Sports

Nate McMillan’s tenure with the Hawks is downright Thibs-ian


Nate McMillan

Nate McMillan
Photo: Getty Images

The Hawks are lucky the Knicks are so disappointing or Stephen A. Smith would be melting down about them instead. The team that ended the Ben Simmons era in Philly, banished Julius Randle to a place from which he has yet to return, and competed with eventual NBA championship Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals is two games below .500 and about as uninspiring as their record.

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You could chalk up this season to too much hype too soon — a typical story for a young team coming off their first dabble of playoff success. Trae Young called the regular season “boring” in November, and that’s exactly the kind of mindset that’ll land you in the nine spot with a little over a month left until the non-boring portion of the schedule begins.

It’s ultimately on the players to stay focused and motivated, but it’s also the coaching staff’s responsibility to help them do that. Just like it was coach Nate McMillan’s responsibility to show Young what is and what isn’t an empty stat last season, he needed — and has so far failed — to keep his team engaged and improving.

As good as McMillan is at unlocking a team’s half-court offense, his unwillingness to deviate from his micro-management, slow-it-down-so-we-can-run-a-set style has been his downfall in the past, and it’ll probably be what gets him fired in Atlanta, too. The best team he’s ever coached talent-wise was probably the late aughts Trail Blazers who had Brandon Roy, Lamarcus Aldridge, and a pre-injury riddled Greg Oden. They won 54 games despite being last in pace of play. He’s led teams to a 50-plus win season three different times. Calling him a bad coach is objectively not true.

He deserves to be in that Tom Thibodeau and Larry Brown category of head coaches who are great for inexperienced teams because they bring structure and discipline. However, that rigidity and obsession with doing things “my way” eventually grates on players (and front offices), and they predictably, almost comically lose their locker room (followed by their job).

The Hawks went 27-11 in the 38 games McMillan coached when he took over during the middle of last season. Sixty games into the 2021-22 campaign, he has only 29 wins. The roster is talented, deep, and explosive, and he’s coaching it like a father afraid to let their child go as they try to ride a bike without training wheels for the first time. The Hawks are 18th in pace of play (per NBA.com), which is a travesty considering they have the tools to be devastating in an uptempo game, and are second to last in fast break points per game (via TeamRankings.com), which is a basketball rights violation.

Perhaps Young is disinterested because his coach keeps yelling at him to “slow it down and run something” as soon as he gets the wind blowing through his weird, wispy hair. (On top of the completely stupid “Ice Trae” moniker he keeps pushing — shuttering during All-Star Game intros forced me to involuntarily roll my eyes — his PR team needs to clean up that lollipop hairdo.)

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Honestly, this isn’t so much about Young, who’s having a career season in points per game (27.8) and is in the neighborhood (46-38-90) of the 50-40-90 club, it’s about the rest of the team. John Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Clint Capella, and Lou Williams are all averaging less points per game than a season ago, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Some are marginal like Huerter’s 11.8 ppg dipping to 11.6, and some are concerning like Bogdanovic’s 16.4 to 13.6 drop and Capella’s 15.5 to 10.7 free fall.

They traded away Cam Reddish because their rotation was so crowded, and you’re left wondering if it was less about a crowded rotation and more about a helicopter-parent approach that’s nice at first and overbearing at worst. You can play brilliant half-court basketball AND get up and down the floor to take advantage of your youth, shooting, and athleticism. There doesn’t have to be eight seconds left on a shot clock for an attempt to be considered a “good shot.”

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At some point, McMillan has to trust in the lessons he instilled in his players and let them play at a more wideopen and breakneck pace. Trust is why good coaches don’t feel the need to call a timeout late in games to draw something up, rather putting the ball in the hands of their best player and allowing them to take advantage of a mismatch or run a play that hasn’t been carefully thought through over a commercial break. (The inverse of McMillan is Mike D’Antoni, who trusts his players to a fault. We’re looking for a healthy middle ground, people.)

I haven’t watched enough Atlanta games to know if McMillan still calls flow-disrupting timeouts because he thinks he knows best, but I’ve followed enough McMillan teams to know that he always thinks he knows best. That’s exactly what this team, who didn’t know shit about winning, needed a season ago.

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The Hawks now know what success feels like. Yet they’re still studying the ABC’s of basketball when they should be onto English Lit. The professor needs to update his lesson plan or hand off his class to a teacher capable of building upon the tutelage they’ve already received.

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