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Can Mike D’Antoni Take the Pacers Further Than Nate McMillan?

Just two weeks after announcing an extension for its coach, Indiana changed course and fired McMillan. Reports say D’Antoni is a front-office favorite to take the reins. But will any coach be able to get the franchise on track?

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Just two weeks ago, the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon hopped on Twitter to endorse the team’s latest transaction: giving head coach Nate McMillan a one-year extension to remain in Indiana through 2022. Then, on Wednesday morning, just two days after the Heat promptly swept the short-handed Pacers out of the playoffs in the first round, the Pacers pulled a U-turn and fired McMillan.

As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, the agreed-upon “extension” was actually a reworking of McMillan’s contract for this upcoming season and adding a team option for the following season. At the time, McMillan called the extension “appropriate” for both sides, but it now appears that the reported uncertainty about the organization wanting him back was more fire than smoke.

With McMillan at the helm, the Pacers were overachievers. In a small market with a limited payroll, they hit on a few players in the draft and made an opportunistic trade, sending Paul George to OKC and getting back Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo, who have turned into All-Stars. McMillan won 57 percent of his games during his four seasons in Indiana and made the playoffs each year. And though he did have a 3-16 record across those postseasons, something the Pacers made sure to point out in their official statement, his teams were saddled with injury setbacks the past two seasons. In his tweet two weeks ago, Brogdon emphasized that the team, which had lost both Oladipo and Sabonis to injury at different points this year, needed a fully healthy season to show what they were truly capable of. Case in point: The Pacers’ projected best lineup of Oladipo, TJ Warren, Brogdon, Sabonis, and Myles Turner played only 86 minutes together this season.

After getting swept by Miami, McMillan said he wanted to see what the Pacers could do with their full squad next season. Now, he’s a free agent, and it didn’t take long for the reports about his possible replacement to start surfacing. Minutes after the firing became official, Wojnarowski reported that current Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni will be a target for the Pacers if he becomes a free agent himself.

Perhaps the fact that D’Antoni—who has won over 60 percent of his games in Houston, and led the Rockets to the brink of a trip to the Finals—might not be retained due to disagreements between coaching, ownership, and front office personnel sheds light on the kind of circumstances NBA coaches, like McMillan, often face. Sometimes performance isn’t all that matters, and even if it is no. 1, being above average doesn’t cut it. Neither D’Antoni nor McMillan has a résumé that screams “fireable,” but here we are: McMillan is out of a job—which brings the number of Black coaches in the league down to six—and D’Antoni is already being floated as Pacers coach next season while his team is still in the playoffs and has a decent shot at a title.

D’Antoni in Indiana is intriguing from a basketball perspective, if only because of the stylistic overhaul the Pacers would have to make. Though McMillan consistently managed his team to more wins than expected, he was running an offense that ran counter to the modern game. This season, the Pacers took 28 3s a game, the fewest of any NBA team. D’Antoni’s Rockets? Over 45 per game, which was by far the most in the league. On the other hand, McMillan helped build a Pacers defense that was the sixth-best in the league this season, while D’Antoni’s defenses have often ranked in the middle of the pack or worse.

So the question about what the Pacers may do on the coaching side may be tied to what happens on the player side. Oladipo is entering the final year of his contract and is coming off a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee that sidelined him for most of this season. At his best, Oladipo has shown to be a superstar-type player, but the Pacers have to figure out whether they want to bet on him long-term. They can offer a $112 million extension this offseason, but it’s likely Oladipo would turn that down in favor of either free agency or a contract worth $77 million more, which the Pacers can offer next offseason.

Oladipo could explode in a D’Antoni offense, but the questions abound beyond him. Has the front office decided whether it wants to keep Sabonis and trade Turner or attempt to still play both? Should they give Warren an extension? And how do they even get D’Antoni on board if, as Woj notes, he won’t be cheap?

The Pacers aren’t exactly known for having deep pockets, and they will also reportedly look for coaches that are “program builders” over the long run. Two weeks ago, Indiana seemed like it wanted to keep the status quo. Now, it appears everything is on the table.