Nate McMillan: The new voice the Hawks needed

Atlanta Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan (center) talks in a huddle with the team during the first half against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, March 13, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Atlanta Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan (center) talks in a huddle with the team during the first half against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, March 13, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Sometimes it’s the singer, not the song. The Rolling Stones, who have a rather famous singer, cut a number with that very title in 1965. (It’s not especially memorable.) Sometimes it’s the voice, not the words. Sometimes … well, enough musicology.

The Hawks are 8-0 since firing Lloyd Pierce and bumping Nate McMillan from assistant to interim head coach. If you count the three games they worked when Pierce was on parental leave, they’re 10-1 under McMillan. Some sort of bounce is expected when a team changes coaches in midseason, and an inspection of this eight-game run reveals that six victories came against sub-.500 opponents. The most notable win was against the Lakers in L.A. on Saturday, and that game began with the hosts missing Anthony Davis and ended with them minus LeBron James.

So: Let’s not plan that parade down Peachtree just yet.

But: Let’s also note that, under Pierce, the Hawks were among the sub-.500 set. There was no game they couldn’t lose at the end, which is the worst kind of losing in any sport. The Hawks awoke Monday at 22-20 and — looky here! — leading the Southeast Division. Granted, the Southeast is the NBA’s worst division by some distance, but still: When they changed coaches, the Hawks weren’t in position to make the playoffs, even though the playoffs, by adding play-in games, have expanded to 10 teams per conference. As of Monday, they were the East’s No. 4 seed.

So: Some of this is surely a bounce, and some is due to improved health. Bogdan Bogdanovic, among the team’s many offseason imports, returned for the Hawks’ first game post-LP. They haven’t lost since. De’Andre Hunter, who hasn’t played since January, is listed as “questionable” — as opposed to “out” — for Monday’s game against the Clippers. (Cam Reddish remains out, having undergone knee surgery; Kris Dunn has been sighted in a Hawks’ uniform as often as Speedy Claxton.) In defense of Pierce, no coach looks especially clever when half the roster is on the shelf.

But: It was clear by the end that the Hawks had stopped listening. That can happen when a young coach is handed a young team and asked to make something of it. Losing is inevitable at first, and there’s no assurance that the losing won’t grow so pronounced that the team will begin to doubt the coach and vice versa. Sometimes a different voice is needed, largely for the sake of being different.

Atlanta Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan gives his players a fist-bump as they take the court against Oklahoma City en route for their seventh consecutive victory Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton /

icon to expand image

Credit: Curtis Compton /

That said, McMillan was a sagacious choice for Plan B, which many believe was why the Hawks hired him in November. He’s 56. He has logged 1,257 games as an NBA head coach. His ferocity as a player was such that he was beloved in Seattle, where he was known as Mr. Sonic, which had nothing to do with an affinity for drive-in dining. (For you youngsters, there was once a franchise known as the Seattle SuperSonics.) He was part of an North Carolina State back court that included the legendary Spud Webb. He was recruited out of Raleigh’s Enloe High — the alma mater of Georgia Tech’s Moses Wright, FYI — by the legendary Jim Valvano. He has, in a word, credentials.

Pierce is 44. He didn’t play in the NBA. He’d never been a head coach before being tapped by the Hawks for their rebuild. This isn’t to say he doesn’t know his business — he demonstrably does — but sometimes you can’t outrun a bad start. The Hawks have stopped blowing fourth-quarter leads. Is it because they learned what not to do under Pierce? Is it because a coach of McMillan’s seasoning is seen as a calming presence? Is it because they know McMillan, himself a defender of renown, is more apt to employ harsh language if they don’t buckle down and guard somebody?

The immediate impact of a coaching change is always hard to quantify. Why did the Falcons start 4-2 under Raheem Morris after going 0-5 under Dan Quinn, who’d taken them to a Super Bowl? Sometimes you just need to hear someone else sing, as it were, even if the lyrics are much the same. (Even McMillan concedes the Hawks’ schemes haven’t really changed.) Sometimes the dulcet tones of Tony Bennett do the trick. Other times you need Tom Waits.

The hardest task for a coach is convincing a losing team it can win. The Hawks have won eight straight. Some regression toward the mean is inevitable, but the thing about winning is that the more a team does it, the more it believes it can keep doing it. That’s no small deal.

Nate McMillan is exactly what the Hawks needed — a proud professional who has seen everything to tell them, “OK, here’s what’s coming next.” He mightn’t be the coach to take them to the summit. (Then again, he might.) He is absolutely the man for this moment.