Matt Calkins: Tenure of success, frustration

Commentary: Matt Calkins




So I flipped to “King of Queens” the other day, and while I’m not proud of that, I do think the episode plot is particularly pertinent right now.

It centered around the main character, Doug, having to “roast” his boss at a company function and his crippling fear that his jokes would fall flat.

Well, it turned out that once Doug took the mic, his punchlines zinged every table in the room. Until he made a certain bathroom joke that really didn’t work for a guy with prostate cancer.

Doug had no idea. But it didn’t matter. That’s all the audience would remember.

I just hope Nate McMillan doesn’t suffer the same fate.

“The Sarge” was fired as head coach of the Trail Blazers Thursday on a morning in which team brass Wited-out half its personnel. He joined the traded Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace, along with the waived Greg Oden and Chris Johnson, as casualties of the mid-season roster implosion.

McMillan ends his tenure as the first coach to have led Portland to the playoffs since 2000, a feat he accomplished in each of the past three seasons. But will people remember that?

Is he the punchline deliverer, or just the butt of the joke?

I suppose he is partly responsible for his ouster. Throughout the season, McMillan hinted at his players lacking heart while expressing bewilderment as to how to get through to them. And part of you just wanted to scream, “well … then what are you doing here?!”

Come on — a struggling salesman can’t blame his figures on the customers, but there was Nate, shrugging his shoulders while answering questions as though he’d already reached the fifth stage of grief. An NBA coach simply accepting?

That’s unacceptable.

McMillan also could have taught Stubbornness 101. No matter how heavily he was criticized, Nate stayed super-glued to his ways.

He refused to give his younger players minutes. He’d leave his starters on the floor with a 40-point lead in the fourth quarter.

And you wonder why he ever had a dry-erase board when, for years, his offense was simply “give it to Brandon Roy and get out of the way!”

Albert Einstein famously said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But he forgot to mention that doing the same thing over and over again can drive an entire fan base insane, too.

Still, in a lot of ways, these flaws were teenage pimples on a Brad Pitt face.

Can you think of an NBA coach who has been as tormented as Nate McMillan over the past five years? How about one expected to do so much with so little?

McMillan has essentially been the Odysseus of basketball, running into a new roadblock whenever he thought he had a clear path home, and yet … he kept his teams on course. He lost Oden in December of 2009 and still guided Portland to 50 wins. He lost a never-the-same Roy for 33 games last year, had a front-court shallower than Snookie, and still pulled out 48 victories.

Team president Larry Miller said Thursday that McMillan no longer had the ability to motivate certain players, a point that Nate himself apparently conceded. But don’t say that was a longstanding problem. You don’t latch on as an Olympic assistant coach and draw praise from Kobe Bryant by being C-SPAN-dull.

Who knows what caused the Blazers’ eardrums to eventually put McMillan’s voice on mute? There was a report of Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton tuning out after he chewed them out at practice. Aww. Poor Millionaires.

There were also rumors of Wallace being “subversive” and Camby joining the mutineers. Could the former have started because McMillan sat a resistant Wallace due to a finger injury? Was the forever-fragile Camby discontent with his minutes?

We’ll never know for sure, but as I’m sitting here at the Rose Garden covering the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament, I can’t help but think of that slimeball stereotype that typifies college coaches.

Manipulative. Me-first. Even malicious. McMillan was none of those things, so if there was a locker-room revolt, I’d bet half of Paul Allen’s stock shares that it wasn’t on Nate.

NBA coaches — including Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson — will never earn fanfare equaling their cities’ favorite players. But in many ways, McMillan and the now venerated Roy share a great deal.

They both were part of the franchise’s revitalization, enjoyed the organization’s greatest highs of the past decade, and just-so-happened to go out on a not-so-sugary note.

Doesn’t mean both don’t deserve acclaim.

McMillan didn’t accomplish what he wanted to, and as a result, these rabid Northwest fans are justified in their displeasure.

But once some time has passed, try to remember Nate fondly. He’s the Sarge.

He deserves a salute.

Matt Calkins cover the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or