Nate McMillan came to Portland in 2005 with a mission to rebuild the Trail Blazers into a Western Conference contender and repair the once-proud franchise’s tattered image with its adoring fan base.
The dignity and respect have largely been restored, but the division titles and playoff successes have proven more difficult to come by. And with the losses getting uglier each time they hit the court, the Blazers brass felt it was time for McMillan to go and to start the process all over again.
McMillan was fired on Thursday as part of a massive overhaul by team owner Paul Allen and President Larry Miller that also included the release of former No. 1 overall draft pick Greg Oden and came one day after a 42-point drubbing in New York.
In an evening news conference, Miller said the decision was challenging but ”unavoidable.”
”The moves that we made…today really set us up for this summer with the draft and with free agency, to really be able to move in the direction that we want to move in and make this team better,” Miller said.
McMillan’s firing, which was first reported by Yahoo! Sports, means three-quarters of the nucleus that was supposed to lead the Blazers back to greatness is gone. With McMillan drawing up the plays for All-Star guard Brandon Roy and forward LaMarcus Aldridge, and with Oden getting acclimated to the league as a prized rookie, the Blazers won 54 games in 2008-09 and looked to be a team on the rise.
But Roy was forced to retire in December because of recurring knee problems and Oden saw yet another season go down the drain when he had his third microfracture knee surgery in February. The Blazers waived him on Thursday to make room for several players arriving via trades.
”That’s hard to come back from, but we feel we’ve set a course,” Acting General Manager Chad Buchanan said. ”Obviously LaMarcus Aldridge is an All-Star player in our league. We’ve got a lot of room to spend this summer. We’ve got some really attractive draft picks. We feel good about the direction we’re setting ourselves with.”
Assistant coach Caleb Kanales was made interim head coach, leaving Aldridge as the only franchise face left from that promising core.
”Hard to see coach Nate go,” Aldridge tweeted. ”He was my coach since day one and I’ve grown a lot under his coaching.”
The Blazers also traded veteran center Marcus Camby to the Rockets for center Hasheem Thabeet and point guard Jonny Flynn and versatile forward Gerald Wallace to the Nets for center Mehmet Okur and forward Shawne Williams on Thursday in a house-cleaning for a team that had lost seven of its last 10 games to fall out of the Western Conference playoff race.
Portland is 20-23 and in 12th place in the West, last in the Northwest Division.
”Some tough trades today & letting Nate go but had to face reality of how the season was going,” Allen tweeted. ”Now (the Blazers are) focusing on future.”
McMillan went 266-269 in over six seasons as coach of the Blazers and led them to the playoffs the previous three seasons. But the Blazers failed to make it out of the first round in each of those trips to the postseason, and the warning signs started to pop up pretty early that this season was going to be rough.
General manager Rich Cho was abruptly fired in late May, just weeks before the NBA draft. Once the lockout was lifted in December, Roy, the heart and soul of the team, retired after the Blazers used the amnesty clause on his contract, Aldridge was slowed in camp by a heart condition and Oden was on the operating table again in February.
The chemistry in the locker room, and on the court, seemed to disintegrate as well. Aldridge made the All-Star team after quickly recovering from his heart ailment, but point guard Raymond Felton has bounced in and out of the starting lineup, shooting guard Jamal Crawford has openly complained about the way he has been utilized and the competitiveness has vanished.
They trailed by as many as 29 points in a loss at Indiana on Tuesday, then got embarrassed by the Knicks in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. All six of their losses in March have come by double digits.
”The fight has to be within everybody and not just a few guys,” Camby said after the game.
McMillan leaves with the third-most victories in Blazers history, behind Jack Ramsay and Rick Adelman. He is just the second coach in NBA history to improve a team by at least nine wins or more in three straight seasons and helped instill a new culture of accountability for a team that was plagued by malcontents like Darius Miles and Zach Randolph before he arrived.
The Blazers are the fourth team to change head coaches this season. Sacramento’s Paul Westphal and Washington’s Flip Saunders were fired and Mike D’Antoni resigned from New York.
McMillan and D’Antoni served as assistants on Team USA when the team took home the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.
The 34-year-old Canales has been with the Blazers since 2004, starting as a video intern and being promoted to video coordinator before being named assistant coach in 2008.
Miller said the search for a permanent coach and general manager would begin after the season.
”(Canales) has great connection with our player, he has great enthusiasm for the game, and we just thought that to give someone like Caleb the opportunity to finish out the season for us was the right thing to do.”