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“It’s all Greek to us, Jimmy V!”
The Chowan Junior College transfer couldn’t believe it was happening. His dream school wants to offer him a scholarship. And he’ll need to sign fast, before the basketball team heads off to Greece.
A Raleigh native, Nate McMillan adored the NC State basketball program, at a time before anyone around the state had heard of city slicker Jim Valvano. Norm Sloan was the essence of Wolfpack Basketball, and the coach scoured the state capital and places all across the state seeking out the best talent. Guys like Tony “Doc” Warren (pictured, with McMillan and others at The Parthenon, above), who the school newspaper’s sports editor suggested, in 1978, “can do everything with a basketball except squeeze the air out.”
Young Nate tracked the path of Doc, a 6-foot-7 high school local legend, through the junior college ranks and into State, under Sloan’s watch. McMillan shined as a local prep player, too. But with his small, slight stature, unlike Doc, Nate couldn’t attract D-1 offers, especially from no one you know along Tobacco Road. Here’s one example of the type of in-state product the major Carolina schools, in lieu of little Nate, were fawning over.
“I’ll certainly never get over losing him,” Sloan would say to Sports Illustrated, about Pam-Pack phenom Dominque Wilkins spurning him for UGA. Unable to recruit the second-coming of David Thompson while squabbling with his AD over salary, Sloan left his legendary program in 1980 for Florida, where he got to watch a lot more of Wilkins’ flights of fancy in the SEC.
Like Doc Warren, Nate went through the junior college circuit. It was at Chowan where his height sprouted upwards by four inches, became a Junior College All-American, and got the attention of Sloan’s successor.
Scouring the JuCo ranks, Valvano hit the jackpot finding a lightning-quick guard in Anthony “Spud” Webb down in Texas. A bit closer to home, Jimmy V hoped to have success again, with the now 6-foot-5 McMillan.
After years of carefully following Doc’s footsteps, in 1984, Nate was on his way to the Pack, joining an instant legend, in NCAA champion Valvano, and the club in time for fun, frolic and exhibition games versus the Greek National Team in That Other Athens. ACC regular season champs in his first year on campus, back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in both seasons, the latter concluding with an early second-round selection in the 1986 NBA Draft.
Fast forward 36 years from his recruitment to NC State, and Nate had become an accomplished NBA retiree and head coach for the Indiana Pacers. A rising newcomer to McMillan’s roster already has his jersey hanging on the rafters in NC State’s arena after just two years of playing there. It’s a gentleman who knows not only of Nate’s NC State roots, but his deep Raleigh-Durham ones, having been sired by Doc Warren himself.
It’s the summer of 2020 and a sixth-year forward, castoff for cash by the Phoenix Suns, T.J. Warren, Doc’s son, is going bonkers for McMillan and the Pacers.
Imagine: a monstrous 41 points and 21 rebounds by a three-time All-Star, Joel Embiid, starring for a Finals favorite, in a performance that no one will remember. That’s because he got eclipsed by a stunning 53-point performance courtesy of Warren, the third-most points ever scored in a game by a Pacer in their NBA era, as Warren’s Pacers passed the 76ers in the conference standings like a ship in the night.
T.J. vowed to publicly demonstrate that Phoenix had “messed up” by believing “cash considerations” were the height of his value. Yes, Warren had dropped 40 before, in his days with young Devin Booker and the Suns back in 2017. But the entire sporting world was watching the Bubble in 2020, and Warren was giving ample reason to sit up and take notice.
Where did this come from? Who saw this coming? Who’s coaching this guy up?
With Warren (42-25 as a Pacer starter) asserting himself, ahead of names like Oladipo, Turner and Brogdon, as perhaps Indiana’s new #2 star, and shining under McMillan’s direction, the Pacers finished the regular-season with a solid 6-2 finish, earning Warren (31 PPG) the unique All-Bubble 1st-Team honors. When the seeding games concluded, Indiana, not Philly, would be the 4-seed, drawing the Miami heat.
25 days after Warren’s epic game, he lost his Triangle-area, Pack alum coach. Disregarding injuries to Domantas Sabonis and others at critical junctures of the season, the Pacers fired Nate McMillan, shortly after a 4-0 sweep to Miami during a series based entirely in Florida. McMillan would not get to return to Bankers Life Fieldhouse as an employed head coach, until tonight, as his Atlanta Hawks are in town (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Indiana) for a contest featuring two clubs that played brow-raising games just last night.
Pacers owner Herb Simon was dismayed that, through four years transitioning out of the Paul George era, the team had failed to get OUT of the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
Today, with their replacement Nate, Mr. Bjorkgren, in charge, the Pacers (30-35) find themselves at a crossroads with their new coach already. Together, they face the prospect that they will fail to get IN to the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
Don’t nobody blame Warren. A navicular stress fracture in his foot, shelving him after just four games in December, made it impossible for him to settle into the new NBA season after a quick turnaround. That’s 61 games and counting. Now dealing with a tear in his toe, league-leading BPG man Myles Turner has missed 18 games and counting.
Concerned about lagging impacts from his January 2019 leg injury carrying into the next stage of his career, Victor Oladipo was shipped just 12 games into this season, only to find his replacement star, Caris LeVert, needing to miss 24 games to treat a mass discovered on his kidney during post-trade physicals. Oddly, LeVert (4-for-12 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 18, 5-for-18 vs. SAC last night; 25.9 PPG, 48.9 FG%, 4.7 APG, 1.7 TOs/game in 8 games between) is about the healthiest specimen the Pacers have going right now.
Their All-Star big man, Sabonis played in that 129-117 loss to the Hawks in Atlanta, then missed six games with a sore back as the opportunity for his Pacers to escape the Play-In prospects grew bleak. The 2021 All-Star Skills Challenge winner missed three straight games before that, too, earlier in the month.
Jeremy Lamb had an ACL tear in February 2020 that caused him to sit for 11 months. He missed the first 14 games of this season, and toe and knee ailments have caused him to miss 15 more. Re-signed in the offseason for frontcourt depth, JaKarr Sampson has been in-and-out of the lineup, and he was just beginning to enjoy steady minutes until one of Blake Griffin’s pointy elbows placed him in concussion protocol last week.
Also missing in action just last night was former Hawks season-ender Edmond Sumner, now questionable for tonight due to a bruised knee. Inactive for the past three games, including the anomaly 152-95 win over OKC, Malcolm Brogdon remains questionable with a sore hammy. Rookie center Goga Bitadze is questionable with an ankle sprain, and probably wishes he sat himself the Dellavedova down instead of trying to play through it last night.
All told, that’s well over 200 games missed due to injury for Bjorkgren’s Pacers, and it’s tough for any coach, much less a first-year one, to gain traction with so many moving parts. But Indy can’t help but notice how similarly McMillan has uplifted Atlanta (37-30), this season, while he and former coach Lloyd Pierce juggled lineups to account for closer to 300 missed games.
Further, few shed tears for McMillan overachieving over the course of four seasons, since his club’s valiant efforts to win against the odds could not be duplicated at playoff time. He came close in nearly toppling LeBron’s Cavs during 2018’s first-round, as Oladipo stood tall in Paul George’s former superstar gap. But close only counts in those things on Colts helmets.
At this moment, McMillan is getting paid by the Simons not to be here in the Hoosier State anymore, but only because management – probably watching the Warren scoring bonanza -- rushed an extension (re-worked for this season, team option for 2021-22) in front of him before his fateful and brief postseason voyage could begin. Nate had only been working in this town because his Blazer buddies – PBO Kevin Pritchard, GM Chad Buchanan – that found their way here invited him onto Frank Vogel’s bench following his ouster from Portland.
“Simon says,” in 2007, that Rick Carlisle lacked the tools to elevate a team into championship contention. Then-PBO Larry Bird had Carlisle share his agreement that the team needed a “new voice.” Four years later, well. How’d Jim O’Brien work out for y’all?
Two years removed from a second consecutive Conference Finals trip, Simon had enough of Frank Vogel, having Bird tell the media in 2016 the team needed a “new voice” if they were ever break through and reach the Finals. Four years later, well. Maybe the voice the players needed to hear was LeBron’s, the whole time?
Indiana showed off a fighting spirit yesterday evening at the Fieldhouse, and not in any way directed at the visitors, as Luke Walton’s Sacramento Kings won handily, 104-93. I don’t know how you feel about Atlanta PBO Travis Schlenk’s maneuvers since the 2020 Trade Deadline – Dedmon for Snell, Bogi for nothing, Capela for some Sun Chips – but I think my favorite was a call that went something like this:
“Hey, K-Pritch, we’re thinking about adding Coach Nate to our staff, so LP’s bench is getting a bit crowded. How would your Swedish Chef guy like to bring in Greg Foster? He’s got a fiery disposition I think your guys will just love!” Coach Greg, as you might imagine, will not be available for today’s proceedings. On the good side, Goga’s lighter wallet should help his ankle heal quicker.
Schlenk does a good job in sensing the quality of interpersonal connections when building players and staff for his club. Alternatively, after ditching McMillan, the coach whose breakout player’s dad served as a young neighborhood idol, they pursued Bjorkgren, who also spent a couple seasons coaching up Warren and the Suns in Phoenix. As Bleacher Report’s insider article by Jake Fischer alludes today, had Warren appreciated Bjorkgren’s coaching style enough to rehab quickly and help the Pacers win games, he’d have done so by now.
Larry Legend still hovers around the club as an advisor to Pritchard, and it sure looks like they’re already hearing the call for “new voices” again, as it pertains to Bjorkgren and the entire Pacers coaching staff. Simon may do with the front office what he does with his deadmalls and clean house for good, rather than just settle with paying another head coach not to be around. He’s paying over $113 million next year to players in guaranteed cash. As it stands, it’s unclear which ones want to be around, and which will be healthy enough to do so.
Finally able to have a predictable lineup of active players at his disposal, McMillan will want to deploy his Hawks in a similar manner to last night’s resounding 135-103 home win over the Phoenix Suns. Have the starters hang tough as Indy gives the first quarter it’s best shot, rely on the advantage of depth and hustle among the second unit to carry over into the next quarter. Sabonis and the Pacers will do all they can to craft a game narrative that has nothing to do with the sidelines.
By the end of the third quarter, the rest advantage gained by the Hawks’ first unit late last night should allow them to seize control of the contest, giving way for some entertainment in the final frame as the backups continue to hone their budding chemistry at both ends.
It will be fun to track where the Pacers are, in 2024, and what McMillan has accomplished in that time, be it with the Hawks, or as a head coach or assistant somewhere else by then. It is noteworthy to look back upon his playing tenure and coaching career and see, while not championship-successful, just how resilient he has been.
From his hardscrabble days in northeast Raleigh, to his time at NC State, the Pacific Northwest, Indiana, and now Atlanta. Through it all, Nate embodies the adage that applies to the many ups-and-especially-downs that life throws at people. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Who got fired…
…for trading me away for Marquese Chriss?”
Thank you, CP3!
Do you have any idea how unbearable Knicks fans would be, right this minute? Chris Paul sunk seven points in the space of the final 85 seconds at Madison Square Garden on April 26. He assisted on a Mikal Bridges jam for the Phoenix Suns’ score before that binge, all of it needed to fend off the hard-charging Knicks one night after Paul’s Suns set across town against the Nets.
Aside from that one blemish for Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks, they would currently be riding a 13-game winning streak, a run nearly thwarted early if not for an untimely Trae Young injury, and Macy’s would be out there doing the New Year’s Day parade all over again.
Spike has conveniently kissed and made up to Hideous Lord Jimmy Dolan, finding his way back to a seat on MSG’s Gucci Row with a slew of front-running celebs. There’s blue-and-orange ticker-tape everywhere around Manhattan, as dreams abound of a Subway Series for the Eastern Conference Finals. Ewww.
This is a good, and rare, time to praise the well-heeled individuals who have been, objectively, the worst owners in The Association, going on decades now. Glen Taylor, for one, is slowly stepping aside in Minnesota. Although Sactown’s back in the lottery once more, Vivek Ranadive is no longer acting as if he’s running his girls’ AAU team. And like Dolan, when was the last time anyone had a thought about Robert Sarver?
“In my view, people are the most important,” Sarver shared with CNBC last week, as his Suns (47-18) continue on quite a roll of their own, now surging to a tie with Utah for the top honors in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference, and thus the NBA. For too long with those under his employ, “people” meant, “Soylent Green.” But he’s gained a new lease on life as an owner. “In this business, from a basketball standpoint, it’s people that can identify talent, develop talent, and people that can coach talent.”
It was just a few years ago when Sarver thought it clever to sneak live goats into his neophyte GM Ryan McDonough’s office – intended to inspire a search for a GOAT on par with his WNBA Mercury’s Diana Taurasi – only to discover the goats’ greatest talents involve shedding hair, chewing furniture, and defecating profusely. These Suns aren’t baaaaaad anymore, and it’s a testament to their longtime interventionist owner, who is learning to simply let talented people link together under his umbrella, and then get out of the way.
The stench of the goats and the Suns’ owner-tinkered operations are long gone. In its place, NBA retiree James Jones has been granted the room to make critical decisions, from hiring coach Monty Williams, to aiding (before McDonough’s ouster) in the decisions to Max-Ex star Devin Booker and to acquire Bridges, Cam Johnson and #1 pick Deandre Ayton via the Draft, to enticing point god Paul to join a so-far unaccomplished club in free agency.
Pretty much everything has worked out, and with the latest Sun-burst confirming their emergence pre-CP3 in the 2020 Bubble was no fluke, Jones and Williams are among the reasons Travis Schlenk and Nate McMillan will be Honorable Mentions, respectively, at NBA Awards time.
Phoenix distinguishes itself in the standings as the only NBA club yet to endure double-digit road losses (NBA-best 22-9, after outlasting Cleveland in overtime last night). Even if they join the other 29 teams today (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Arizona), who are the only other clubs at just 7 games above-.500 in away games? Denver, Dallas, and Portland, the weary latter of whom succumbed to a barrage of three-pointers at State Farm Arena on Monday night.
Slithering their way to the top of the NBA, Monty’s pythons are no laughing matter. Even so, something is amissssssssss. Possessing a very young core despite the presences of Jae Crowder, league late-comer Torrey Craig and Paul, the Suns lack the steamroller instinct versus lesser competition seen among traditional title contenders.
Despite the fewest losses in the NBA, early-season losses for the Suns included games at Sacramento, Detroit, and at a still-clueless and Westbrook-less Washington. After the All-Star break, there were home losses to Indiana and Minnesota, then a schedule loss on the road in Orlando, the farewell game for several Magic players before getting traded away the following afternoon.
Phoenix hasn’t rattled off a double-digit winning streak all season, currently winners of six in a row. On Sunday, they nearly lost their second game of the season to OKC, a Thunder club that was just blown out 152-95 by visitors from Indiana the evening before. With the Suns up by as much as 18 midway through the final quarter, and 12 with two minutes to spare, a sudden lack of rim protection and turnovers, plus a technical foul by Booker, required free throws from Bridges to close out a seemingly unnecessary high-wire act. The daredevil stunt was a near-repeat of a close-shave win in Houston a month ago.
Last night in Ohio, the Suns let Collin Sexton and rookie Isaac Okoro go off in the second half, the Cavs erasing a 12-point deficit in the third quarter, then closing a seven-point gap in the final six minutes to force an overtime period. With six points and a game-tying assist, Sexton feasted in the final 70 seconds on buckets all within feet of Phoenix’s rim. The Sun saviors in these recent comebacks have not been Paul and Booker, and certainly not Ayton, but Bridges (17 points, 2 blocks, 2 steals in 4th-plus-OT @ CLE) and Johnson, perhaps a risky approach, by Williams, to test the younger guns’ mettle as the playoffs approach.
The sum of the Suns’ past three wins has been a galling minus-23.3 Net Rating in fourth quarters (2nd-worst in NBA), a recession that encourages teams to endure Phoenix’s game-planned early efficiencies and hang around long enough to take part in a threatening comeback.
It’s reminiscent of when Suns draftee Bogdan Bogdanovic and his Hawks made their pandemic-delayed visit to Phoenix on March 30, a couple nights after getting drubbed in Denver. Riding red-hot shooting from Dario Saric (20 points vs. ATL), Phoenix blazed to a 16-point first-half lead, but they plateaued over the next two quarters before Bogi’s hot hand (team-highs of 22 points and 4 steals, 4-for-8 3FGs, 6 assists, 1 TO) had the Suns feeling as though they were running uphill with the lead.
Responding to a spectacular dunk by Bridges, a Bogdanovic triple narrowed the score to 109-108 with under 70 seconds to go. An Ayton putback of a Booker miss, and a CP3 dish to Crowder (5-for-8 3FGs vs. ATL on Mar. 30) in the corner finally put the game on ice, keeping Atlanta from disrupting what would become Phoenix’s season-best seven-game winning streak. “We closed the game out,” Paul told postgame media. “But we shouldn’t have been in that situation.” Despite their recent uptick in success, they have found themselves in several similar situations since.
The already-hobbled Hawks may have been able to squeak that one out, had John Collins not tweaked his ankle in the second quarter. Atlanta dropped below .500 with that loss for what would be the final time this season. Tonight, with yet another road-weary team in town, a recuperating Hawks club (36-30) could secure a winning season for the first time in Collins’ four-year career. They may not wish to hold off and try achieving that above-.500 status in McMillan’s former NBA town tomorrow, as a seventh-straight home win, this one over the momentary NBA leaders in the standings, would be an impressive feat.
Phoenix is thrilled to be reaching the postseason for the first time since then-coach Alvin Gentry took the Suns to the Western Finals in 2010, and the prospect of making a Utah team that’s 28-4 at home the road team in this year’s conference finals, with a chance of giving Paul the breakthrough to the NBA Finals he has long craved, sounds mighty tempting. But they’re going to want to avoid am early-round letdown similar to McMillan’s ’94 Sonics, who found themselves mounted by a Mutombo. To that end, Phoenix is going to need their former local high school and college star, Ayton, to string together some not-pedestrian performances.
For Ayton (14-and-14 vs. ATL in March), who did his best to keep up with Clint Capela (16-and-15 @ PHX) when the Hawks and Suns last met, a 15 point, 8 rebound showing versus the Cavs was a slight departure from his previous four games (7.5 PPG and 10.0 RPG, 2.0 FTAs/game, 46.2 FG%). Still, aside from a blocked shot, Deandre was persona non grata in the fourth frame as Cleveland made their advance. Two more overtime rejections brought his block tally to a season-tying high of 5 by night’s end. But for the former first-overall pick, it should not have come to that, nor Johnson’s reverse-yam in OT over Jarrett Allen, to put the Cavs to bed.
At the Omni hotel this morning, Williams will be grateful not having to awaken to tornado sirens. But he will have to make tough decisions on who can log heavy minutes against a Hawks team bearing a rest advantage. Look for more minutes for ex-Hawk Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter in the backcourt, and for Saric and Frank Kaminsky upfront. Craig continues to start in place of Crowder, who remains out with a sprained ankle.
Phoenix (NBA-best +2.3 bench plus/minus) hopes to sustain any early leads they can seize for as long as possible without relying on star turns by Booker (8-for-19 FGs vs. ATL in March; 25.1 PPG but 25.3 3FG% since April 5), Bridges and Paul (active leader in career steal percentage at 3.21%, as per bball-ref; a fellow Carolinian, McMillan’s 3.75% ranks 3rd all-time).
The Hawks’ reserves (NBA-worst minus-8.6 bench plus/minus and 38.2 bench FG% in last 4 games) could use a boost from sixth-man specialist Lou Williams (19.2 FG%, 5.3 PPG in last 4 games), held under 15 minutes of action in his past two games, Kris Dunn and Tony Snell, to at least hold serve in this area. With Bogdanovic (NBA career-best 15.5 PPG and 42.0 3FG%; 7-for-14 3FGs vs. POR; listed as available despite a still-sore hammy) having averaged over 36.2 MPG as a starter during his past four back-to-back series, Coach Nate would love to spread his sharp-shooting guard’s floor time out at a lower scale today and tomorrow.
Among Atlanta’s starters, a stronger interior presence from Collins (just 9-for-14 2FGs over past 3 games) would be a welcome sight. But he has the outside jumper that Ayton comparatively lacks. Showing newfound confidence as a shooter since his return from injury (multiple threes in four consecutive games, longest since last February’s late-season scoring tear) while sharing the floor with multiple Atlanta snipers, balancing Collins’ offense with more paint finishes will have defenses unsure of whether he’s going or coming.
After citing his boss’ maturation and the Suns’ recent retooling as an “inflection point,” one of Sarver’s few hangers-on, CEO Jason Rowley, via CNBC, presses longtime skeptics to “look at the people we have on the team, you look at the culture that’s been built here – when I look at the success we’re having now, I feel like we’re just scratching the surface. We have the opportunity to have something sustainable.” This may hold true. But then you take a gander at the cap sheet.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe foretells of the looming “money crunch” for Sarver, as Paul’s $44 million player option for 2021-22 either kicks in or gets torn up in favor of a lucrative negotiation. Ayton may not be worthy of an extension nearing the values coming for, say, Young or Luka Doncic, but the first-overall pick’s agents will be as demanding as Zona boosters in pursuing that kind of deal. Crowder and Saric are under contract through 2023. Their deals are reasonable, but they’ll likely hold more value as expirings than as contributing players by then.
That Grant Hill is one classy fella. “He never dressed me down. Was always good to me,” he said of his former boss, Sarver, refuting a 2019 ESPN report (same one, by Kevin Arnovitz, featuring the goats) that the Suns’ owner barged into a halftime locker room and demanded better on-ball defense by Hill against another withering former superstar, the Mavs’ Vince Carter. Hill took great pains to explain Sarver’s intentions were to have switch Hill off of Dirk Nowitzki.
It would take a monumental effort to get Grant to baaaaaad-mouth anyone, even Sarver. But it’s no longer lost on the owner that intruding in player affairs, as he once did, does his team and his franchise no favors. Sarver thanks his lucky stars that Jones accepted his entreaties instead of latching onto any of his GOAT-pal LeBron’s endeavors. Because there’s at least one reason Hill, and former Sun Carter, didn’t choose to spend their NBA retirement years in the warm climes of Arizona. They’ve elected to invest their time and energy in Georgia with the Resslers, who aim to prove that this state is a better place to do business, and basketball. I do hope Mr. Paul is taking notes.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Bobble, baby, bobble, baby, bobble, baby, bobble…”
Sheed. Qyntel. Bonzi. Damon. Trent(, Sr.). Z-Bo. Ruben.
These fellows ran Portland. Quite nearly, into the abyss.
At the time, Trail Blazers execs sought out a lifeline for someone capable to come in and shake things up. In some cases, to help ship people out. That lifeline reached 150 miles north, to Seattle.
“From Day One,” Nate McMillan told the Seattle Times, about four years after his arrival and into the Blazers’ revival, “the plan was to change the type of players we brought in. We were going to look at, not only the talent, but also the character of players.” Until then, Portland’s “Jail Blazers” were individually known for being a character, not necessarily possessing some.
“What a player could do off the floor was just as important as what he could do on the floor. We had to change, on the floor, but we also had to get out into the community and allow them to get to know us.”
It was a slog, to be sure. While shaping up and shipping out much of the clubhouse, the man called “Sarge” ought to be credited with salvaging Zach Randolph’s pro career, predating the folk-hero status the burly power forward would warmly receive in Memphis. Yet with Randolph taking center stage as one of the last vestiges of the tawdry Jail Blazers era, Portland finished a league-worst 21-61 in 2005-06, setting up an unsuccessful lottery and a draft that brought a pair of rookies, including a Seattle native, on board.
Selecting Tyrus Thomas and trading up two spots with Chicago, Portland landed the Bulls’ pick, LaMarcus Aldridge. Theo Ratliff and Sebastian Telfair were packaged to Minnesota for the seventh pick, Randy Foye, who in turn was packaged for the draft rights to Timberwolves pick and Seattleite Brandon Roy. Just like that, McMillan had his young pillars.
A more surefire big-man talent than Andrea Bargnani was in the waiting after next season, as Portland leapt over Atlanta, Seattle and five other teams to land the top lottery pick. With next-big-thing center Greg Oden set to join the emerging Roy and Aldridge, fans were enthralled again, home sellouts were a thing again, and the future was bright.
2007’s Rookie of the Year, Roy, became a heralded three-time All-Star in the ensuing seasons. Aldridge, a self-professed “project”, was fast becoming a double-double machine by year two of his development. By their second years, Portland was a .500 club and a playoff threat. The next season, 54-28, a remarkable turnaround under McMillan’s watch.
But as the Jail Blazers were a thing of the past, it would not take long before the “Frail Blazers” label would take hold.
Oden’s balky knee gave way midway through 2008-09, leaving McMillan little choice but to turn to the Vanilla Gorilla, Joel Pryzbilla, in a futile first-round contest with what we now know as the last hurrah of Houston’s Yao Ming. By the end of the next season, despite Portland’s 50 wins, it was Roy’s turn to begin breaking down, he and Oden contributing to, as The Oregonian recalled, 311 player games lost to injury. At playoff time, an aching Roy would be replaced at turns by starters Rudy Fernandez and Jerryd Bayless, McMillan’s lead-legged club unable to sustain the pace with Steve Nash and the Suns at playoff time.
That cost McMillan’s GM buddy, Kevin Pritchard, his job one hour before the 2010 Draft, although the courtesy of letting him make the final trades and picks on that night, anyway, was a sweet touch. The next year, more of the same. More surgeries for Oden, the sad close to B-Roy’s ephemeral career via retirement, and 48 wins for Nate Mac, who was clearly on notice after an opening-round series loss to Dirk Nowitzki’s eventual NBA champions. Hired to replace Pritchard, Rich Cho never even got to do a draft before he was fired by gazillionaire owner Paul Allen at season’s end.
In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Aldridge tried to carry the load, with Gerald Wallace and a buttery Raymond Felton assuming what was Oden and Roy’s floor time. The club collapsed, losing seven of nine after the All-Star Break, and Mr. Allen ushered in what, remarkably to this day in 2021, was really the last big Blazerquake.
Within days: G-Wallace and Marcus Camby, traded out of town. Oden, five knee surgeries in, placed humbly on waivers. And McMillan was handed his walking papers. Even team president Larry Miller high-tailed it up the road to his old job, running Nike’s Jordan Brand. Coach Nate would never get to see the next metamorphosis first-hand. And while beloved in Portland for wiping away the bad front-page news items, he was never given the leeway his successor did.
Despite having failed to lift the fortunes of clubs in Atlanta and Milwaukee, Terry Stotts’ success as an assistant on that championship Mavericks roster compelled Allen and the Blazers to give him one more try. Only this time, new team exec Neil Olshey, saved from Donald Sterling’s Clippers, wouldn’t let Allen cut Stotts loose so easily. They stick with Stotts, despite the team finishing 8-26 after a 25-23 start.
Dealing Crash Wallace away yielded the Blazers New Jersey’s first-rounder in 2012. There was no lottery win, and thus no AD. But Charlotte went for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, while Cleveland and Sacramento plucked Dion Waiters and Thomas Robinson. Portland was the first to go small-school, drafting Damian Lillard of Weber State at Pick #6 ahead of UNC’s Harrison Barnes and the Washington Huskies’ Terrence Ross.
As mostly disastrous choices were made above them the next year, the Blazers went small-school again, this time with fellow guard CJ McCollum of Lehigh. Stotts, like McMillan, would find that he got his young pillars, plus Aldridge, to coach up and build around. Unlike McMillan’s haul, Lillard and McCollum have proven themselves fairly durable, CJ joining in as a second 20+ PPG scorer by the then-two-time All-Star’s fourth season.
Unlike McMillan, Stotts’ ace guard was upright and ready to shine at playoff time, Lillard first bidding adieu to the star-laden Rockets in 2014, dispatching a twilight Clippers club in 2016, then serving as the author of 2019’s shocker over Wayoff P and OKC, setting the stage for Portland’s first Conference Finals berth since 2000. As Lillard morphed from a David to one of the league’s Goliath’s, Stotts has been at the helm throughout, even though the team made a decided regression one season after each breakout playoff performance.
Coupled with seven consecutive postseasons is an inability to improve the talent via the lottery. Olshey seems to have skated as well, more interested in giving away picks and settling for lower-first-round longshots. 2015’s 23rd pick, traded on Draft Day essentially for Mason Plumlee, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is back in black and red, after being waived by Minnesota in December and having his 10-day contracts made full. The highest Olshey pick since McCollum, 2017’s 15th, was packaged with two other low-firsts to Sacramento, in exchange for what sounds like a Lifetime movie: The Wrong Collins. This year's mid-to-low-first heads to Houston as part of the pre-season trade for Robert Covington. Even their 2021 second-rounder belongs to Memphis as part of a 2019 multi-team deal.
Last week, former Blazers beat-writer and Lillard chum turned insider at Yahoo! Sports Chris Haynes was right to wonder aloud whether Dame, in particular, is spinning his wheels for a club he his remained steadfastly dedicated to representing in the NBA. This, as the brain trust that was wise enough to reel him and CJ in, and pay them handsomely to stick together through 2024, hasn’t figured out how to draft or entice the right mix of co-stars for a championship-contending balance.
Haynes also ponders whether Stotts will finally be the next chip to fall as Olshey tries to fend off a Blazerquake that’s beginning to feel overdue. The writer’s close connections to Lillard created consternation around Oregon that Lillard (43.6 FG%, his lowest since 2015-16; career-best 92.6 FT%), soon to be 31 and admittedly going through his roughest stretch staying healthy, is leaking out what he cannot opine publicly. “(Lillard) has been a constant professional,” Haynes opines, “and in return, it’s made central figures throughout the organization comfortable.” Dame was coy in denying a lack of communication with his front office, perhaps obscuring a lack of confidence.
I ponder about what would have happened were McMillan granted the latitude to participate in the rebuild of the Frail Blazers, instead of dumping him to take a shot with Stotts. Maybe here, he would have transitioned Lillard, more quickly, from a high-usage shot-jacker to the more efficient game-managing clutch-gunner (NBA-best 8.3 Offensive BPM and Offensive WS last season) he is known for being today. Maybe Lillard and McCollum (career-highs of 23.3 PPG, 4.7 APG) would have been compelled to improve their defensive wherewithal sooner in their careers. Maybe it’s Lillard, at Dame Time, who helps McMillan shed his limited playoff success persona, as he did with Stotts.
Nearly $103 million in guaranteed player salary is locked down for next season, including center Jusuf Nurkic’s $12 million that locks in on the first of July. But Blazer fans feel like they’re in a similar position on the gerbil wheel to where they were entering 2014, with the scale of their title contention tethered simply to whether Lillard can get the Dame Time apparatus going, and for how long. While they’re in better shape than at the finish of last year’s regular season, Portland (36-28) is now scrambling with the Lakers and the Mavericks to avoid having to fight their way into the postseason via a Play-In game or two.
Injuries, to McCollum and Nurkic early, and to Lillard for a few games last month, have once more given Stotts the cover not bestowed upon McMillan for this long. Zach Collins still remains hopeful of a return during a playoff run, if it comes to that. But success in their topsy-turvy season hinges on the ability of Lillard, McCollum and/or Nurkic and the bigs (the latter group via screen sets) to find the hot hand, somewhere. Unable to rely on their defense to keep teams close on even mediocre shooting nights, Portland (115.6 D-Rating, 29th in NBA) is 19-0 so far when hitting threes above a 42 percent clip, 7-21 when they fall below 35 percent.
An exception came when Portland made just 38.8 FG% versus the Atlanta Hawks on January 16, as McMillan assisted then head coach Lloyd Pierce. The Hawks were finding their way, but with the victorious opportunity that availed itself when McCollum (4-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL) went down to an early-game injury, no one, save for Clint Capela (25 points, 11-for-16 FGs, 15 rebounds @ POR) could find the center of the hoop from long-range (6-for-30 team 3FGs). Capela also lacked the frontcourt support he needed on that eve from John Collins (8 points, 6 rebounds in 30 minutes) to secure defensive boards away from Derrick Jones and Enes Kanter, allowing the host Blazers ample opportunities to overtake the Hawks in the second half. Collins' activity on the defensive end, displayed in Saturday's 108-97 win over the Bulls (career-tying 4 steals, 8 D-Rebs, one block) will be needed today, as keeping Portland below triple digits is impossible without a concerted effort.
Tonight (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM, NBC Sports Northwest in PDX), the Blazers are seeking to extend this successful road trip to 5-0, after Lillard’s return couldn’t stave off an 0-5 downturn that featured consecutive home losses to the possible 10-seed Grizzlies. Last night in Boston, Portland (50.0 3FG% vs. BOS) aided the Hawks by prevailing 129-119, pouring it on it the second half. Lillard (26 points, 13 assists, 5 TOs) and McCollum (team-high 33 points, 5 assists) dished it out, and Robert Covington, Trade Deadline arrival Norman Powell (questionable for today, knee tendinopathy) and bench vet Carmelo Anthony (combined 11-for-17 3FGs vs. BOS) could take it. They wore down a Celtics team still burning off the fumes of their massive comeback win over San Antonio.
With limited depth and starters logging between 29 and 39 minutes last night, the Hawks (35-30) hope they can wear down Portland in turn, like they did after waking up against Chicago in the second half on Saturday, here at State Farm Arena. After Portland flew in from Logan late last night, this morning’s hotel evacuation due to a tornado warning (hope all’s good in Adamsville and along Cascade) may have the Blazers’ heads spinning a bit. Last night, Stotts reserved Hollis-Jefferson, Derrick Jones and Nas Little in hopes of working them heavily into the active rotation today.
Bogdan Bogdanovic (probable, sore hammy) and Danilo Gallinari were unavailable at the time of January’s meeting, and each can help Trae Young (33 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, 11-for-12 FTs, 7 assists vs. CHI) match Portland’s firepower, possibly even Tony Snell (upgraded to available, ankle sprain). Bogi and Kevin Huerter (off the injury list, although still working through his shoulder stinger) can also play an important role of defending the perimeter and keeping Blazer guards off-kilter.
McMillan’s coaching odyssey would likely have continued elsewhere anyway after 2012, particularly if he failed to overachieve at playoff time once more in Portland. But as it stands, considering where he has sated a playoff-hungry owner along with the fanbase, Nate would likely find more stability here than if he tried to ride out the current, longstanding epoch of the “Stale Blazers.”
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Ohhh! See, when you said you heard we just got Justin Fields, I thought you meant…”
The last time the Chicago Bulls stopped by State Farm Arena, one day after playing in Tampa, All-Star Zach LaVine dropped a career-best 50 points, including 39 in the first half… and his team lost. What happens tonight, when the red-eyed Bulls arrive to face the Atlanta Hawks (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago) less than 24 hours after playing the Bucks in Chicago, and LaVine is nowhere to be found?
LaVine has been away from the team since April 15 and remains out due to Health ‘n Safety. A backup at the wing, Wizards acquisition Troy Brown has been out while healing a sprained ankle for the past two weeks. Forward Lauri Markkanen and emergency big Cristiano Felicio (non-COVID illness) were late scratches yesterday, and the former is listed as questionable to play today.
LaVine’s splurge in A-Town didn’t set SportsCenter’s A-Block aflame, back on April 9, largely because Ice Trae was très cool. Getting in the paint and scoring at-will, Trae Young had 22 paint ponts and made 11 of 14 free throws as part of his 42-point contribution to the Hawks’ 120-108 victory. Similarly, in Young’s return to action in Philadelphia last night, any struggles he had scoring from outside were compensated by ample floaters and a perfect 10-for-10 on trips to the free throw line. His team would soon be revving up the plane for Hartsfield-Jackson just as the Bulls were still coming out from their halftime break.
As Jayson Tatum and, eventually, Jaylen Brown can now attest, no lead is safe in The Association. Chicago watched their 66-53 halftime lead evaporate within less than a quarter back on April 9. The Bulls were constrained to 42 second-half points, a few of those in the garbage-time period as LaVine scrambled to get his 50. Last night, they nearly erased a 19-point first half deficit before Giannis-less Milwaukee regained control of the game.
Chicago’s last loss here precipitated a five-game skid, featuring losses to Minnesota and Nikola Vucevic’s prior employer, Orlando, that made the subsequent climb without LaVine much steeper. They remain competitive, with helpful wins over Boston and Charlotte while splitting a series in Miami over the past two weeks. But much like the Hawks on Friday night, the Bulls are hoping today they can avoid being held under 100 points for the third-consecutive contest.
The Hawks turned sleepy once Philly woke up yesterday, particularly John Collins (11 points and 4 rebounds over 26 minutes @ PHI) and the bench brigade of Lou Williams (0-for-7 FGs) and Danilo Gallinari (4-for-6 3FGs but minus-29 plus/minus). Still, with Tony Snell and Solomon Hill keeping seats warm for Bogdan Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter, respectively, Atlanta offered the Sixers a taste of what might await them if the Hawks (34-30) have to emerge from a Play-In game for a first-round series.
Atlanta held Philly to just six points in the opening 6.5 minutes of play, racing to a 21-8 lead until Ben Simmons took matters into his own hands. In his own return after missing a game due to heel pain, Clint Capela was solid in short stints (11-and-15 double-double over just 17 minutes) versus a balanced but hostile Philly front.
This is the dawning of The Age of… Coby White? Well, he is an Aquarius, so, we’ll go with that! Bulls coach Billy Donovan is turning to White, who got his starting spot back after a month on the bench once LaVine hit the shelf, as more of a primary offensive creator. The second-year guard and 2020 All-Rookie Second-Teamer is coming through with more efficient numbers of late (last 9 starts: 18.6 PPG, 6.6 APG, 39.1 3FG%). He’s already become less tentative as an interior finisher than he was in his rookie year, but there have been signs his consistency as an outside shooter is coming around, too. He sunk 4 of 8 triples yesterday to aid his team-high 21 points versus Milwaukee.
The Raptors game preceding the latest LaVine-Young Classic occurred only because it was one of four games, due to COVID-related postponements, the Bulls had to cram into their post-All-Star-Break schedule. They still have two more squeezed into their final May run, at Charlotte and versus Boston on back-to-back dates toward the end of next week.
Today’s game is one of three SEGABABAs left that Donovan’s Bulls have to manage, and the coach has to balance the desire to preserve bodies with the growing sense the race for a final Play-In spot is about over for Chicago (26-37, 3.0 games behind 10-seed Washington). Bear in mind, barring some Lottery luck, the Bulls’ next first-rounder went out the door with Wendell Carter, so they’re tempted to keep fighting until they’re mathematically eliminated. But including the last loss here in Atlanta, the Bulls are 1-4 on road back-to-backs, the sole victory coming against Vucevic in Orlando back in the first week of February.
Vucevic played last night (6-for-18 2FGs, 1-for-9 3FGs vs. MIL, five straight double-doubles) but was listed pre-game versus the Bucks as probable, working his way through a tight adductor muscle. It was the All-Star’s fourth straight-game logging 35+ minutes, tying the longest run he’s had this season and the most since arriving from Orlando at the Trade Deadline. Now listed as questionable today, Vooch appeared in four back-to-backs last month and appears to be a candidate to at least be reduced to limited minutes today, if any.
The anticipated restraint of 2021’s All-Star Skills Challenge winner provides the opportunity for Collins (last 6 games: 5.3 RPG, 2.5 FTAs/game), who missed the prior Bulls game due to injury, to enjoy a bounceback game, and for Capela (22-and-10 and a pair of blocks vs. CHI on April 9) to positively impact the game for longer stretches.
Donovan will try to counter Atlanta’s frontline with struggling Lotto rookie Patrick Williams (6.1 PPG in last 13 games), veteran Thaddeus Young, Gwinnettian Al-Farouq Aminu, and former Celtic Daniel Theis (16 points, 10 rebounds vs. MIL). The bigs will all strive to stay out of each other’s way while crafting driving lanes for White and Thaddeus’ fellow 80’s baby on the Bulls, guard Garrett Temple.
As was the case in Philly, someone other than Gallo (4-for-8 3FGs vs. CHI on April 9, rest of team 3-for-19) will have to hit open perimeter shots to keep the Bulls stuck in the stable. If Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter (both questionable) are no-goes and Young (24.3 3FG% in past seven games) remains in a deep-freeze, hopefully Lou Will can provide some home cooking similar to his last breakout game at The Farm (4-for-4 fourth-quarter 3FGs vs. MIL) that helped Trae-less Atlanta beat the Bucks.
The Bulls’ first-half stampede in Atlanta last month was attributed to the play of LaVine and Vucevic, but Tomas Satoransky (8 of 10 assists in first half @ ATL on April 9), played a crucial role despite going 0-for-6 from the field on the evening. Coach Nate McMillan’s adjustments helped slow Satoransky’s facilitations, and the addition of Sato’s former teammate, Kris Dunn, should keep the Bulls guard stuck in neutral on offense as he tires of chasing Trae’s taillights to the other end of the floor.
It’s a formality at this point, as the Raptors prepare to face the Jazz in Utah and these Bulls are unlikely to run the table, that the Hawks (Magic Number vs. TOR and CHI: 1) can turn their full attention to avoiding the Play-In series (Top-6 Magic Number: 8, tied to BOS and/or MIA, who face off twice over next ten days). But with the NBA postseason in view, this game can serve as practice for eliminating teams that find themselves on the ropes. Against a team that won all 3 games (as a 22-43 team) versus Atlanta last year, one that, despite their struggles, has taken at least one game head-to-head over the Hawks in every season since 2016-17, this contest is also a good opportunity to practice pursuing a series sweep.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Psst… Benny! Sweep The Leg. Do you have a problem with that?”
A team getting healthy just in time to make some noise in the Eastern Conference Playoffs? That’s what head coach Doc Rivers has with his Philadelphia 76ers. They’re seeking to solidify their Top-2 finish, and mathematically ensure first-round homecourt, with the aid of another home victory today versus our hobbled Atlanta Hawks (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philly).
MVP finalist Joel Embiid has either missed or was DNP’d for 19 of 62 games, Seth Curry 13, Ben Simmons 12, Tobias Harris 9. Yet all appeared in the starting lineup as Philadelphia (41-21) waxed, on and off, the Hawks in Wednesday’s 127-83 win at Wells Fargo Center. Even former Hawk Mike Scott, having been shelved for 20 games so far, dragged his giddy-up on a bum hip through nine cleanup minutes on Rivers’ behalf. While the outcome was deflating for Atlanta, the Sixers’ collective coming together ought to be aspirational for the Hawks, as the race for final playoff seeding enters the final half-month.
Now that he has his infinity gems and a roster bearing the best in-conference record (26-9 entering today; Bulls, Pistons, Pacers, and the Magic twice in games next month) at full health, Coach Doc (91-89 career playoff record) can now center his attention on chasing Brooklyn (1.5 games ahead) for the top-seed. After that, he will be able to spend this year’s postseason chasing after Hall of Famers Jerry Sloan (98-104), Red Auerbach (99-69), and Larry Brown (100-93). A halfway-successful conference finals appearance would perch Rivers at 4th all-time for playoff victories, comfortably behind third-ranked Gregg Popovich (170-114).
Like most Atlanta sports fans, I rarely get what I want (I’m told a few football fans around the ATL could use a hug today). But if I could get greedy, I’d love to have the Hawks (34-29, 16-18 in away games) finish at .500 on the road for the first time since the 2015-16 club went 21-20 (should’ve been 22-19, winners of the Southeast Division, and a 3-seed with a season-finale win over Ramon Sessions in Washington that year. But, again, I rarely get what I want).
At minimum, this would necessitate Trae Young (questionable, sprained ankle), Bogdan Bogdanovic (questionable, sore hammy), and Clint Capela (newly questionable, heel pain), all gametime decisions as per coach Nate McMillan, to be healthy and functional this evening, because the outmatched Brandon Goodwin and Solomon Hill, as top-line starters against the Sixers, does not a .500 road team make. The scarcity of backcourt perimeter shooting threats made Wednesday’s outcome, a season-low in scoring eclipsing Monday’s season-low in Motown, inevitable.
Silver lining, frankly, is that game wasn’t even the worst beatdown of the night in the NBA (“Good night, Luke Walton!”) or even the second-worst performance by a local sports team this week. I present, for your consideration, the Five Stripes crashing at the Benz in the second half on Tuesday. And let’s not do 7-inning double-headers around here anytime soon, shall we?
The Hawks shouldn’t look down, but what they can lock down, beginning tomorrow with the Zach LaVine-less Bulls in town coming off today’s home game against Milwaukee, is a .500 overall record. Breaking-even, or so much as a game above it, will do wonders for the Hawks (tie-breakers over BOS and MIA, each 1.0 game behind ATL) securing a Top-6 seed and ducking the Play-In scenarios. That will require rotation guys like Tony Snell (upgraded to probable, sprained ankle), Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari (combined 3-for-13 2FGs, 0-for-3 3FGs on Wednesday) to get back to steadier roles on the floor, capably supplementing the starters.
As I often suggest, this team is in no position to look ahead, but that doesn’t mean we fans can’t. Many teams, notably the Knicks, Celts and heat, have to spend a chunk of their remaining schedule on the road, but our Hawks need to fly the coop only once more after today. Even that away game, next Thursday, will be at coach McMillan’s old stomping grounds. In Indianapolis, last night’s loss to the Kyrie-less and Harden-less (but clearly not KD-less) Nets dropped Nate Bjorkgren’s club to 11-19 in their own building. The Pacers may not even strive to be a 9-seed at Play-In time.
So, for the Hawks to get to 37-35… tomorrow versus Chicago, next week at Indy, the week after, back home, versus Orlando, and a few days later, Houston in Game #72. Win three of just those four, and it’s a winning season, on lock, that sure wasn’t looking like one when the 15-20 Hawks were down 16 with four minutes to play in Orlando on March 3. Win all four, and it would take a perfect run by the Washington Triple-Double Team to catch up with Atlanta.
The challenge for the Hawks is that they’ll need four Ws in their pocket well before the Magicians and Rockettes kick into town. Six wins keeps the Hornets out of reach, makes New York have to go 5-4 to ensure homecourt, and puts pressure on the heat and Celts to be way better than they’ve been.
With that in mind, it’s imperative that by this time next week, we (especially the coaching staff) have clarity on the healthy and productive returns of De’Andre Hunter (sore knee; we do love drafting Philly kids around here, don’t we?) and this season’s former ironman, Kevin Huerter (day-to-day as per AJC’s Sarah K. Spencer, sprained shoulder). “A guy like De’Andre, you have to work him in slowly,” McMillan told Andy and Randy on 92.9 FM’s mid-day show this afternoon. The upcoming slate of tough but home-friendly games is a good time to do just that.
What we can’t afford to hear, by next week, are bromides of how well unavailable Hawk players are faring on training tables and at shootarounds. At season’s end, we also can’t bear to witness a slew of rusty players who haven’t competed together as a recent collective, playing for their Please-No-Play-In lives, against a random Booby Trapper on our floor trying to go out with a sixty-piece.
Let’s Go Hawks!