Keeping Allen outweighs losing McMillan

Updated: July 11, 2005, 4:37 PM ET
By Frank Hughes | Special to ESPN.com

Just as the eight-month-long cloud layer over Seattle begins to lift for the summer, a new one hangs forebodingly as the somber news that longtime icon Nate McMillan is leaving for the Portland Trail Blazers germinates in the collective consciousness.

It's almost as if news about Ray Allen's agreeing to a five-year, $80 million deal two days ago evaporated into a mist of sadness. McMillan, Mr. Sonic, whose retired No. 10 jersey hangs in the rafters of KeyArena, will saunter down I-5 and hook up with billionaire Paul Allen in an attempt to resurrect a franchise that has become a parody of all that is wrong with pro sports.

Nate McMillan
The bigger picture led Nate to Portland.

But I suggest to those feeling the sting of rejection to glance wide-eyed at the bigger picture.

Yes, it would have been delightful to have back both Allen and McMillan to continue the unexpected success that took shape last season in the Emerald City.

But if only one could return, which one should it be?

For the answer, let me pose one simple question: When was the last time Nate McMillan took a shot for the Sonics?

Losing McMillan is a visceral blow to our sympathetic ethos. Losing Allen could have been the death knell of an entire organization for the foreseeable future.

Give the Sonics credit, because the re-signing of Allen was not necessarily a no-brainer. This team's unique lease situation puts it in a precarious financial position in which it is losing money each season.

How much money the Sonics are losing is up for debate. Before they went public with their poverty stance in an effort to gain relief through a publicly financed new/refurbished arena, they always said their losses were not as dire as reported. And now that they are firmly entrenched in their welfare carriage, they are claiming they are losing more money than a saltwater salesman on a Pacific island resort.

But regardless of their losses, the fact is the owners are losing money. That being said, they had a choice to make. They could rather easily have become the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, putting lackluster talent on the court in the hopes of staying afloat long enough for somebody or something to bail them out of their financial mess. Or, they could have done right by the fans and honored the commitment they made when they purchased the team four years ago, re-signing their superstar player to a lucrative contract that will continue the feel-good story that began last October and continued merrily into the postseason.

To their credit, they chose the latter, enabling Allen on Tuesday to agree to a five-year, $80 million contract that paves the way for continued success.

Cynics might suggest this was a move that makes the franchise that much more attractive to sell. After all, those pesky rumors that include Microsoft honcho Steve Ballmer just won't go away, no matter how sincerely Howard Schultz stands in front of a camera and claims to be in it for the long haul.

But let's be honest, for the most part fans don't care which billionaire is signing the checks, so long as they are signed. Except for the extremely ardent fan, (former owner Barry) Ackerley begets Schultz begets Ballmer is static on the way to the arena.

Had the Allen signing not been achieved, there is a pretty good chance that few if any would have been on their way to the arena at all. It's one thing to be an ugly mess for a long time. But to be an ugly mess, be beautiful for a week, and then go back to being an ugly mess is just too much to handle for most. Sonics fans were beautiful for a week, and they liked the feeling that conveyed.

Johnny and Michelle Damon, Leeanne Tweedne
Hey, why not? The man is on a 25-game hitting streak.

Losing McMillan, while a blow, in my mind is not the same as losing Allen.

Now, you might hear the Sonics' financial woes were the reason for his departure, and that they lowballed him in their offer.

But let's be honest. The Sonics offered McMillan a four-year, $18 million deal, fair by any stretch of the imagination, but even more so when you consider that McMillan really had only one truly successful season, 2004-05, when he led Seattle to a 52-30 record, the Northwest Division crown and a berth in the second round of the playoffs.

In any case, when we spoke on Wednesday night, McMillan told me his decision was not about the money.

"I feel like it was time for a change, to go in a different direction," McMillan said. "It's no more than that. I'm not basing my decision on the past season and what we did or what we accomplished. At the end of the year, I felt like I would have to maybe do something different.

"It's been 19 years. Nineteen years on the same stage. Nineteen years of doing the same show over and over again. I was bored with myself. And I'm sure the fans were bored with me.

"I was wondering for a few years what it would be like to play somewhere different. Obviously I didn't get that opportunity when I was playing. But now that I am coaching, I can find out what it will be like to be working somewhere else," he said.

There is some basis to that, but that is awfully Pollyanna. There were certainly issues. They started two seasons ago, when McMillan was pulled into an office and forced to run an offense he wasn't comfortable running.

It created a rift with management that, though it percolated unnoticed below the surface during this latest run, never really disappeared, in part because McMillan was denied the opportunity to talk extension last summer.

The clincher for McMillan may have come at the end of this wonderful season, which ended with a … well, to be honest, nothing.

McMillan expected a thank you, perhaps a celebration, a champagne toast befitting a job well done and a few extra million in the coffers after so many additional sold-out home games in the postseason.

Instead, he got, "See you at the negotiating table."

When a simple acknowledgement is hard to come by, and then Paul Allen offers an eight-course meal at his palatial estate, it's easy to see why McMillan fled to the Rose City.

But it is not the end for Seattle because it still has Ray Allen, and he, more than McMillan, is the linchpin for success. Any yutz can roam the Sonics' sideline and tell his players to put the ball in the hands of Allen.

Plan B includes the following names: Phoenix assistant Marc Iavaroni, edged out by McMillan in Portland; Doug Collins, who might or might not be ready for a fourth coaching gig; Tom Izzo, who might or might not be ready to jump from Michigan State to the NBA; Flip Saunders, who might or might not be too expensive for the Sonics; and P.J. Carlesimo, who might be considered too combative.

On the floor, now that the Allen issue has been resolved, and it stands to reason Vladimir Radmanovic, Damien Wilkins, Ronald Murray and a center to be named later will join the fray, rounding up the majority of the key players at the Key who were vital in the team's '04-'05 resurrection. (Jerome James and Antonio Daniels probably are gone.)

It's so easy now to think all the Sonics and Allen needed to do was figure out his worth on the open market, make an offer and -- voilą -- ink him to a contract.

But it was never that simple. There were internal debates about how to handle the future of this financially unstable organization and whether bringing back Allen for big money was worth the risk, especially when he'll be 30 on July 20. After all, this city has seen that story before with Gary Payton, and it ended in a rather nasty divorce.

Now Seattle has to deal with the fallout from another unpleasant divorce, this time from Mr. Sonic. Fortunately, they have the most important Sonic still in the fold.

Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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