Two years and three months ago, Nate McMillan took over for Lloyd Pearce, who was fired as the Hawks’ interim coach, and made it clear to his players that they were part of the problem.
“Everybody has to point fingers at themselves about what they can do better,” McMillan said after his talk with the team. “Lloyd took the win for all of us. I know it goes with the territory. But you have to look at yourself and see what you’re going to do with it.
What is not old is new again. McMillan was fired Tuesday night. The coach wins for player and organizational failure. But welcome to life in professional sports, where one contract is easier to walk away from than many.
McMillan’s exit was not a shock. Owner Tony Ressler has been thinking about it for a while. Conversations between Ressler and general manager Landry Fields after the Hawks pulled into the All-Star break and back-to-back losses to the Hornets and Knicks left the team 29-30 and significantly damaged its hopes of avoiding another play-in round. McMillan may have been fired a few days ago, but pro sports leagues typically frown upon signature celebrations like All-Star Games being fueled by ugly things like shootings, with Monday off. So the ax fell as the players returned to training on Tuesday night.
“It made me feel like I had to light a fire under them,” Fields said Athletic. “Our objectives have not changed this season.”
Of course — what better way to ensure personal accountability for players than to fire a coach? But back to that.
To be clear, there are legitimate reasons to support McMillan’s ouster. After going 27-11 and leading the Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals in 2020-21, after getting the “permanent” job, his record over the next two seasons was a pedestrian 72-69. Atlanta is relatively underserved for its talent, and while the talent is overrated, it certainly doesn’t match.
McMillan’s messaging is solid and consistent. He’s not the terrible head coach that social media Einsteins make him out to be. A man never coaches 1,428 games in the NBA and wins 760. He’s smart, he’s classy and above all, he’s professional. His work two years ago was notable for calming down a bewildered and somewhat whiny player and leading them to playoff upsets of the Knicks and Sixers. But McMillan is old school, and he lacks in key areas, particularly offensive creativity and young player development. The Hawks are 16th in offensive rating at 113.7, take too many midrange jumpers, are terrible at shooting 3s and terrible on defense.
Barring significant improvement and a miraculous playoff run, McMillan will likely be fired after the season anyway, with one year and an option left on his contract. Ressler had already stripped former team leader Travis Schleng of his authority, effectively kicking him out of the organization. Three other members of the basketball team were eliminated. He saw no reason to stop McMillan’s expulsion. The flamboyant wrestler’s orchestrated rise and organizational takeover is sure to continue.
Fields is the biggest name in basketball games, but Ressler runs the show. When asked how long McMillan’s firing was discussed, Fields said, athletics, “It’s something I’ve been watching. To show what we’ve done (this season) … I don’t want to play too much on the last two games with Charlotte and New York, but they were definitely significant and we didn’t see enough improvement.
Fields said of the upcoming coaching search: “We’re looking for a new voice the rest of the way, and we’re starting our search immediately and aggressively. So with 23 games left before (the search), we’re going to see if we can land someone who makes sense to us. Development is huge on our priority list, as well. The character of the coaches and accountability with the players, and getting our offense and defense in the top 10. That’s the only way I see us progressing on the basketball court.
The issues are much bigger picture than that, and may or may not be addressed at Wednesday’s press conference. Ressler started out as an owner who said he would leave basketball results to basketball operations, but he changed that after an unexpected — and misleading — conference finals run.
It led to a front office impasse that included Ressler’s son being blessed with a loud voice in the room, a John Collins trade rejected by the franchise, three first-round picks given to Dejounte Murray over Schleng’s objections, and a self-imposed salary. -Cap issues effectively forced the team to deal Kevin Huerter.
Equally important is the oft-fractured relationship between McMillan and guard Trae Young. It seems the player’s lack of leadership skills – and, situational awareness – is a problem. McMillan traveled to Oklahoma City in the offseason to talk with Young about the two improving their communication this season. But if it helped, it was minimal.
Possible candidates to replace McMillan include three former Hawks assistants — the Bucks’ Charles Lee, Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson and former Jazz head coach Quin Snyder — as well as Kings assistant Jordy Fernandez, Spurs assistant Mitch Johnson and Myles Simon of the G League South Bay. The Ressler shoots a lot. But with cap issues and some future draft picks, it’s not an attractive inbox for candidates.
It’s fair to assume McMillan isn’t going to fix this. It is equally reasonable to assume that the problems extend beyond training.
(Photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)