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McMillan Eager to Get Going with Pacers

by Scott Agness | @ScottAgness

August 3, 2013

The conversations first began after a sleepless night. Following one year out of the NBA, where he had played and coached since 1986, Nate McMillan wanted back in.

One summer morning, he dialed his former boss, Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard, to express his interest in joining Frank Vogel’s staff. This was before Vogel even had an opening. Like everyone else, McMillan assumed Brian Shaw, Vogel’s top aid for the past two seasons, would land his first head coaching job.

Over the last year, McMillan and his agent, who also represents Vogel, kept in close discussion about possible landing spots. McMillan interviewed for three head coaching vacancies – Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee, one of which he took his name out of the running. He also had a phone conversation with the Los Angeles Clippers.

McMillan, 48, kept coming back to the Pacers because they are a successful organization that had a vision and he felt they are ready to take the next step.

“Everything is in place here,” McMillan said in Orlando, where he was getting acquainted with team officials while watching Summer League action. “I felt like I can still come up here and learn. Frank has done a great job of establishing a culture here, a championship culture. The things that they’ve done here the last couple of years and the way the team looked to me from the outside, watching them seemed like everything is in place.”

Vogel was adamant in filling Shaw’s position with a former player to help the staff connect with the players. Vogel worked his way from the video room to the top seat on the Pacers’ bench.

“I think having a former player on your staff is important and it’ll probably be one of the qualifications,” Vogel said at his end of the season news conference. “I like the coaching experience, too, in particular head coaching experience.”

When Pritchard knew McMillan was interested, his first thought was, “Okay, shut it down. That’s our guy.”

“After working with him, I know how professional, I know how good he is,” Pritchard said. “He’s a worker. He’s exactly what we were looking for. For Frank, it’s all about how the feel is. The assistant coaches, you’re family. You’re in the room all day, everyday, and so really it’s like getting married. Nate is such a diligent worker and a person that puts the team first. I felt like it was an unbelievable fit for coach Vogel.”

Added Pacers president Larry Bird: “He has over 900 games under his belt. You just don’t find that experience out there and he wanted to be here. I’m sure he had opportunities to do other things but it’s good to see Nate with us and it just makes it more special to be a Pacer now.”

After officially accepting Vogel’s invitation to be his associate head coach back on July 1, McMillan said he planned to reach out to Shaw to get a feel for what is comfortable for Vogel. During their talks, Vogel told McMillan that he wants him to coach all aspects of the game. Assistant Dan Burke will remain the defensive brains while also having responsibility with scouting reports. Vogel still has to hire another assistant to fill Jim Boylen’s role.

“Whatever we need to do to have our guys ready to perform, he wants me to be a part of that and part of that is I got to assist him,” McMillan said of his conversations with Vogel.

“If there’s any similarities I think … as far as Brian and I will bring right away is that fact that we are former players and have had some success. I didn't get that NBA championship, but I got three gold medal championships. So I understand being a champion and having the opportunity to work with Coach K (Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski) and some Hall of Famers you know.”

Since 2006, McMillan has gained valuable experience while serving on Krzyewski’s United States National Team staff. He’ll bring the lessons he learned from those experiences, like the need to constantly put work in because someone else is somewhere else.

“I saw Kobe in 2008, his routine of getting stretching, weight training, going to the gym, getting up his shots, coming back to the breakfast the meeting and then going back to the arena for practice and he did all of this before noon,” said McMillan.

Along the same lines, he’ll stay on leaders of the team – David West, Roy Hibbert, Paul George and George Hill – because if the top guys are working, he believes everyone else will fall in line.

“I think we sometimes assume that those (leaders) are ok, that they don't need to work; they don't need extra shooting until they go into a slump, but they do,” he added. “They need to work on their game each and every day.”

McMillan’s focus will be on this team rather than using it as a springboard to another job. He’s thrilled to be with the Pacers, an organization that he believes has an excellent chance of winning a title within the next year or two.

After playing his entire 12-year career with the Seattle SuperSonics, McMillan stayed on as an assistant coach before later taking the reins as head coach in 2000 for five seasons. In 2005, he moved to Portland to direct the Trail Blazers for seven seasons, full of rebuilding, development and then unlucky breaks – like nagging knee injuries to both Greg Oden and Brandon Roy.

“At this time right now, we should've been Indiana,” he said. “That team that's knocking on the door and because they were young and right now those guys would've been in their prime.”

McMillan took a break for the first few months, and then began pondering his future. He tried doing some commentary on NBA TV but that wasn’t something he wanted to stay in. He mostly watched a ton of practices and games at all levels. That included a handful of visits to Duke, North Carolina and NC State practices. Last October, he spent a few days at the training camps of the Celtics, Nuggets, and Magic, trying to absorb as much as he could.

“His experience is invaluable,” Pritchard said. “Especially when you go through some tough times because every year you go through some tough times. And so you want some really solid people. We call it calm waters. I think Nate will be terrific just keeping the waters calm.”

Now healthy – his Achilles, which he tore while playing physical four-on-four with his undermanned Portland team, is all good – and with a team that could truly make a push at a title, McMillan is excited to get started. Training camp begins in eight weeks.

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