The Atlanta Hawks’ Nate McMillan has done the unthinkable. This interim head coach has led the Hawks to their second Eastern Conference Finals in franchise history. The former point guard and 2-time NBA All-Defensive team member has helped star Trae Young build on an impressive early career. He now has his team merely four wins away from a shot at the Hawks’ first NBA championship since the merger. Win or lose, coach McMillan has proven that he deserves to be the full-time coach for the Hawks.
The Atlanta Hawks Need to Extend Nate McMillan
Starting in Seattle
McMillan played his entire 12-year career for the Seattle Supersonics. Upon retiring in 1998, he decided to stay with the team as an assistant coach. He was named the interim head coach in 2000 when the Sonics fired Paul Westphal. McMillan led the team to a 38-29 record and earned a promotion to head coach. In 5 seasons under McMillan, the Supersonics would go 212-183, making the playoffs twice in that span. In 2004–05, he led the team to a 52–30 record in the regular season. They would advance to the Western Conference Semifinals, where they fell in six games to the San Antonio Spurs. The tightly contested series ended on a last-second shot from Tim Duncan.
Making a Name for Himself
On July 6, 2005, McMillan left Seattle to become the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. The franchise was in shambles upon his arrival, facing cap problems and off-the-court issues. After two losing seasons, McMillan got the Blazers back to .500 in the 2007-08 season.
In 2006, Mike Krzyzewski brought McMillan on as an assistant coach for the US national team in the FIBA World Championship in Japan. Team USA won the bronze medal in the event. In 2007, McMillan earned a gold medal as an assistant in the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship. He would earn two more gold medals as a Krzyzewski assistant in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.
Back in the pro ranks, the Trail Blazers rebuild was in motion. McMillan coached the team to three straight playoff appearances from 2008 to 2011. Unfortunately for Portland, each season ended in a first-round exit. Despite being 29 games over .500 in those three seasons, the lack of success in the postseason had McMillan on the hot seat entering the 2011-12 regular season. With a losing record 43 games into the season, the coach was let go on March 15, 2012.
Setting the Pace in Indiana
Frank Vogel hired McMillan as an assistant coach for the Indiana Pacers to start the 2013-14 season. After three years on the bench, the coach was offered another promotion when Indiana decided not to re-sign Vogel. Named head coach prior to the 2016-17 season, McMillan took the Pacers to the playoffs in each of his four seasons in charge. First-round exits again plagued his tenure. Other than a tough seven-game loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018, the Pacers were swept in the first round during each of their postseasons. Although they lost to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Miami Heat, the Pacers decided to fire McMillan in 2020 after another disappointing sweep. The firing surprisingly came only a few weeks after Indiana had restructured and extended the coach’s contract.
Finding a Home in Atlanta
The Hawks’ Nate McMillan was hired as an assistant for coach Lloyd Pierce prior to the 2020-21 season. When the team underperformed, the front office lost faith in Pierce. With Atlanta starting off poorly in 2021, Pierce was let go after 34 games. Now known as a transitional coach, McMillan was the perfect candidate for the interim job to finish the season. He did not disappoint.
Atlanta has outperformed all expectations since coach McMillan has taken over. Known as ‘Sarge’ since his days in Portland, the defensive-minded coach has meshed well with his star player and led the Hawks to a 27-11 record in the regular season. Atlanta has a lot of talent offensively and the former point guard McMillan has helped the team improve greatly from last year’s disappointment.
Breaking the Playoff Curse: Atlanta Hawks & Nate McMillan
The Hawks haven’t seen much postseason success since their 2015 Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Coming into this year’s playoffs, McMillan had only made it out of the first round once in his head coaching career. Both runs of bad luck have been snapped thanks in no small part to the decisions of coach McMillan. Atlanta took the New York Knicks to the proverbial woodshed, winning the first-round series in five games. McMillan started rookie De’Andre Hunter for that series. Hunter had only started 15 games in the regular season, but the decision paid off as he scored 11 or more points in three of the games.
Making the Right Moves
In the second round, the Hawks were matched up with the number one seed Philadelphia 76ers. Hunter went down with an injury, leading McMillan to make more lineup changes. He went with Solomon Hill as a starter for the first two games before making the switch to Kevin Huerter. Huerter, the eventual star of Game 7, had started 31 games in the regular season. The lineup of Huerter, Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins, and Clint Capela had only started 7 games together prior to the Conference Semifinals. The decision to go with that starting five paid off big time.
Additionally, McMillan decided to bring in Danilo Gallinari off the bench to play minutes alongside Capela and Collins. It was a rare combination hardly used before that series. This shored up the frontcourt for Atlanta and helped them keep pace with Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris. The final key decision came in the second half of the series when McMillan decided to coach his team into fouling Ben Simmons late in close games. Simmons went on to shoot an NBA record-low 32% from the foul line in the playoffs. This includes going 4-14 in Game 5 when the ‘hack-a-Ben’ strategy was employed.
Interim No More – The Hawks’ Nate McMillan
Whether the Hawks hot streak continues or not, coach McMillan has proven that he deserves to have the ‘interim’ title removed from his job description. Solid coaching in the regular season and tough choices in the playoffs have elevated McMillan from his transitional status. He has earned another shot at running a team full-time and Atlanta would be wise to make sure it is their team that he is coaching next season.