Thirty-four games into the 2020-21 NBA season, there likely weren’t too many people who thought the Atlanta Hawks would be in a position to reach their first NBA Finals since moving to Georgia in 1968. The team had gotten off to a 14-20 start and, as it goes, head coach Lloyd Pierce took the heat and was fired. The decision on who should replace him seemed quite simple in assistant Nate McMillan, who’d led the Indiana Pacers to the postseason in each of his four seasons as the team’s head coach before getting axed himself after last season, just two weeks after getting a contract extension.
But here’s the thing. McMillan really didn’t want the job.
In fact, he really didn’t even want to come to Atlanta in the first place and had to be convinced by Pierce to do so. And who’s the person that finally convinced McMillan to take the interim head coaching job with the Hawks? Yep, that would be Pierce again.
Nate McMillan was fired by Indiana two weeks after the Pacers had extended his contract
Upon becoming the head coach of the Pacers ahead of the 2016-17 season after three years with the team as the lead assistant and associate head coach, McMillan led Indiana to the postseason for the second consecutive year despite all of the drama surrounding Paul George, who was traded after the season.
But despite the loss of George, McMillan led the Pacers to the playoffs each of the next three seasons, although they were bounced in the first round each time. On August 12, 2020, it was announced that McMillan and Indiana had come to terms on a one-year contract extension.
But exactly two weeks later, two days after the Pacers were swept out of the Orlando bubble by Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat, McMillan was fired.
He had to be convinced by Lloyd Pierce to join the Atlanta Hawks
After being let go by the Pacers, McMillan didn’t have plans to retire but was somewhat keen on the idea of taking a little time off. After all, since taking his first coaching job with the Seattle Supersonics in 1998 after spending a dozen years with the franchise as a player, his only break had been the 15-month span following the end of his tenure with the Portland Trail Blazers and the beginning of his run with the Pacers.
But even then, he’d served as an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski with the U.S. national team that won gold at the 2012 Olympics in London. So taking a break seemed like a good idea.
But then came the call from Pierce, who laid out his vision for a young Hawks team that he was certain was ready to take the next step. But McMillan was still hesitant as he knew the chatter that would start if Atlanta struggled early in the season. It took some convincing but he finally agreed to accept a position on Pierce’s staff, but only with the understanding that he wouldn’t be the lead assistant. All he wanted to do was “go down and assist and not deal with the other stuff.”
Pierce then had to convince McMillan to become the Hawks’ interim head coach when he was fired
After getting off to a 4-1 start to begin the 2020-21 season, the Hawks then dropped four straight to drop below .500 and hovered around that mark for the next month or so before another four-game losing streak dropped their record to 11-16. Seven games later, after a February 28 loss to the Heat, Atlanta was 14-20 and Pierce’s time was up.
As Pierce had been the one to talk him into coming to the ATL in the first place, McMillan really had no interest in replacing him. But just as he’d done in getting McMillan to join the Hawks, Pierce became the person to convince him to take over as interim head coach, as McMillan recently told Yahoo Sports.
“They wanted to name me head coach; I had to take some time to think about that. I talked with Coach Pierce, he basically said he thought that I should take it and move forward.”Nate McMillan
With Pierce’s blessing, McMillan embraced his new role and has led the Hawks on an improbable run. Atlanta won 27 of its final 38 games in the abbreviated regular season to finish at 41-31, good enough for a No. 5 seed in the East. With Trae Young leading the way, they knocked off the New York Knicks in the first round and then went on to dispose of the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers to reach the conference finals for just the second time since moving to the Eastern Conference in 1970.
Even if the Hawks don’t bring a title to Atlanta this year, this is already a phenomenal story. And with the high probability of McMillan having the interim tag removed this offseason, it’s also one that’s only just beginning.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference