Mixing ‘new school’ with ‘old school’ helps McMillan thrive with Hawks

070321 Atlanta: Atlanta Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan and Trae Young (from left), Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela, John Collins, and Kevin Huerter try to mount another come back against the Milwaukee Bucks that falls short during the fourth quarter in game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, July 3, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
070321 Atlanta: Atlanta Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan and Trae Young (from left), Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela, John Collins, and Kevin Huerter try to mount another come back against the Milwaukee Bucks that falls short during the fourth quarter in game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, July 3, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

People always call Nate McMillan “old school.”

“And I am,” McMillan, 56, said Friday at his introductory press conference as Hawks head coach. “I’m old, so I bring the old school with me.”

But, in transforming the Hawks from a 14-20 team to Eastern Conference contenders, he found a way to blend some “new school” in with the old. He had so much success and the fit was so good that the Hawks quickly got rid of that “interim” tag, after the season came to a close, with the Hawks losing to Milwaukee in the conference finals.

At one point after McMillan took over for Lloyd Pierce, who was fired March 1, he asked star guard Trae Young (age 22) if Young had ever seen the movie “Drumline,” which was filmed around Atlanta, including at Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown College. To which Young responded “Of course.”

“And I said, ‘You remember when the director, when they were coming up with their last performance, the director was old school?’” McMillan said. “All he wanted was, he wanted old-school music and the routines and everything they were doing was really kind of old, but he had this new drummer that was, this guy, he was Trae Young. ... What I told Trae was, ‘Listen, we’ve got to find a way to mix the old school and the new school.’”

That’s what happened in the movie, and that’s what happened in the Hawks’ season, too. Young operates at a tempo many simply can’t match, but he was playing the fourth quarter the same as the first quarter, McMillan thought. Adding a little old school, slowing it down, getting set up, getting organized, could help Young, though he still needed to play his own game.

Maintaining late leads had been the Hawks’ Achilles’ heel in the season’s first half, but it became a strength under McMillan, and that was one big reason why. They won eight games in a row when he first took over, and went on to win two games against Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference finals.

The Hawks will enter next season with high expectations, particularly now that they’ve secured McMillan. It’s unique that they had such a deep postseason run when injuries continued to rack up throughout the season, down to Game 6 vs. the Bucks, with Young not 100% with a right foot bone bruise. With the offseason comes potential roster shake-ups, and injuries in a way actually afforded more minutes to go around on a very deep roster, McMillan pointed out.

However that shakes out and whatever expectations are, as the old school adage goes, McMillan will take it one game at a time.

“A lot of things have to go right. … You need a little luck when you have runs like we had this year,” McMillan said. “Things just for whatever reason went right, and we had a lot of success. We know that expectations are going to be higher for us next season. But the one thing we’ve tried to keep this team locked in on is just us. Not the outside noise and what people are saying we should be or shouldn’t be because at the beginning of the season, they weren’t saying what they’re saying now about us. So you can’t focus on that. I always approach it one game at a time.”

Given how well he has fit in, and given how the franchise took flight once he took over, it’s crazy to think McMillan initially was hesitant to accept the interim coach position. After he was fired by Indiana at the end of the 2019-20 season, he planned to take a full year off.

But, he found himself sitting in his living room at night watching one too many episodes of “Jeopardy” and “Family Feud,” and that was his first clue that his plan wasn’t going to work.

When Pierce reached out to McMillan about becoming an assistant coach with the Hawks, he accepted because he knew the steps forward the organization wanted to take after those rebuilding years, and he wanted to be a part of it.

Now, obviously, he’s even more invested in the Hawks (and vice versa) as head coach. The biggest reason McMillan accepted the job is the ownership of Tony Ressler and Jami Gertz, he said, knowing they’re committed to building a winning franchise.

“The biggest reason is Tony,” McMillan said. “Tony, Jami and (GM Travis Schlenk), what they are trying to build here. … As I took over, I started to get more information on the plan here, and the direction that the organization, they want to go. Tony will do whatever it takes to bring a winning team here. And a team that character, all of that, plays a part, in what he wants to bring to Atlanta.

“When you’re signing on with a team, me personally, it’s all about ownership. It really is. Because if you can’t be on the same page with what they are doing and expectations, it’s going to be a short time here. Listening to them over the course of the year, and then as we talked about it when we were negotiating the contract, I’m on board. I believe in this organization. I believe in what they want to do. I feel that I can help them accomplish those goals.”