Bob MacKinnon, Milton Lee turned around the Springfield Armor

Bob MacKinnon, Milton Lee turned around the Springfield Armor

Springfield Armor head coach Bob MacKinnon Jr. and his assistant, former Duke standout Chris Carrawell, joined the New Jersey Nets coaching staff for the last few regular season games. The two coaches were on hand for an emotional final game in the Garden State, just adding to a season full of emotions.

A week earlier, MacKinnon left the Armor locker room, taking longer than usual, following a 115-106 loss to the Canton Charge, a game that ended Springfield’s season.

MacKinnon took a moment to compose himself before answering questions from a handful of reporters. Nine days earlier, MacKinnon and his 6-year-old son, Ryan, were in the middle of a mosh pit with his players as they celebrated winning the Eastern Conference, defeating the Texas Legends 105-98 on the final day of the regular season.

During the press conference, MacKinnon, who refused to answer questions about the season-ending loss, tried to wrap up eight months of work in a little over three minutes. In Springfield’s first two years of existence, the Armor, under head coach Dee Brown, won a measly 20 of the first 100 games.

MacKinnon, General Manager of Minor League Operations Milton Lee, and the entire Nets organization had turned one of the laughingstocks on the NBA Development League into one of the league’s best.

In May 2011, the Nets-Armor hybrid affiliation became official. In August, Lee was selected by Nets GM Billy King to take over the Armor.

Just over a month later, Lee and the Nets picked MacKinnon as the next head coach of the Armor, succeeding Brown, who left to join Lawrence Frank’s staff with the Pistons.

MacKinnon was one coaches to interview from the job and from the beginning it was clear that he was a strong candidate for the position.

“We felt that if we instituted a very strong culture from day one it had the potential to have a lot of positive effects,” said Lee. “Bob was one of the first people we interviewed. Ultimately over time it came clear that Bob was the best candidate.”

MacKinnon led the now-defunct Colorado 14ers to a D-League title in 2009 and when he got in the room with Avery Johnson, the chemistry was clear. “I love the time I spend with Coach Johnson, It was more of an X’s and O’s session than an interview,” said MacKinnon.

While the two head coaches were getting along, MacKinnon and Lee prepared to put a competitive team on the floor.

“When we put this team together, one of the first things that Milton said was ‘we’re going to draft character people,’” said MacKinnon.

By tryouts, MacKinnon had taken over team with several players left over from the previous year’s 13-37 squad. JamesOn Curry, Jerry Smith, Lance Hurdle, Eugene Spates, Jamar Brown, and L.D. Williams were all a part of an Armor team that ranked last in the D-League in rebounding in 2010-2011. With MacKinnon’s hard-nosed playing style and the additions of big men Horner and Jeff Foote, Springfield ranked first in the league in rebounding this season.

“Personally that’s what I believed everybody on this team did. They bought into the system,” said Curry, who endured the first two losing seasons in Springfield.

The system MacKinnon ran was identical to the one Johnson ran. With MacKinnon running the same system and simultaneously running his players raged with his high-energy practices, the Nets-Armor affiliation took off quickly when Dennis Horner made the Nets opening day roster. With the Nets frontline in flux to begin the shortened NBA season, Horner, who was in shape and new all the plays stepped right in and playing in Cyprus the year before was on an NBA roster.

Horner was one of three Armor players to get a call-up. Foote was called-up by the Hornets, while Smith was picked up by the Nets following the trade for Gerald Wallace.

The team reflected its blue-collar coach and early in the season Springfield jumped out to a 5-2 record, quickly diminishing the agony of the first two seasons. “[I told them] whether we win or lose we should be competitive in every game,” said MacKinnon. “When you do that you have your chance to win your fair share.”

MacKinnon helped lead the charge to the best turnaround in league history, improving 16 games on last season’s record. This is including extensive road trips: at one point, Springfield was on the road for 15 straight days in December.

What made things easier was the separation of head coach and GM. The first two seasons, Brown served as both head coach and Director of Basketball Operations. “It’s a great opportunity to have another basketball person with you making decisions and being supportive. When I have questions I can turn to Milton and ask his advice,” said MacKinnon.

While MacKinnon focused on coaching the team, Lee made constant trips back and forth from Jersey to the birthplace of basketball, keeping the Nets informed on the daily events in Springfield. The constant three-hour drives one way never bothered Lee.

“It’s not tough at all. I’m young, I’m single, I enjoy it and I really feel like these are my guys,” said Lee. “We (MacKinnon, Carrawell, and Lee) feel like we’re one unit. I really look forward to coming up here and attending our games and practices.”

Lee claimed that they wanted to get better game-by-game and season-by-season, but they never anticipated three D-League All-Stars and four call-ups (only one call-up the first two seasons).

The most surprising result happened following the last day of the season, on the road in Frisco, Tex.

Springfield entered the game in third-place in the East. “We knew we had a chance (to win the Eastern Conference) going into it,” said MacKinnon. “When we were walking towards our locker room we were told at the tunnel we found out.” In the locker room is where the infamous mosh pit took place, where MacKinnon joked: “I was just making sure the guys bumping me were the guards and not the forwards.”

The Armor fell in three games to Canton in the first round of the D-League Playoffs, with the final game on Springfield’s home floor. Before the clock ran out, the appreciative Springfield fans gave the Armor a standing ovation, putting a nice touch on the franchise’s best season.

The first reporter asked a question about what MacKinnon said to his team following the loss.

“We just talked about what we accomplished. I’m not going to let a loss diminish what this team accomplished.”

He stopped his answer there, as 6-foot-9 Zendon Hamilton – the last out of the locker room – interrupted the interview with a meaningful hug with his coach.

After the moment, MacKinnon added, “My only disappointment is that I don’t get to go to practice tomorrow with them again.”