661-588 overall in 16 seasons as a head coach for Indiana, Portland and Seattle.