From a Pacers fan: This is the truth about Nate McMillan, Hawks fans

Mar 16, 2022; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Atlanta Hawks head coach Nate McMillan head coach Nate McMillan during the second half against the Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 16, 2022; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Atlanta Hawks head coach Nate McMillan head coach Nate McMillan during the second half against the Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports /

Early peaks, early exits. If this rings a familiar tune to you, then you probably have closely experienced the mixed bag that was the tenure of Nate McMillan as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Two seasons have already gone by, and McMillan is now manning the sidelines for the Atlanta Hawks. Taking over for last season in the middle of the campaign after the firing of Lloyd Pierce (coincidentally, now the Pacers’ lead assistant), the veteran tactician led the Hawks to a surprise Eastern Conference Finals appearance last season.

This season, Atlanta sputtered out of the gates before regrouping near the season’s end and trumping in the play-in tournament before being eliminated in a gentleman sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat. Now, with the Hawks itching to get back to perceived form, Nate McMillan has been a common recipient of blame. While easily overblown, his weaknesses remain magnified in the face of eventual failure, the likes of which have long persisted since his Indiana days.

Nate McMillan’s current struggles with the Hawks are similar to what got him axed by the Indiana Pacers

Let’s just get this out of the way early on. Is Nate McMillan a bad coach? No, not in any sense of the word.

McMillan is objectively one of the most stable coaches you can get. After all, he has been a constant in this league and commands the respect of most players. His defensive-minded style of basketball is as simplistic and fundamentals-based as it can get, but when given the wrong cards, his adjustments tend not to work, if they at all exist.

The Indiana Pacers under McMillan were known as a gritty, overachieving bunch who played taxing, physical defense and won more games than they were pegged to despite touting a mediocre attack. In the regular season, where the effects of coaching are reflective more on the entire season output, McMillan largely shined, banking on his disciplined blueprint to overcome adversities.

However, the Atlanta Hawks play the complete opposite of what I call the McMillan ball. In 2021-22, the Hawks ranked second in offensive rating, but finished a disarming 26th in defensive rating, a stark contrast from his Indiana days when the Pacers consistently ranked among the best defensive units in the league.

Atlanta’s lack of acuity on defense is not unprecedented. While McMillan is at the helm, none of their key players, save for Clint Capela, have ever been pegged as defensive stoppers. The veteran coach’s ability to milk the most out of the Hawks’ offensive potential is quite shocking, but like his Indiana Pacers tenure, his inability to reconcile team strengths and weaknesses has limited the Hawks’ viability as a contender in the East.

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Front office blame notwithstanding, the Hawks are once again tethered to the middle of the pack, if not a tier below that. Nate McMillan’s biggest weaknesses resurfaced once again in the playoffs, where his stoic disposition percolated into their stoic game planning, with his Atlanta team getting dismantled possession-by-possession by the Miami Heat, which were led by one of the best in-game tacticians in the league in Erik Spoelstra.

Against the Heat’s trapping defense, the Hawks were left scrapping for options. Despite touting a monstrous offense in the regular season, Atlanta failed to get any rhythm at all, sticking to an offensive framework that was sedated by Miami’s constant hogging and smart concessions. Trae Young teetered with the ball in his hands, failing to generate much effective offense to keep the Heat on their toes.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the nail on the coffin for Atlanta’s season was a perplexingly bad ATO set-up which resulted in Danilo Gallinari flailing in the corner before hoisting a turnover that was as poetic as it was bad.

Again, Nate McMillan is not a bad coach by any means, but teams looking to win now have a smaller margin of error in giving him a deck to play with. After all, while effective at large, in the face of stout competition, his coaching is not the kind of coaching that you can rely on to save you from beatdowns, or even ball denials.

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