When the Indiana Pacers decided to hire Nate McMillan as their new head coach after letting Frank Vogel walk this past offseason, there were plenty of people who were surprised about that particular hire. The move was especially shocking since the new coach was expected to be someone with a more up-tempo offensive style. McMillan was the lead assistant under Vogel and as a head coach, McMillan typically has produced some slowpoke offenses that never managed to eke their way out of the bottom third of the league in pace.
However, this year’s returning Pacers players weren’t quite as surprised by the decision. Veteran forward C.J. Miles, in particular, felt like the hire made perfect sense.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” Miles told Basketball Insiders about the McMillan hire. “Obviously, he’s been a successful head coach before, but what’s funny is that I spoke to him after everything happened and we found out we were going to get a new coach. I joked with him and said, ‘Coach, you think you’re going to take that job if they talk to you about it?’ And he denied it, saying, ‘Nah, nah, nah.’ But then a week later, he called me up and that obviously had changed.”
Miles laughs at the friendly deception, but admits that he’s glad the move didn’t require a complete reset for the team since the group knows McMillan well and vice versa.
“He’s familiar, and we love him, and he’s been successful before,” Miles said, adding that some of the grief the coach has taken in the media over the summer is unwarranted. “In his earlier jobs, he’s had younger guys, but now he’s got a group with some veterans. So he’s talking about bringing the best out of everybody, pushing everybody and getting everyone to have their best year at the same time. If you can get that to happen with the talent we have on this team, that’d be really great.”
More specifically, Miles believes that regardless of coach, the team has been structured in a way that almost guarantees they play a more fast-paced, small-ball style of offense.
“We definitely built for what we’re trying to do, which is speeding the game up, getting faster, getting up and down the floor,” Miles said. “We just want to have the ability to play both ways. It’s huge. It changes the dynamic on our team in a huge way.”
For now, there doesn’t seem to be any concern about how McMillan will get his team up and down the floor. It’s not so much about pace, apparently, as it is finding ways for the players on this team to live up to their varied expectations.
“[Coach McMillan] knows what guys can do well, and he’s got guys on our bench that could be starters for other teams. We’ve got talent,” Miles said. “It’s a matter of getting guys to do what they do well. That’s what he’s talked to us about, both individually and as a group. His approach is just more aggressive.”
As for Miles individually, his role looks like it will be a little more focused this season. Under Vogel last year, he spent time at shooting guard, small forward and power forward with varying degrees of success. While he smiles about those experiences now, it’s clear that he’s looking forward to playing mostly small forward this year – though he’s prepared himself for more minutes at the four as well.
“I look at it as a compliment when they thought last year that they could play me at three positions, and I just kind of did it,” Miles said. “[Before] last year, I had never done that before. My body wasn’t conditioned to be beat up that way. I was giving up 20 pounds every night to someone who was just pounding me. I had never had a back injury before, or a shoulder injury from getting hit. The game was just a totally different game.”
Now, Miles is fortunately healthy and he hopes to apply what he learned last season to his experiences in 2016-17.
“To come into practice and play against Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill and then come out and do it in a game, that took a toll on my body,” he said. “Knowing what we’re going to try to do this year makes a difference, but I’m not complaining. I’ve never been that guy. Just put me in a position and I’ll do whatever you tell me to do. Whatever it takes to win.”
There were some very specific things he worked on over the offseason to be as ready to contribute as possible.
“I finished the season and then sat down the trainers and the coaching staff [and] I tried to make the things that I do well better, and I tried to add some things – like setting some screens as the four and trying to get in a position where I can post up on smaller guys,” Miles said. “I learned how to play that four position, the pick-and-pop game, the posting up, knowing you’re going to be a little dirtier because you’re down there with some bigger guys.
“The biggest thing for me, though, was really scaring coaches about having big guys having to guard me. Being aggressive in the open floor with those guys knowing that they can’t keep up. They don’t want to chase. They don’t want to move the way that I move. They can’t. I need to be better there, which is why I worked so hard on ball-handling too, to get a hold of those things to help me and my team.”
He’ll help his team this season by backing up Paul George and Thaddeus Young. He looks and sounds ready for a better year, both individually and as part of a team with some rather lofty expectations. It starts with the new coaching staff, but Miles is ready to play his part on what could very well be a true Eastern Conference contender.
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