Between Christmas and New Year’s, word began circulating that Nate McMillan was so thrilled to be coaching these Hawks that he offered to resign. The report was denied by the Hawks and McMillan, but it left its mark. Once a team believes its coach is a lame duck, it ceases to view him as its coach. Why worry about pleasing someone who’s all but gone?
McMillan is out now, for which he should be grateful. What had he done to deserve this gifted-but-mismatched bunch? How many more times could he mention the importance of guarding somebody when his players cared nothing about guarding anybody?
The record will reflect that, in McMillan’s penultimate game in basketball purgatory, his team yielded 144 points on 63.1% shooting to Charlotte, which ranked 30th among 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency. Two nights later, the Hawks – who should have been eager to wipe the egg off their collective face – yielded 37 first-quarter points to the Knicks. They lost at home by 21 points. It was as if they were trying to get someone fired.
In that if nothing else, the 2022-23 Hawks succeeded. They started the season 7-3, beating the Bucks twice and the Knicks once, beating the Pelicans in overtime on a night when Zion Williamson played. The Hawks are 22-27 since. They figure to make the play-in tournament for a second year running, which might seem a big deal if most of these players weren’t part of the surge to the Eastern Conference finals in the summer of ‘21.
In the pockmarked history of Atlanta sports, has there been a stirring achievement that bore less resonance? (Don’t say the Super Bowl. That will resonate forever in infamy.) The Hawks upset the Knicks, upset the 76ers and were tied 2-2 with the champs-to-be Bucks. Travis Schlenk’s rebuild had worked, or so it seemed. The Hawks were again relevant, or so it seemed.
But no. Last season was a damp squib. This season has been worse, this after the Hawks spent a goodly chunk of their tomorrows on the go-for-it acquisition of Dejounte Murray, who was supposed to be the guard who could co-exist with Trae Young. For 10 games, this appeared a promising partnership. Today we wonder if anyone can co-exist with Young.
For a brief shining moment, McMillan did what Lloyd Pierce couldn’t do, which was coaching up one of the sport’s singular talents. McMillan had been an NBA point guard. He knew what the job entailed. He wasn’t as talented as Young – not many are – but his was the voice of credibility. He got through to Young, who became the rising tide that lifted all boats.
Then the tide ebbed. The Hawks’ failure to consolidate the gains of summer ‘21 have shaken the organization to its foundation. Schlenk was pushed aside before Christmas. Landry Fields, who’s 34, became the team’s basketball czar. Fields’ big move at the trade deadline was to acquire Saddiq Bey, who should help. But the Hawks have had good players for a while – give Schlenk credit – and they’re miles short of being a good team.
The Hawks and McMillan were a good match. Then they weren’t. Pro teams are funny that way. So long as they’re winning, players will pay heed. When the winning stops, so does the heeding.
There’s no way the Hawks should be sub-.500, but they are. Let’s see if they respond to interim coach Joe Prunty the way, once upon a time, they responded to interim coach Nate McMillan.
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