Despite a 25-16 record and a stretch of nine wins in 13 games and a comfortable position in the standings, there’s no getting around the fact this is a lost season for the Blazers.
“Lost,” of course, is a relative term. Portland isn’t as lost as, say, the New Jersey Nets, who are the Amelia Earhart of the NBA.
But regardless of how this season plays out, it is destined to be a lost year for perhaps the most important question about the Blazers’ future: The evaluation of Nate McMillan.
Now in his fifth year as Portland’s coach, McMillan has taken the team from 21 wins to 32 to 41 to 54. He has proven to be an ideal coach for a developing team, and now he has them beating the likes of the Lakers and the Magic — despite a makeshift lineup impacted by a slew of injuries.
The Blazers, to their credit, have declined to use the injuries as an excuse. So what if Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla are out for the year, leaving the center duties to Juwan Howard, who is 36 years old and not really a center? So what if Brandon Roy missed Friday’s game against Orlando? So what if Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw have missed extended periods?
The Blazers have demonstrated enough moxie to overcome those setbacks.
As McMillan said after one recent victory, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the credit.”
Or, as he said after Friday’s victory: “We’re playing good basketball. We’re playing the game the right way. We’re playing the game together. I think that must happen regardless of who you have.”
Those are lessons that will pay dividends should the Blazers ever get healthy. But they also make this season impossible to assess.
Because the question for McMillan is whether or not he is the coach to take the Blazers to the next step in their progression. It’s one thing to turn a 21-win team into a competent club; it’s quite another to make it a championship contender.
Can Portland win a title when its fourth-quarter offense consists solely of isolation plays for Brandon Roy at the top of the key? Can McMillan get a center involved in the offense, provided he ever has one to work with? Can he devise the kind of defensive scheme that can take a team deep into the playoffs?
Those questions have been raised this season, and the frustration is that we won’t come close to learning the answers in the next few months.
It’s like asking Tiger Woods to demonstrate that he can win a tournament without a putter in his bag. He probably can do it, but if he fails, what does that really prove?
McMillan’s offense has been derided by some members of the media. The Blazers consistently play at the slowest pace of any team in the NBA, and their late-game reliance on Roy appears painfully predictable.
On the other hand, last year they had the most efficient offense in the league, according to basketball-reference.com. This year, Portland is sixth in offensive efficiency, which proves . . . nothing. It’s like trying to assess a new beer by drinking it through a straw.
Prior to this season, the Blazers exercised an option clause in McMillan’s contract that takes him through the 2010-11 season. At the time, the coach said he would sign only one-year deals from that point forward.
And regardless of whether or not he sticks to that plan, the guess here is that McMillan is the best long-term coach for this team — as if that matters. The NBA, for all of the riches and all of the fame afforded successful coaches, is a players league.
Coaches can break down all the film in the world and draw up the most creative plays ever devised, but it simply won’t matter without the proper players. Just three years ago, Doc Rivers was a moron coaching a 24-win team. Then Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen turned him into a genius and he won a championship.
McMillan to this point has effectively avoided moron status, which in itself is an accomplishment for an NBA coach.
But the question remains as to whether he can reach the realm of genius. And the frustration is that, regardless of how it plays out, this season will not provide the answer.
Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne