In his own words: Nate McMillan on the Pacers going in a different direction
"The decision was made. I respect their decision and we gave it our best shot."
Nate McMillan spent Wednesday cleaning out his office at the St. Vincent Center after being informed by Kevin Pritchard, the Pacers president of basketball operations, that they were going in a different direction.
Meanwhile, McMillan’s phone was constantly buzzing. He’s still returning calls and text messages. His plan was to return home to Raleigh, N.C., but he has a lot of stuff to take care of first.
He hasn’t seen his wife in three months and is eager to soon meet his grandson for the first time.
McMillan was in good spirits — “I’m doing OK,” he said — after losing his job 24 hours ago. He’s spent the last seven seasons with the Pacers, including the last four as head coach. He took ownership for the team’s performance and said he knew they needed to advance past the first round this season.
But they did not. The Pacers were swept in four games by the Miami Heat. So despite 45 wins in a shortened season, nearly 200 games lost due to injury and earning the fourth seed, their postseason run lasted just one week.
McMillan talked with me by phone on Thursday about the 2019-20 season, managing player injuries, signing a contract extension and ultimately coming up short in the postseason.
Read the highlights from our conversation below — and click here to listen to the entire interview.
How have things been for you in the last 24 hours because a lot has happened — with you guys flying back to Indy and then getting word yesterday from Kevin Pritchard.
A lot has happened since entering the bubble what, two months ago. A lot has been going on with trying to get the team ready (and) prepared for the restart, getting into the restart and then going into the playoffs and not having success there. Returning to Indy and being told that the organization is gonna go in a different direction.
It’s been a whirlwind the last two, three months. Really since this pandemic has been going on.
What was the biggest thing Kevin touched on? Obviously it’s a private conversation, but was there one big, overlying factor that Kevin and the Pacers gave you?
No, no. They want the organization to go in a different direction. And I understand that and respect it. The last four years the team not having success in the playoffs — not that this was something that he said, but I knew it was part of it. For me, I had made up in my mind at that beginning of the season — Kevin and I had talked — that this was something that probably was going to happen or should happen at the end of the season. My plan was to get this team out of the first round. … And I really felt we could do that if we were healthy.
Injuries are a part of it. You have to deal with that during the course of a season and into the playoffs. That’s not an excuse. I hold myself accountable for the success that this team — or what we haven’t done in the playoffs. Somebody has to take responsibly for that and I do take responsibility for that.
What kind of challenge is it like for a head coach having to talk about injuries nonstop throughout a season? Because that was discussed more than basketball and more than the results — good or bad — on the court. How much does that weigh on you?
Years ago, the coach didn’t talk about it; the trainer would talk about it. They would leave that information for the trainers to report to reporters, but now they’ve basically taken the voices from the trainers and now the coaches have to report on injuries and the health of players. It’s really just a part of the job. You have to discuss the injuries…
It was relentless, though.
Well, a lot of times you guys want more information and you’re asking for more than I can give you. A lot of times I’m waiting for the same thing that you’re waiting on — if a player is available, the health of that player, the status of that player. Normally for me, I would get a report from (head athletic trainer) Josh (Corbeil) right before our meetings in the morning, the status of players as they wake up and how they are feeling. Sometimes that may go until game time where we still don’t know whether this player is gonna play or be able to play. And if he does play, will there be restrictions?
You’re basically putting your game plan on hold sometimes, you’re making sure that you have a backup plan or you’re going to go in a different direction if this player is not available. It’s part of what we have to do and unfortunately for us, we just had a number of guys in and out of the lineup all throughout the season.
It was just some dumb luck that continued to happen over the last couple of years. With the understanding of those injuries, do you have any regrets of things you did or did not do, or wish that you had tried?
Not really. What I try to do with my teams is I try to put the players — people talk about style of play and you have to play a certain style or a certain way. Your players will dictate your style of play, how fast they can play or how slow they play or what type of team they establish themselves in being. So, I always just try to look at the players that we have, try to put them in the best position to be successful, try to have them work as a collective unit that are playing off of each other and trying to take advantage of their individual skills.
You try to establish that. It’s really difficult for a team to build that chemistry when guys are in and out of the lineup. The lineup that we started with in the bubble was a lineup we had never played before — which was Victor (Oladipo), Malcolm (Brogdon), (T.J.) Warren and Aaron Holiday with Myles Turner. We had never played that combination of players.
And 23 different starting lineups.
Yeah, and consistency is something that the players want but also the coach wants. Knowing that lineup and us getting comfortable with a starting lineup and a rotation coming off the bench helps everybody. It helps the players, it helps the coaches to know what he is going to be working with, his rotation, when the players are going into the game or come out of the game. All of that helps and a lot of times we had to adjust and adapt because guys were in and out of the lineup.
I’m wondering what the flight home was like Tuesday afternoon. You didn’t get a chance to have your exit interviews with players, you were just leaving the NBA bubble after being there isolated for about seven weeks. Was everybody quiet or were there conversations about the season?
No, everybody was asleep. I think our game (on Monday) was over at like 9 or 10 and we had to pack. We had been living there for a month and a half, almost two months. We had to go back to our rooms and pack up everything because we had to catch a flight out the next morning. So I think a lot of people — I know I didn’t get to bed until 4 o’clock (in the morning) from packing. … It was dark up there and pretty much the whole plane, including the coaches, slept most of the flight back.
And this was at 1 in the afternoon, not a late-night flight, so that is telling. When you got on that flight home, were you at all thinking about your job status considering you had just signed a contract extension a month earlier?
I’ve been in this business long enough that you always know that things can happen. Certainly losing four games and this is the second (straight) season that we got swept in the playoffs. Not that I thought that this was going to happen, but it didn’t surprise me. Let me put it that way.
You have to be prepared for anything.
Things can happen like that. The organization looks at situations like that, I look at situations like that. They felt that they needed to go in a different direction and, to tell you the truth, I basically had said that at the beginning of the season to myself and to the organization. That if I didn’t get the team out of the first round, I think they should consider looking at someone else and give someone else an opportunity.
But signing that extension just made things a little strange. After not having success in the playoffs you just signed an extension. But, as I mentioned, the decision was made. I respect their decision and we gave it our best shot.
Nate McMillan (right) worked for Kevin Pritchard (left) in Portland and Indiana.
It was just a weird dynamic considering the extension. Did you hear from ownership at all or was this directly from Kevin?
Kevin and I met. We basically talked and he told me where the organization was going, their plans and we talked about the team and our past. We’ve been together for a long time, I think 11 years. We said our goodbyes, we’ll stay in contact and go from there.
So then, what’s next for you? You’ve been flooded with phone calls; it went straight to voicemail when I first called yesterday.
(laughs) Yeah, there’s been a lot of support. I’m really amazed at the number of people extending support and wanting to talk to me and keep me lifted. People I haven’t heard from in years. I’ve been on the phone for the last 24 hours. I’m returning phone calls, returning text messages. Just a lot of love and support coming from a lot of people out there.
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