Nate McMillan's Real Achilles Heel: The Blazers Have Too Much Talent

Brian D.Contributor IDecember 31, 2009

DENVER - MARCH 05:  Head coach Nate McMillan directs the Portland Trail Blazers against the Denver Nuggets during NBA action at the Pepsi Center on March 5, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Trail Blazers 106-90. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

In a moment that seems to symbolize everything that has supposedly gone wrong for the Blazers this year, Nate McMillan recently blew out his Achilles tendon during a practice. Yes, that's right. The coach had to suit up because the Blazers couldn't field a ten man practice squad. 

Of course, the injury bug has only gotten worse for the Blazers since then. However, as bad as things are, and as painful as his torn Achilles might have felt, injuries are only a temporary problem for Coach McMillan and the Blazers.

A more serious problem could crop up when all these injured players return: What to do with all that talent.

In professional sports, of course, talent is everything. It’s more important than coaching. It’s more important than scheduling. It’s more important than luck.

In some sports, such as baseball, the more talent you have on your roster, the better your team is going to be. The correlation between talent and on-the-field success is almost perfect.

In the NBA, however, there really is such a thing as having too much talent. More specifically, there is such a thing as having too many talented players on your active roster.

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McMillan's Trailblazers are a perfect example of this. Heading into training camp this year, the Blazers projected 12 man lineup consisted of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, Steve Blake, Nicolas Batum, Joel Przybilla, Andre Miller, Martell Webster, Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw, Jerryd Bayless, and Dante Cunningham. Also in the mix were Juwan Howard, Patty Mills, and Jeff Pendergraph.

Obviously, the three standout players in terms of talent and potential are Roy, Aldridge and Oden. Of these, only Roy has been an All-Star, and no one on the roster is a sure-fire Hall of Famer. However, the rest of the lineup includes five players (Blake, Batum, Pryzbilla, Miller and Webster) who are used to starting, four other players (Fernandez, Outlaw, Bayless, and Howard) who are probably capable of starting, and three young players (Cunningham, Mills, and Pendergraph) who are probably good enough to be in the regular rotation this year.

In other words, the Blazers are stacked with good players, almost all of whom are only going to get better over the next couple of years. 

To make things even more complicated, once you get past the top three, none of the other players stand out as being clearly better than the other guys at their positions. They’re almost all either good but not great veteran players, or else young guys who have the potential to become very good.

This poses an obvious dilemma for McMillan: there are only 240 minutes per game to go around.

The conventional wisdom at the beginning of the season is that these young players are such good guys, and the team has such great leadership with Roy, McMillan, Przybilla, Miller and Howard, that playing time simply wouldn’t be a big problem.

As this bizarre season has progressed, and as the injuries have piled up, that thinking increasingly appears to have been naïve.

Think about how the rotation would look if everyone was healthy. Roy and Aldridge are going to play 35 minutes per game. That leaves 170 minutes to spread around among the other 10 active players. That’s an average of 17 minutes.

Now, let’s be egalitarian and say that the relatively evenly matched combinations of Oden/Przybilla and Blake/Miller play 24 minutes each. That takes up 96 minutes, leaving only 74 minutes to split between Webster, Outlaw, Batum, Fernandez, Bayless, and Howard.

Even if Howard is a good soldier and warms the bench, 74 minutes split between five players is less than 15 minutes per game. It’s clear that Batum, Outlaw, and Fernandez deserve more playing time than that. However, can you really play Webster much less? Would Bayless be the odd man out?

There are two potential issues here. The first, and most obvious, is the risk that one or more players are going to become disgruntled over lack of playing time. Even on a roster filled with young players who have good character, this is almost inevitable.

Despite the attention the media pays to such complaints, they are usually relatively unimportant. Every team has guys who want more playing time. It’s as common as having guys who need to be taped up before games and iced down after.  In some ways, it’s actually a good thing. The potential danger occurs when there isn’t a clear-cut "alpha dog" starter at each position. Unfortunately, this is the case in Portland.

However, there is a second issue that is potentially more damaging, because it directly affects play on the court. When a team has a number of talented players and can’t fit them into the rotation on a regular basis, coaches tend to use players on a situational basis. Against certain matchups, certain guys will play. If one guy gets hot, he’ll get playing time on a given night and someone else will sit.

The problem with this development is that players never know, night in and night out, whether they are going to play significant minutes. This makes it very difficult to prepare for games. If you are getting ready for a game and you don’t know how the coach is going to use you, it’s hard to get into a rhythm and a routine. Guys will get into the game and jack up shots right away, not knowing when they might be pulled. Or they might be afraid to shoot because they haven’t played in a week. Eventually, it’s hard to get motivated to play at all.

This has happened before in Portland. When Mike Dunleavy was coach, the Blazers had a roster that makes the current squad look like a bunch of scrubs: Scottie Pippen, Rasheed Wallace, Steve Smith, Arvydas Sabonis, Damon Stoudamire, Greg Anthony, Detlef Schrempf , Brian Grant, Bonzi Wells, Stacey Augmon, and Jermaine O’Neal.

Dunleavy’s entire coaching philosophy was based on altering his rotation to match the roster of Portland’s opponent on any given night. This used to drive players like Damon Stoudamire, Brian Grant, and Detlef Schrempf absolutely nuts, because they would play five minutes one night and 30 minutes the next. It was impossible to know what to expect; impossible to prepare.

Without naming any names (cough, Andre Miller, cough), it’s clear this has happened with this season’s Blazers. Early in the year, the team seemed sluggish and sloppy. Even though they were winning games, everyone who watched the team knew they were playing at about ¾ speed.

Then an interesting thing began to happen: player after player went down with injury, and the team kept getting better. Batum went down. Then, in succession, Outlaw, Fernandez, Oden, and Przybilla all got hurt. (I’m not even mentioning Patty Mills, who went down before training camp.)

Now, there is no question that the team is better off with each of these players individually. However, is the team better off with all of them at the same time?

I’ll use Greg Oden as an example. Prior to his injury, he was clearly the best player on the team this year. Unlike everyone else on the roster, Oden was showing up to play every night. He was among the league leaders in rebounding, and was rated by basketballreference.com as the best defensive player in the NBA. There is no way Portland is better off without him.

After Greg went down, the Blazers went on a brutal road trip that saw them lose three of four games. However, they have since won seven of nine in a stretch that has seen them play their best and most passionate basketball since late last season. They’ve won games without Brandon Roy. They’ve won games without Joel Przybilla. Last night, they won without LaMarcus Aldridge.

How can we explain this? It’s simple: basketball teams function better when every player on the floor knows that he is going to play and he is going to have to contribute. The best teams in history (the 1983 Sixers, the 1986 Celtics, the 1990’s Bulls) played seven or eight man rotations, and everybody knew his role. Everyone was ready. Everyone was consistent. Everyone was sharp.

Right now, the dull spot on the Blazers is still the point guard position. The point guard play has been inconsistent and lackadaisical at times. Not coincidentally, this is the position that is most stacked with talent.

You see, there is such a thing as too much talent. In the long run, Blazers management, and Coach McMillan, will have to do something about it.