Did Atlanta Hawks Interim Head Coach Nate McMillan Play in the NBA?

Atlanta Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan used the controversial 2020-21 NBA season to his advantage.

As LeBron James complained about everything in sight and injuries sent many of the game’s best stars to the bench, McMillan took over a disappointing Hawks team at midseason. Less than a year after the Indiana Pacers parted ways with him, the veteran head coach pulled off one of his most impressive performances thus far.

McMillan is a veteran NBA head coach

Atlanta Hawks head coach Nate McMillan in 2021.
Atlanta Hawks head coach Nate McMillan has had a long life around the NBA | Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

When the Hawks fired Lloyd Pierce midway through the 2020-21 season, the team had to convince McMillan to take over as the interim head coach. In fairness, one couldn’t fault the veteran head coach, who turns 57 in early August, for being so cautious.

Despite entering the season with a career record of 661-588, he’d been burnt before and arguably unfairly fired twice. That included the Pacers’ decision to relieve McMillan of his post in August 2020, only weeks after he’d signed a contract extension.

Given that the Pacers didn’t make it out of the NBA Play-In Tournament and McMillan’s Hawks reached the Eastern Conference Finals, they likely regretted that move. It also didn’t help matters that the Pacers fired Nate Bjorkgren after only a single season at the helm.

McMillan is one of the greatest players in Seattle SuperSonics history

Younger fans will be forgiven if they didn’t know McMillan played in the NBA during the Michael Jordan era.

A second-round pick in the 1986 NBA draft, McMillan averaged 5.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 1.9 steals in 796 career games, all of which came with the Seattle SuperSonics. The former North Carolina State guard excelled as a defensive-minded backup point guard behind Gary Payton.

He averaged a league-high three steals per game during the 1993-94 season despite only starting eight games that year. A two-time All-Defensive honoree, McMillan averaged 5.0 points and 5.2 assists in 98 career postseason games.

The SuperSonics later retired his No. 10 jersey. When they moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder in 2008, they continued keeping McMillan’s jersey number, and the other retired numbers, out of circulation.

Only a few active NBA coaches played in the league

When McMillan took over the Hawks in February, he helped increase the total of a rapidly declining club.

At the time of McMillan’s promotion, only nine active NBA head coaches had played in the league. The ex-Sonics star at least increased the total to 10 coaches out of 30.

Nets head coach Steve Nash, one of those select few, is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player. Golden State’s Steve Kerr is on pace to join him at some point, although he’d likely enter after having led the Warriors to three championships.

Many active NBA head coaches are longtime assistants who may have never played beyond college. That includes Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault, who worked on the Connecticut Huskies men’s basketball team from 2003-07 as a student manager. Similarly, Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins only played at the intramural level at the University of Pennsylvania.

McMillan is among the exceptions, and basketball fans should only hope that he’s not the last of a dying breed. The league is just a bit more fun when ex-players find their ways to the sidelines and have to navigate through today’s problems, from massive contracts to Kyrie Irving’s excuses.

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