McMillan’s case for coach of year is strong

Commentary: Matt Calkins

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Tired of getting everything you want? Haven’t heard the word “no” since that Christmas party when you were asked if you had a flaw?

Worry not. This is just the task for you.

Track down Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan when you have a chance one day, then shove a tape recorder in the man’s face and ask: “Coach, what have you done to help this team?”

You’ll get turned down like an NPR host at an NRA meeting.

There are few topics on which McMillan is not conversant, but he seems to have been issued a gag order on all matters regarding himself. Despite keeping injury-cursed Portland united and in the playoff hunt all season, the sixth-year coach has steered clear of any self-adulation.

A knee-less team consistently producing joint efforts? You’d think there would be at least one little horn-toot, but no.

However, Tuesday morning the Blazers spoke loudly by offering McMillan a two-year contract extension; easing the 46-year-old’s mind along with most who bleed red and black.

But now that we know McMillan will be Portland’s coach through at least 2013, the more pressing question becomes — is he the NBA’s top coach in 2011?

It’s hardly an argument that requires his words.

The “Vote Nate” committee would first call attention to this: No coach in the NBA thought he would begin the season with so much and suddenly find himself with so little.

National publications were touting the Blazers as the Lakers’ primary challengers for the Western Conference crown. ESPN cited perennial All-Star Brandon Roy and budding center Greg Oden as reasons why Portland was the No. 1 team of the future.

And when both were struck down with knee injuries, even McMillan disclosed his melancholy, saying “Things were pretty. It’s like a tornado almost. Things are sitting pretty, it’s a sunny day, looking bright and all of a sudden something comes through and, ‘Boom.’ ”

Maybe so.

But McMillan sure knows how to build a shelter.

In the 34 games Roy has sat out this year, the Blazers are 23-11. You don’t see Houston or Utah excelling like that sans their ex-superstars. Furthermore, in the 19 games starting center Marcus Camby has missed, the Blazers are 13-6.

But they have LaMarcus Aldridge! the “Vote No on Nate” committee bellows.

True, but for all we know, L.A. is McMillan’s Frankenstein’s monster.

At the beginning of the season, Nate said with absolute assurance that Aldirdge could soar to a level rivaling Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan in their primes, eliciting scoffs from media members accustomed to Aldridge doing the limbo beneath his potential.

And yet, just more than four months later, he earned Western Conference Player of the Month honors and was hailed by LeBron James as the biggest snub in All-Star history.

Who’s to say McMillan didn’t instill that confidence?

Who’s to say his belief didn’t water that tree?

Last November, ESPN’s Marc Stein wrote that “the most important factor for determining an NBA coach’s success is the quality of his players. But a very close and perennially underrated second factor is the ability to get those players to respect you and respond.”

Aldridge responded. And when Roy returned and Wallace joined the team, the Blazers responded. And every time Portland has lost three or more games in a row, it has responded with at least three consecutive wins.

That’s getting through to your players. That’s not letting your team get away. And when it all adds up to a 37-27 record and a current sixth seed in the uber-competitive Western Conference, that’s an open-and-shut case for Coach of the Y...

Hold on a second, “Vote No on Nate” just purchased a block of airtime.

They’re saying that George Karl has actually made the Nuggets better since Carmelo Anthony left. They’re pointing out how Philadelphia, which was 27-55 last year, is 33-31 under Doug Collins’ watch. They’re crying that Tom Thibodeau transformed the Bulls from an eighth seed to a current No. 2 seed that swept Miami this year.

But more than anything, they’re stomping their feet and flailing their arms while screaming how Gregg Popovich has the Spurs at 52-12 despite the fact that Tim Duncan is a shell of his old self, and that no player on the team averages more than 18 points or 33 minutes a game.

Jeez. Buzzkill.

But they might have a point.

When the Blazers were initially thought to be the sole team from the West that could challenge the Lakers, and now there’s another one in first place by six games, you kind of have to give Popovich the nod.

So maybe this isn’t the year for the coach known as “Sarge” to get his medal of honor. But the success he’s had in Portland shouldn’t stay camouflaged.

Matt Calkins covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or matt.calkins@columbian.com