Tuesday night there was a basketball game at the Rose Garden in Portland. The Blazers were there, kind of. The Milwaukee Bucks did what a team with a real shot at the Playoffs–and by real I mean that literally; Portland will not make the Playoffs even if right now they have a mathematical chance–should do late in the season, they saw a team that has very little left to play for and not quite as much left to play with, and ran them out of the gym.
But that’s not the story that anybody will care to talk about Tuesday. And it’s not the story that I’m going to talk about right now, since I’m going to kill two birds here and use this recap to kind of summarize my feelings of the Nate McMillan situation.
The 2011-12 season has been surreal. Tuesday night it got a little surrealer (that’s not a word, but you get the idea). Around the mid-point of the first quarter, in a half empty, listless Rose Garden, Brandon Roy and his wife strolled out of one of the off-court entrances and took court side seats. They were shown coming in on the overhead Jumbotron, and the crowd rose to its feet, as would be expected, and gave him a long–not super long but still long–ovation. Then the game started again.
For months, as this team has gone from great to horrible on a slow and painful slide, Brandon has been conspicuously absent. His presence has been missing from the locker room, from the floor, now from the side of the building. He simply hasn’t been there. Then Tuesday night, he was there. And nobody expected it.
Back in 2008-09 when I was Kaleb Canales-ing (unpaid interning) with the Blazers communications department, I was working on a blog piece about the relationship between Brandon Roy and his head coach, Nate McMillan. The story never ran (things got crazy busy at the end of the season and the blog then was a sliver of what it is now) but I did have a chance to talk to both Nate and Brandon one-on-one about their respective counter-part. I also had a chance to talk to New Orleans Hornets’ head coach Monty Williams, then an assistant coach with the Blazers, about both of them.
During a pregame warm-up I tracked Monty down under one of the hoops where he was taking a break from rebounding, probably for Travis Outlaw or Martell Webster (who was injured that season but did a lot of pre-game shooting). I talked to Monty about Brandon and Nate for only a couple of minutes–enough time though for Monty to tell me he thought that Brandon would one day be MVP of the league–before I asked him this question:
“Who do you think is more important to the future of this franchise, Brandon or Nate?”
Monty paused for a second, then told me he didn’t want to answer that question, then asked me what kind of question that was. I felt like I had embarrassed myself on the job, and the interviewed ended almost immediately there after (listening back to the tape later, Monty sounded more like he thought it was a silly question and not an insulting question and there’s no doubt he forgot about it a millisecond after I asked it).
To me, the answer to that question is perfectly clear now in 2012 with both Brandon and Nate Blazers of the past. Each was as important to the franchise as the other.
This season, the losing, the trades, the blowing it up, the tanking, is and has always been about Brandon Roy. But it has also been about Brandon Roy and Nate McMillan. Brandon was built for Nate because Nate built an offense for Brandon. Nate won big games (in the regular season) because Brandon was there to have the ball at the end and make game-winning plays. When you remove Brandon from the equation (or try to replace him with facsimiles like Wesley Matthews or Gerald Wallace) what Nate has built ceases to function.
I don’t think Nate was a one-dimensional coach, I just think he knew which horse to ride. He choose Brandon because Brandon was the one that was going to carry him the furthest.
When Nate was fired last week at the trade deadline, I got a terse email from my dad. “Looks like a desperation move to me,” it said. He wasn’t wrong. It was a desperation move, but it was the only move. The removal of the Brandon Roy decals from the side of the Rose Garden was highly symbolic (and quite possibly the real motivation for him showing up on Tuesday, you know, as an effort to show people that he still exists), but it was also practical. Brandon is no longer the face of the franchise, so his face and likeness no longer represent the franchise, so his face probably doesn’t need to be on the side of the franchise’s headquarters.
The firing of Nate McMillan served much of the same purpose. Surely Nate could have stayed around Portland to coach another young group of NBAers to the very top of super-stardom (it’s my personal opinion that if Nate McMillan isn’t on the top of every club’s list of potential head coaches for next year should they need one they might want to rethink what they’re doing), but there would probably have always been that lingering feeling that he missed his real chance when he first had it.
The Blazers needed to start over, really start over. Get beyond Brandon (and Greg Oden, but he was never really here in the first place). Get beyond the patch-work rebuilds (Marcus Camby, Gerald Wallace, Andre Miller), and just burn the whole thing to the ground. Brandon was gone. It made sense that the coach that made him who he was should go with him.
Tuesday Brandon hung around for part of the game, he was gone for a big chunk of the middle, and got some love from the TV audience. Ostensibly he was there to surprise Jamal Crawford for his birthday. He certainly surprised the few people who decided to waste a Tuesday evening so they could catch a glimpse of Luke Babbitt’s new haircut.
Brandon didn’t address the media. Who knows, maybe he never will. He’s not part of this team (literally and figuratively). He’s no longer a professional basketball player. He’s just a regular guy. No reason a regular guy should be subjected to questions from reporters.
Nobody but Brandon really knows his motivation for showing up. True if he’d been a month and a half earlier he would have had the Rose Garden on their feet for an hour and reduced to tears. But maybe he didn’t want that.
Nate McMillan will be back in the Rose Garden too someday. It won’t be as a civilian, but I’m sure he’ll get a good ovation. I’m sure the same is true for Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby when they return (April 4th for Gerald and April 9th for Marcus). And should Greg Oden find himself on an NBA team at some point in the future, I’m sure his ovation will tear the roof off.
What’s done now is the speculation of when will Brandon come back, and what will the reaction be. What’s also done forever is the insistence by anyone who can get a call through on sports talk radio or post a comment on OregonLive that Nate McMillan should be fired.
To be honest, I think it would have seemed out of place for Brandon to come back with Nate still on the sidelines. It makes sense that they should leave the Blazers in the same season. Brandon’s best years as a pro will always and forever be Nate McMillan’s best years as a coach of this team, and that’s not a coincidence.
Just one thing about Tuesday’s game:
- I clocked Kaleb Canales’s first home post-game presser at 1:36. He looked nervous. The whole thing was a bit awkward. He’ll get better. He did say, however, that he has faith in every single one of the guys he puts on the floor. So he at least knows what not to say in a press conference (he never used the word tanking)
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