Nate McMillan is not a coach who often shows his emotion. And in talking about the Pacers’ potential for this season, after a stunning run to the playoffs in 2017-18, he matter-of-factly discussed Indiana’s offseason additions.
McMillan realizes the Pacers aren’t going to surprise anyone, as they did last year. The post-Paul George era began far better than expected for Indiana, which benefited greatly from the George trade in getting guard Victor Oladipo and versatile big man Domantas Sabonis.
This offseason, the Pacers have added Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, and Kyle O’Quinn, and drafted point guard Aaron Holiday. They came within one win of upsetting the Cavaliers in the first round, so optimism is brimming in the Hoosier State, even if McMillan won’t crack a smile when talking about his team.
“We feel good about our draft picks and our free agents that we were able to pick up,” he said. “We felt like we added a need to our roster. We felt like we were able to strengthen our bench. All of those were guys we felt like if we could improve that position, we wanted to. Aaron is going to be a real solid guard in this league.”
After general manager Kevin Pritchard dealt the disgruntled George to Oklahoma City, the Pacers were expected to be lottery bound. But they received solid play from journeymen Darren Collison and Thaddeus Young, an emerging season from Myles Turner, and an All-Star campaign from Oladipo.
The Pacers may have lacked star power but they surprised opponents with their depth and versatility. Seven Pacers averaged at least 9.2 points per game last season. The Pacers had enough salary cap space to make a splash in free agency, but they decided to fortify their bench, with Evans as the highlight. Evans, who flourished with the Grizzlies last season, accepted a one-year, $12 million deal to become Indiana’s sixth man.
“We’re going to stay hungry. Last year, we did some good things. We’re not satisfied with that,” said McMillan. “Our approach this offseason has been we know we’ve got to work even harder and come back even better than we were last year. We’re adding some new guys to our roster, so we felt like we created a culture and identity last season. We felt like these guys that we picked up in free agency will fit into what we started last season. We’re really looking forward to getting started.”
The Eastern Conference will be even more competitive with LeBron James now with Lakers. The Celtics are favored, but the Pacers won twice in Boston last season.
“Our approach has always been work on us and not be concerned about what is happening in the league,” McMillan said. “The people wrote us off last season, and now people are going to write Cleveland off. We won’t do that. We know that team is still going to be competitive. Boston is going to get all of their guys back and they’re deep. Toronto is hungry after the season that they had, so the East is going to be very, very competitive.
“Is it open? With LeBron [out]? Yes. We’re happy that he’s gone west. But we know that it’s still going to be a challenge and we have to make sure we work on us and not assume anything. It’s going to be a challenge for us to do the things we did last season and do it better.”
McMillan received Coach of the Year votes after replacing the fired Frank Vogel, and it was thought he would be a stopgap until the next coach. But after successful stints in Seattle and Portland, McMillan showed he still has some coaching acumen left, changing his style to make Indiana a more up-tempo team centered around Oladipo.
“Each year you start off with a different roster and you put a plan in place,” McMillan said. “It was kind of like a road map, you are going to follow that season, and last year we were able to do that and actually see things come together. We talked about the group at the beginning of the season, what we wanted to try to do with Victor and Domantas and Myles. It happened for us. We played the game hard. We played the game the right way. We did the things that we set out to try to do and were able to get ourselves in the playoffs.”
This season, the Pacers have a chance to claim a top-four seed, and could even push the Celtics and 76ers for the top seed with some good fortune. The Pacers won’t surprise anyone in 2018-19.
“Expectations last year were low,” McMillan said. “And no one really knew what to expect. But with what we did last year, certainly expectations get a little higher and teams will certainly be looking at us.”
Brown misses former teammate
Dee Brown, who now works for the Clippers, recently reflected on his time with the Celtics, and how it was affected by the tragic death of Reggie Lewis 25 years ago. Brown and Lewis were close, and Brown recalls driving with his wife from Boston back to their Orlando home in July 1993, and then hearing the news of Lewis’s death because of cardiac arrest.
Brown said the flight back to Boston was the longest he’s ever taken. Still, he recalls his days spent with Lewis with fondness, while also pondering the possibilities had Lewis lived past the age of 27.
“We were called the Zip Boys — me, Reggie, Brian [Shaw], and Kevin Gamble. That was the nickname Tommy Heinsohn gave us because the game sped up once we got in,” Brown said. “Back in the day, Larry [Bird], Kevin [McHale], and Chief [Robert Parish], it was a slow game. After that, we came in and all of a sudden it shifts to the backcourt and the Zip Boys came in. We relished that. We enjoyed that. We felt like we were the future of the franchise. We had a good core.”
Brown played parts of eight seasons with the Celtics, before being traded to the Raptors in February 1998 in a deal that included a rookie guard named Chauncey Billups. It was one of Rick Pitino’s most controversial deals as Celtics president.
Brown saw his responsibilities with the Celtics expand after Lewis’s death, and he was honest about whether he was suited for a primary role.
“That wasn’t what I was there for,” he said. “I was the 19th pick in the draft and I knew I was a role player. I knew I had to step my game up. I had my two best years after Reggie passed away. But that didn’t take away from the best guy, who was going to take the franchise forward, wasn’t there. So, I wasn’t that good.
“I was very honest with my game. I couldn’t hold a franchise by myself. I was a good No. 2, probably a great No. 3. I got [elevated] to a No. 1 in the most historic franchise in NBA history after playing with Bird and Chief. It was a lot for me. It was a good learning experience for me. I grew a lot. I missed Reggie every time I stepped on the court.”
Brown has stayed around the game since his retirement in 2002. He was the head coach of two WNBA teams — the Orlando Miracle and San Antonio Silver Stars — and an assistant with the Pistons, Kings, and now Clippers.
Brown said Lewis had a lasting impact on his career, and he makes an interesting comparison to a current superstar.
“[Lewis] was great, unbelievable,” Brown said. “One of the best scorers, one of the best defenders, one of the only guys I’ve ever seen block Michael Jordan’s shot, the fadeaway. I remember the Cleveland series [in 1992], he destroyed Craig Ehlo, it was unfair. He just destroyed him. And the funny thing is, I see Kevin Durant and I see a reincarnation of Reggie — long, athletic, blocked shots, No. 35, it’s really eerie when I see Durant play, reminds me so much of Reggie.”
Big3 is thinking about expansion
The Big3 league just finished its semifinal playoff round and will complete its second season on Friday in Brooklyn. There is only growth ahead for the Big3, and more former players, or players looking to get an NBA shot, are interested in competing.
As of now, the league has eight teams with seven-man rosters, but expansion could be on the horizon. The issue with expansion is TV, and how the league would try to get all of its games televised in a one-day window.
Currently, the Big3 streams its opening game on Facebook, then televises the final three games on FS1. If the league expands, it would have to devise a way to televise all games without expanding the three-hour window. It’s unlikely Fox would be interested in showing four hours of Big3 basketball on Friday evenings.
“I do believe that we’re planning on doing a small expansion,” said co-founder Jeff Kwatinetz. “We have a lot of players that want in. We want to get some more cities, too. What it still looks like, it’s premature because our focus is really 100 percent delivering great playoff games and championship games. Having these events is more of an accomplishment than people can imagine.
“The idea of trying to figure the exact format for next year is something I think we will decide and wait a couple of weeks. The demand is there and we’re not watering down the quality of the basketball. As long as we’re making it more competitive and incredible, then we will do that.”
Said Big3 commissioner Clyde Drexler: “The Big3 wants all the best players in the world, trust me. Anybody who’s good enough to make a roster to make a team better, they’re going to have a chance in the Big3.”
The competition for roster spots before the second season increased dramatically. Former players realized the Big3 was a way to make money, get exposure, and spend the summer playing basketball.
“There’s a number of guys who have indicated that they want to come aboard, some who are going to be playing in the NBA this season. It’s their last season and they want to make sure we know they’re coming straight in,” said Kwatinetz. “Until those things actually happen, you never know who’s going to come in, you never know who’s not going to come in, and I think what’s important is we wanted the best players and we’re excited about the level of competition. And it’s not just adding new players, it’s also the players we have are learning of this particular game and come in ready to go and in shape. That will also improve the quality. It’s not just getting other people.
“Last year, people referred to it as an old man’s league. At 53, it’s really depressing if a 32-year-old man is old, to me. These guys really realize this is a professional league, and that scared some people off who might have played when they realized that you have to go and train and really be ready.”
Big3 officials said they would be interested in a player such as Tim Duncan, who retired from the NBA after the 2015-16 season.
“Absolutely, we want the Big Fundamental,” Drexler said. “When we get off the phone, I’m calling him.”
Said Big3 co-founder Ice Cube: “We’d love to see Tim in the league. You guys have a laundry list [of players you’d like to see join], but I’m pretty sure ours is longer than yours on guys we want.”
The league is becoming more popular among former NBA players. Could the Big3 partner with the NBA in some way to benefit both sides?
“We love the NBA and that’s why we’re doing this,” Kwatinetz said. “We love these players. We love basketball. We also are proud of the NBA and the ownership of the NBA, and a lot of the teams have embraced us. That’s the reason we’re playing in Dallas, [Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban was helpful in getting the [American Airlines Center] last year. We feel like we’re keeping the sport going year round. We love basketball. We’re fans.
“There haven’t been formal talks, but there’s obviously advantages to cooperating, and frankly I think we have informally cooperated on a number of issues. We’re happy that we do what we do and give these players a chance to shine, and hopefully we’re making it easier for the NBA to take a look at some of these guys. We believe a few are going to get back into the league. We may have some coaches that get into the league. There’s obviously ways we could help each other, but the NBA doesn’t need any help. They had a great year this year.”
The Heat are still waiting for guard Dwyane Wade to determine if he wants to play another season. Wade said last week that he would either retire or play one more season with Miami. Wade returned to the Heat last season in a trade with the Cavaliers and averaged 12 points per game off the bench with Miami. He attempted nearly 12 shots in his 22 minutes per game, so he was allowed the offensive freedom he wanted. His role this coming season would likely again be a scorer off the bench, backing up Josh Richardson. Wade still has some game left, but he may not decide for another few weeks whether to continue his career. Meanwhile, the Heat could also bring Udonis Haslem back for a 16th season. That would carry almost as much significance as Wade returning because players such as Haslem, on the roster mostly for leadership, are rare in today’s NBA. Roster slots are so valuable that veteran players who serve as coaches in uniform are almost nonexistent. Haslem played just 14 games last season, meaning the Heat essentially locked down a roster spot just for his off-court presence . . . The decision by Tyler Davis to leave Texas A&M and enter the draft may be paying off. Davis, a 6-foot-10-inch, 260-pound center, went undrafted and played for the Nets in the Las Vegas Summer League. He was then signed to a two-way contract by the Thunder and will likely spend most of next season with the team’s G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. Davis, a college teammate of Celtics first-round Robert Williams, knew he likely would not be drafted but wanted to start his professional career regardless. Players on two-way contracts can spend a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Each NBA team has two spots for two-way players . . . Former NBA player Bruce Bowen confirmed that he was fired as the Clippers’ color analyst for comments he made in June about former Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. Bowen, also a former Spur, challenged Leonard’s assertion that the Spurs were putting him at risk by urging him to return from a quadriceps injury last season. Bowen said Leonard was “getting bad advice” from his handlers. The Clippers believe they have a legitimate chance at signing Leonard as a free agent in 2019 and wanted to eliminate a potential reason for Leonard to spurn their overtures. Bowen had been the Clippers’ color analyst for one season.