Player favorite McMillan named interim coach
By RICH MYHRE
SEATTLE — His 12 seasons as an NBA player were distinguished by selflessness, tenacity, commitment and an overreaching desire to make his team better.
Tonight in Portland, in his first game as an NBA head coach, Nate McMillan will try to bring out those same qualities in his athletes.
Paul Westphal’s tenure as Seattle SuperSonics head coach ended Monday when he was fired 15 games into his third season and with the team off to a stumbling 6-9 start. He was replaced by McMillan, who has been a part of the Sonics organization — and only the Sonics organization — since he joined the NBA as a rookie for the 1986-87 season.
In his remarks at a crowded midday press conference, McMillan left little question about his coaching priorities. He will emphasize defense, once a hallmark of Sonics teams but a trait which has slipped in recent seasons. And he will demand a certain level of performance from all his players, something Westphal tried but could never quite accomplish.
"I think coach Westphal did everything he could with this team as far as giving them opportunities to work and prove themselves in a professional way," McMillan said. "I think sometimes players … tend to take people’s niceness and abuse it.
"We’re going to change some things," said McMillan, referring to himself and his coaching staff of Dwane Casey (promoted to assistant head coach) and Bob Weiss. "The players have had their opportunity to do their thing. Now the staff will have a say-so about everything. We want to change the way we approach practice, the way we approach the game, the way we play defense. Defense will definitely get emphasis."
The decision to fire Westphal and hire McMillan capped a remarkable stretch of days for the Sonics. Seattle began a three-game road trip with a victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 18, then won again at Dallas last Tuesday. In the second half of the Dallas game, though, Westphal and star point guard Gary Payton got into a sideline shouting match, and the spat led to Payton receiving a one-game suspension the next day — a penalty that was revoked hours later after Payton apologized.
Rather than being lifted by the incident, the Sonics were drubbed by San Antonio 112-85. They won a home rematch with the Clippers on Friday, then were routed again in Sacramento on Saturday.
On Sunday, team president Wally Walker opted to change coaches. The announcement was made to the players before the team’s morning practice.
It was a wrenching decision for Walker, who called Westphal "a good coach and a good man. … I’m proud to call him a friend. I don’t think I’m a particularly emotional guy, but it was an emotional time (Monday) morning talking to him."
At the same time, Walker said, "this team has vast potential. We have no business being 6-9 and in the position we’re in, so we made a change."
McMillan, meanwhile, is still coaching under his one-year contract as an assistant coach, though he will likely be given "a financial bump" in the coming weeks, Walker said. Also, McMillan is officially an interim coach, though "my favorite Christmas wish will be for this to be a successful season and for Nate to have a ton of leverage as we negotiate sometime in the spring for him to be the (ongoing) head coach of the Sonics," Walker said.
McMillan displayed unusual selflessness as a player, and one vivid example occurred a decade ago. After three seasons as Seattle’s starting point guard, McMillan willingly gave up his spot in the No. 1 lineup to the team’s top draft choice, a brash youngster named Payton. McMillan not only stepped aside without rancor, but he encouraged and nurtured Payton through the often rocky periods of his early career.
Today Payton is a 10-year veteran and a six-time NBA All-Star, but he remains as brash as ever. For McMillan to succeed in his new job, the relationship with the volatile Payton must continue to prosper.
"Everybody’s always said that I’m the only guy that can control Gary," McMillan said. "Well, I don’t think you can control Gary. You have to coach Gary. I understand that Gary is an all-star and that those guys think differently. I understand that he’s a very competitive player, but he has to understand that he definitely needs to do things in the best interests of the club, the team, himself and the coaching staff.
"And I think he will. I don’t see any problem with Gary. … I know he’s the best point guard in the league, and I’m happy to have a point guard with his capability to start off my coaching career with."
One of McMillan’s other primary tasks will be to coax the best from forward Vin Baker, himself a four-time NBA All-Star who is coming off two sub-par seasons and is struggling again this year. Though McMillan never mentioned any names, several of his remarks seemed aimed at the 6-foot-11 forward.
"We have offensive guys, but if you’re not playing defense, you will not play," McMillan said. "If you’re not playing (at both ends), and if you’re not focused on what you need to do offensively and defensively, then you can’t play. I think that’s a simple strategy. If your focus and thoughts are not in the best interests of this team, then you will not play.
"I don’t have anything to lose," he said. "Money or any of that has never been why I strived to be an NBA player and now an NBA coach. If I’m not hired (to stay on as head coach), then I’m cool. I’m going to be OK. But I have an opportunity to teach these guys what I believe in, which is focus, work hard, play hard, have some fun. If you leave it all out on the floor or give your best effort, no one can ask anything else."
Payton declined to talk with the media Monday — "I ain’t talking to nobody," he said curtly, dismissing a Sonics media relations representative. Other players, though, spoke with regret about Westphal’s dismissal while voicing approval for the promotion of McMillan.
"I think he has the respect of everybody on the team," said Patrick Ewing, "and that’s where it starts, with respect. He’s going to make everybody work. … He started out by stressing defense (at Monday’s practice). We did a lot of work. Hopefully we’ll be a better defensive team (tonight) and we can give him his first win."