Be honest, whether you saw it happen right before you eyes live or on television, heard those chilling words come from Wheels' mouth over the radio, or read about it the next day in the newspaper, the moment you found out Greg Oden broke his kneecap and would be out for the remainder of the season, you thought the season was over, done, finished. I'll be the first to admit it. While the team had the courage, inspiration, and poise to fight back and defeat the Houston Rockets that night in December, I sat slouched in my seat up in section 329. All hope had been lost in my mind, nothing could resurrect my spirits for the 2009-2010 season. While I was having my own personal pity party, Coach McMillan didn't bat an eye, instead deciding to face adversity head on and become the commander in charge his troops needed him to be. He truly was "Sarge". Whether it was losing Pryzbilla for the season in Dallas after tearing his patella or sporadically losing players here and there for multiple games at a time, Nate McMillan was always the calming presence.
The saying "when it rains it pours" couldn't have been more accurate. After realizing his team didn't even have enough healthy bodies to have a regular five-on-five scrimmage in practice and upset at his team's lackluster play through the first month, Coach decided to take matters into his own hands and get a few runs in with the squad. During what was said to be a great practice, seemingly the spark the team needed, it happened. Coach ruptured his Achilles tendon, causing him to miss four games while the team had a road trip back East. Without their leader, the team crumbled by going 1-3 on one of the easier Eastern swings of the season (New York, Indiana, Cleveland, Milwaukee). From the time Oden went down, Portland was 12-8, to the time everyone but the two men in the middle were completely healthy, Coach Nate had managed to weather the storm to the tune of a 31-24 record, good enough to still sit in 8th place in the ultra competitive Western Conference, despite losing Brandon Roy for over a month, Batum for the first 45 games of the year, and Aldridge for three games.
To date Portland has missed a total of 295 games, second only to the Golden State Warriors, but still on pace for at least 50 wins and making a late charge, winning 14 of their last 18 games. Expectations were through the roof for this young team coming off of a co-divisional title, 54 wins, and the franchise's first playoff experience in six years but injuries compounded upon a slow start derailed those expectations quite early. Finally, with a healthy, capable center, a roster as healthy as it'll get, and added team chemistry, everyone is seeing just how dangerous these Trail Blazers are going to be come late April. While a lot of naysayers will point to the fact Andre Miller wasn't starting over Steve Blake until December 15th, and in hindsight it should have been Andre's job from day one since he out-performed Blake in the pre-season, sometimes there are more shades of gray to a black and white situation the fans seem to believe. Coach had his star player, Brandon Roy, come out publicly and say he was more comfortable playing alongside Blake. All of a sudden, Coach McMillan is in a "Catch-22". Does he start the more talented Andre and upset the franchise player or does he try to go with what worked last year and push Miller away? Agree or disagree with how he handled the situation, there's not much else in the area of coaching Nate should be seconded guessed for.
Although his best coaching performance of his young career, this is no one-hit wonder for Nate McMillan. After inheriting quite possibly the most dysfunctional team of the early-mid 2000's with nearly all of the talent gutted from the roster due to a pledge to clean up the team's image, Coach had to take a step backwards before moving in the correct direction. Ever since his first year of duty with the Trail Blazers, Coach Nate has seen his win totals increase drastically from 21 in 2006, up 11 to 32 wins the following year in 07, to 41 victories in 2008 without #1 pick Greg Oden which also included a decade-best 13-game winning streak, and all the way up to 54 wins, a co-divisional championship, and not only a spot in the playoffs for the first time in six years but home court advantage to boot. Numerically impossible, Portland will not see their win total improve for the first time under McMillan's tenure, but given all the obstacles this team has had to hurdle over the span of the 2010 season, winning anywhere from 50-52 games this year would be a dream come true for this fan, especially after the way I felt that unforgettable night in December.
Arguments could be made for only a handful of coaches this year like George Karl, Scotty Brooks, Jerry Sloan, and Scott Skiles. If the award was for most valuable coach, hands down it would go to the Nuggets' Karl, who has seen his team take a nose dive, losers of five of their last seven, since he left to get cancer treatment. He is the one dominant personality able to keep Melo, Smith, and Martin in check. Brooks appears to be the trendy choice but how are his Thunder any different than Nate's Blazers last year? The Thunder have only seen one starter miss three games this year, Kristic, and won't get home court advantage in the first round, nor will they eclipse the 54 win barrier Portland accomplished in 09. Skiles has seen his team soar since the All-Star break, going 17-5 and entrenching themselves in the 5th seed out East. Although a pre-season pick to be lottery bound, is finishing 5th in the weaker Eastern conference good enough to be crowned Coach of the Year? It truly is a travesty Jerry Sloan has never won this award and after seeing the same core of players stumble down the stretch of the 09 season, ending 48-34 and a five-game exit at the hands of L.A., Sloan has been able to keep Utah in the Northwest title hunt year round despite distractions from Carlos Boozer early on about his future with the organization. While a nice story is happening in Salt Lake City, it's safe to say had Karl not seen a re-emergence of his cancer and Portland not have been hit so hard with injuries, Utah would still be 3rd fiddle in the NW. When the dust clears on the 2010 season, everybody will have a chance to soak in exactly what Coach McMillan was able to accomplish and realize how incredible of a coaching performance it was.