The case for and against Nate McMillan as Sixers head coach

Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 2013, the Sixers are searching for a new head coach. 

With the team deciding last week to move on from Brett Brown, we’re continuing our series analyzing candidates to replace Brown with Nate McMillan. We’ve looked so far at Tyronn Lue, Jay Wright, Ime Udoka and Jason Kidd

McMillan, who was fired by the Pacers on Wednesday after his team was swept by the Heat in the first round, is one of the most accomplished coaches available. Let’s examine the case for and against him as the Sixers’ next head coach: 

The case for McMillan 

Based on recent history, part of the job description to replace Brown should be dealing with unfortunate injuries and unforeseen, bizarre obstacles. The 56-year-old McMillan’s track record suggests he won’t be bothered by whatever’s in front of him. With Indiana especially, he dealt with a slew of key injuries, including All-Star Domantas Sabonis’ plantar fasciitis after the NBA’s hiatus this year. 

At least in the regular season, his teams generally adapted to being shorthanded well and played with good effort. T.J. Warren emerged for the Pacers in the NBA’s Disney World bubble, and McMillan made sure his hot hand had the ball plenty during that stretch when Warren was scoring 30-plus points every game. 


McMillan has seen a ton as a player, too, having spent all 12 years of his career with the Sonics before transitioning to coaching, and he’s earned respect across several NBA generations. 

He decisively checks the “holding players accountable” box, and was nicknamed “Sarge” by Zach Randolph during his stint with the Trail Blazers for that reason. 

"That day he got hired, I remember him talking to everybody who was in that day," Glenn Robinson III told in 2018. "He said we were going to change the way we do things. He set a tone of success, put our heads right on winning. Everything amped up. Physically, mentally. His practices were a no-messing-around type of deal. Which we needed.”

One trademark of McMillan’s teams is that they protect the ball. In 14 full NBA seasons, his teams have been ranked in the top 10 in turnovers 11 times. Part of that is because McMillan teams have always played at a slower pace than league average, but it’s nevertheless notable that he’s consistently managed to steer clear of major turnover problems. 

A smaller item to consider is that McMillan coached a large frontcourt this season that, while not wildly successful, was also not disastrous. The Pacers had a plus-2.1 net rating when 6-foot-11 Myles Turner and 6-foot-11 Sabonis shared the floor. If McMillan was to get the Sixers job and Al Horford was to still be on the roster, the challenge of playing two big men together (Horford and Joel Embiid) wouldn’t be entirely new to him, at a minimum. 

The case against McMillan

Along with the deliberate pace, another McMillan signature is a low volume of three-point attempts. The Pacers were last in attempted threes this season and bottom-five through his tenure. They finished within the league’s top five in mid-range attempts every season under McMillan. Personnel played an important role, but that shot profile is rarely going to be effective in the modern NBA. It wasn’t in Indiana, where McMillan never coached a top-10 offense. 

The most obvious mark against McMillan is his history of first-round playoff exits. He’s only won one playoff series in his head coaching career, with Ray Allen and the 2004-05 Sonics. The reality of the Sixers job is that another first-round loss would likely be a disappointment, and McMillan has fallen in the first round four straight seasons and been swept in three of those series. 

Other than having a different perspective, a sterner reputation and a history of extracting regular-season wins from injury-depleted teams, how would McMillan be a clear improvement over Brown? Perhaps his experience and the aforementioned positives are compelling, but his playoff record is impossible to avoid.