With the Trail Blazers off to a 2-3 start heading into tonight's home game against Chicago and attendance hitting rock-bottom at the Rose Garden, it certainly looks as if the Blazers are on their way to meeting low expectations this season.
If coach Nate McMillan didn't know when he took the job last summer that the road back to winning disaffected fans and games was long, he certainly knows now.
McMillan, 41, inherited a 15-man team that includes four players who skipped college and is the NBA's second-youngest squad, with an average age of 24.2 years. There are three players from overseas, and a star power forward, Zach Randolph, who has developed a reputation for loafing.
The Blazers won just 28 of 82 games last season when it had a much more experienced roster. So WW asked McMillan how things are going so far and what fans can expect the rest of the season.
WW: Has the team been the challenge you expected so far?
Nate McMillan: I expected this. I knew it would take some time, and it's going to take some time. I don't want to use that as a crutch. We work as hard as we can to show improvement. That's the goal for me, to get these guys to understand what it takes to win at this level.
With so many young players, do you have to be a mentor off the court to them?
I understand the perception that some fans have of NBA players off the court, having so much money and often getting into trouble. What I try to do is the same thing I do with my kids, teach them the skills to be successful people. I can't guarantee that my kids will be successful—no one can do that. So I can't guarantee that my players won't get in trouble. But what I try to do is advise them. If they do some of the things I tell them, then I know they're listening. If they don't, then I know they're not.
Don't so many young guys make it harder to connect with the fan base?
Not really. With the media attention these days, most of the guys who go from high school to the league have already been covered quite a lot, so people know who they are by the time they get here. If they do go to college, people already know they're only going to be there one or two years. So fans are connected with those players more than someone who spends four years at a college but is not a so-called star.
Did you have a mentor as a player or coach?
It would have been my mother and my brother. My mother was very involved in the church and demanded that you show respect to all, until people disrespected you. And with those people, you moved on.
Even though you stopped playing in 1998, before video games took off, do you know if you're in any video games?
I am in a couple, but I haven't played myself yet. My son has played me in a video game. It's pretty neat, but how they got me in there without me participating is something I wonder about.
You're not making any money off being a player in a video game?
Not a dime.
You come off as a stern, disciplinarian, hard-ass kind of a guy. What do you smile about as a coach? What's fun about your job?
I enjoy seeing something we work on, work. Basketball at this level is a serious game. Because I don't smile, it's not that I'm not enjoying it. I don't think you can smile and compete in this game when someone is trying to rip you apart, just dominate you. I do smile. I enjoy the game, but I take life and the game very seriously. I take what we present to fans very seriously. When my teammates, when I was playing, didn't play right, it bothered me. When my team doesn't play right, it bothers me.
How will you gauge success for this team?
I can't say right now. I've inherited this team. It's a year for the team, for the management, to look at the players that have been drafted and identify which guys to build, or this guy is unhappy, we need to get bigger, we need to get faster. We need whatever. It's really a year to look at our players.
If you want to check out McMillan's struggles with this team in person, the Blazers play the Chicago Bulls tonight at the Rose Garden, 1401 N Wheeler Ave., 224-4400, portlandtrailblazers.com. 7 pm. $10-$131+ advance (Ticketmaster).
McMillan became the Trail Blazers' 12th head coach July 7, leaving rival Seattle after five years as the Supersonics' head coach and 12 years as a player.
McMillan signed a five-year, $30 million contract to coach the Blazers, according to The New York Times.