The only time Nate McMillan cracked a smile during Tuesday's
35-minute introductory news conference was when he recounted how
departed Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce actually apologized
to him for bringing him aboard as an assistant.
Gallows humor among coaches is a special thing, and they all
know what they are signing up for when they vow to do their best in
what has been a players’ league for decades. Unless they are named
Popovich or Spoelstra, they are hired to be fired.
And that was what happened with Pierce on Monday, much to the
dismay of other coaches around the NBA, who weighed in with very
strong thoughts about what may have led to the decision nominally
made by general manager Travis Schlenk, but likely made by owner
The Hawks have been horrid in fourth quarters and tight games
this season, losing 11 of which they held a fourth-quarter lead.
The tension between Pierce and many of the organization’s younger
players was well-documented, and most of the veterans who were
brought in to help out have been injured, ineffective or both.
Atlanta is 11th in the East with a 14-20 record, hands down the
most disappointing team in the Eastern Conference with a roster
built around three young stars -- Trae Young, John Collins and
Clint Capela -- who are still in the process of learning how to
become winners, a personality characteristic on the NBA level that
sometimes takes years for a player to hone.
“I told the players: ‘If you are looking to point a finger,
point it at yourselves. All of us,’“ McMillan said, “because all
have to do better and win some games. Coach Pierce doesn’t have
that opportunity. He takes the hit.”
Pierce exits with a 63-120 record, along with the backing of his
fraternity. But the backing of the players on his roster is what
ultimately makes or breaks every coach at every level. Pierce had
enough trouble breaching the generational divide, and Schlenk cited
a need for a new voice as one of the primary reasons why the change
was made just two games prior to the All-Star break.
McMillan said Young, in particular, needs to become more adept
at reacting to different defensive looks, particularly the
box-and-one that at least three teams have employed this season. He
noted that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant adjusted and thrived
despite the different defensive looks they encountered over the
course of their careers. Can Young do that? He didn’t under Pierce,
that much we know.
McMillan’s prior head coaching experiences came with franchises
that each had a culture. In Indianapolis, Portland and Seattle, the
teams were civic treasures; in Atlanta, he takes over a franchise
that could use a similar facelift. The pieces are in place for this
roster to be a legitimate championship contender if everyone is
playing at peak efficiency.
But Rajon Rondo, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn, De’Andre Hunter
and Danilo Gallinari have missed significant time because of
injuries, and the lack of practice times that all teams are having
to adjust to has been especially difficult for a Hawks group that
clearly needs as much acclimation time as possible. That commodity
is unavailable during the current pandemic, so we are where we
“I told them about the three Cs: calm, clear and connected,”
McMillan said of his message, explaining that bad decision-making
on both ends of the floor in the final minutes of close games was
what separated good teams from bad teams.
Going forward, he wants an end to the internal barriers -- deep
three-pointers early in the shot clock, failure to help as weakside
defenders and losing poise as individuals and as a unit. If the
players can listen and harness McMillan’s message, there is no
reason why they cannot be a top-eight team with the personnel able
to present a postseason challenge to a Brooklyn or a
But if Atlanta continues to be a player-centric type of
situation and pays no mind to the message, McMillan does not figure
to be a long-term solution (he took the job on an interim basis).
Young is 22, Collins is 23, Hunter is 23 and Reddish is 21.
Bogdanovic and Capela, both 26, are pretty much the wise old men on
this team in terms of players currently producing.
McMillan is 56, a guy who went straight from being a player for
the Sonics to being an assistant coach. He takes over for a
44-year-old Pierce that will likely not be heard from again until
he resurfaces as an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s Team USA squad
for the Olympics this summer.
Pierce was the fall guy; he even he saw it coming. It takes a
special person to connect with a younger generation that is not
always amenable to accepting life experience as a valued commodity.
Perhaps McMillan will get through to them, perhaps not.
“The sleepless nights have already started,” McMillan
And he was not laughing or smiling when he said that, because
mirth is in as short supply in Atlanta as signature victories.
Time will tell if McMillan can change that.