Mr. McMillan certainly didn’t have to wait long, did he?
The Atlanta Hawks have agreed to an agreement with Nate McMillan to shed the ‘interim’ part of his title and extend him as the franchise’s head coach, Atlanta’s general manager, Travis Schlenk, announced on Monday afternoon.
The deal is reportedly for four years, according to ESPN’s resident scoop master, Adrian Wojnarowski. Schlenk spoke briefly on the team’s decision during a season wrap-up conference call with reporters.
“We’re just drawing up the contract,” Schlenk said. “We’ve now worked together for four months. We’ve had a good working relationship, and I’m excited he’s going to be our head coach moving forward.”
The Hawks had really been struggling under their previous head coach Lloyd Pierce, with the team sitting at 14-20 and in 11th place on March 1st when Pierce was relieved of his duties and they were handed over to McMillan, the top assistant on Pierce’s staff. McMillan was in his first season with the team, but he wasted no time in turning them around.
Atlanta’s 27-11 record from when McMillan took over down the stretch of the regular season was eclipsed only by the 29-10 records of the Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns during that time. The Hawks ranked eighth in offensive rating (115.9), tied for 10th in defensive rating (111.3), seventh in net rating (+4.5), seventh in turnover percentage (12.6), and sixth in true shooting percentage (59.0) over that span.
That was nothing compared to the Cinderella playoff run McMillan led the Hawks on afterwards, however. As the fifth seed, Trae Young, McMillan and the Hawks first silenced Madison Square Garden while dismantling the tough No. 4 seed New York Knicks in five games. They then moved onto the City of Brotherly Love, where they took down the No. 1-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in a scintillating seven-game series.
They eventually met their match in the Milwaukee Bucks, but even with a hobbled Young, Atlanta took the Eastern Conference champs to six games. After losing Game 1 of the NBA Finals to the Phoenix Suns, those Bucks are now +4.5 NBA point spread underdogs at -105 NBA odds on 888sport for Game 2, which could be a solid NBA pick.
McMillan spoke about this opportunity in Atlanta after his team’s Game 6 defeat last Saturday.
“It’s truly a blessing,” McMillan said. “You talk about when one door closes, another door opens. I didn’t expect this to happen, but it did… I really didn’t look back on what had happened last season. My focus was on, once I got this opportunity, to come down and try to help first Coach Pierce, and then when the opportunity presented itself for me to coach this team, to try to make it better.”
McMillan will now have four more years to build on what he was able to achieve in just half a season in charge in 2021. However, unlike this season, when they were overachieving and proving the doubters wrong, the next few seasons will see higher expectations and more pressure on this group, though the makeup of this squad would give anyone hope for the future.
They’ve got a team that plays together and that has a good culture, which is a great start. Not to mention a budding superstar in Young who’s surrounded by a bevy of young talent, from sharpshooters Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter to intriguing wings DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish to big men Onyeka Okongwu and John Collins.
The growth of many of those youngsters under McMillan, especially Young, has not gone under the radar. The 56-year-old McMillan spoke about how this youthful group of players forced him to change his strategy and perspective on how to do the best coaching job he could this season.
“Yes, I’ve become a lot more patient than I’ve been,” McMillan said. “I’ve had a few friends and a few people say, ‘Old School Nate would have done this or done that or would have responded or reacted in this way.’ I’ve been patient… Sometimes you try to create a culture and it’s kind of your way or the highway.
“This season it was more adapting to the players and how they learn and different ways to keep them motivated and lifted. So I’ve become a lot more patient with players, with the game, with myself… I really enjoyed it this season.”
That new approach has clearly paid dividends, with the Raleigh, North Carolina native reaching his first ever Conference Finals as a head coach this season. McMillan’s teams have always been competitive, but in 10 postseason appearances, this was just his second time advancing past the first round.
It’s been 35 straight years in the NBA for McMillan at this point, with the first 13 of those coming as a player on the Seattle SuperSonics. A product of NC State, McMillan was taken in the second round of the 1986 NBA draft by the Sonics, where he stayed for his entire playing career.
McMillan led the league in steals in 1994 and was an NBA All-Defensive Second Teamer in ‘94 and ‘95. In 1996 he helped his team reach the NBA Finals, where he, Shawn Kemp, and Gary Payton were beaten by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in six. Two years later, McMillan hung ‘em up, and his #10 jersey was eventually retired by the SuperSonics.
He also became known as ‘Mr. Sonic’ because after his 1998 retirement, he hopped right onto Seattle’s coaching staff without so much as a year off. He remained a top assistant for two seasons before taking over the role of head coach in 2000. The team went 212-183 during his five years at the helm, including two playoff appearances and one trip to the Conference semis.
In 2005, McMillan left the Sonics after 19 years of service to become the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. He remained in Oregon for six full seasons, the latter three of which ended in first round playoff exits. He was fired midway through his seventh campaign in charge with the team sporting a 20-23 record at the time.
McMillan then spent 2013-2016 as an assistant coach for the Indiana Pacers before eventually taking over the head coaching job there as well. However, four more first round exits followed, and McMillan was fired after the last one at the hands of the Miami Heat in 2020.
Despite his success without ever coaching a bonafide superstar or a team that was a No. 3 seed or higher, McMillan was not offered another head coaching position after the bubble, so he signed on as an assistant with the Hawks, even though many (including this writer) believed he should have easily gotten another head coaching gig.
It all worked out in the end, however, as McMillan now finds himself in charge of arguably the most exciting and talented team he has ever been able to coach. Now he and Schlenk will have to figure out what they are going to do with Collins, who is a restricted free agent and could command an exorbitant salary this offseason after a stellar postseason