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The Atlanta Hawks Were Going Nowhere — Until Nate McMillan Became Their Coach

When the Atlanta Hawks got off to another poor start this season, it appeared that the team was destined to find itself near the bottom of the Eastern Conference for the fourth consecutive season. Under then-head coach Lloyd Pierce, the Hawks were once again languishing with a sub-.500 record nearing the midpoint of their schedule. Sitting in the 11th seed with a 14-20 record and with the All-Star break right around the corner, the team needed a reset.

On March 1, the Hawks got the change they needed. After firing Pierce, the team promoted assistant coach Nate McMillan to interim head coach. McMillan, the former coach of the Indiana Pacers, is known for his ability to get the most out of his players (in the regular season, at least) — and since he took over, he has done exactly that. Immediately after handing McMillan the reins, the Hawks went on their longest winning streak of the season, winning eight straight games, and continued to string together wins as they worked their way into the top half of the Eastern Conference standings. 

McMillan has built a reputation of getting his teams into the postseason — the Pacers reached the playoffs in each of his four seasons as head coach. And, even with the odds against him, this season has been no different. Despite taking over the team when it was six games under .500, the Hawks managed to finish the season with a 41-31 record, going 27-11 under McMillan. 

Atlanta’s ability to turn its season around was largely due to the team getting back on track offensively. Entering the season, the expectation was that Atlanta would be reliant on strong scoring to carry what was projected to be one of the worst defenses in the league. According to our NBA Player Projections, Clint Capela and Kris Dunn were the only two major contributors for the Hawks forecasted to have a positive defensive RAPTOR plus/minus. And under Pierce, the Hawks had in fact lived down to expectations on defense, ranking near the bottom of the league in defensive rating. The problem was that the offense wasn’t offsetting the defense’s flaws. Despite ranking 11th in offensive rating, the team was still struggling to put the pieces together on that side of the ball.

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McMillan has made a name for himself as a defensive coach over his decades-long career. But his changes to the team’s offensive approach have made all the difference this season. In an interview with The Ringer, Hawks guard Kevin Huerter praised McMillan for the impact he’s had on the team. 

“Over the past couple weeks and month, you’ve seen a little bit of a different offense,” Huerter said. “A little more catch-and-shoot, a little bit more off-ball movement, which has helped guys like myself and [Bogdan Bogdanovic], and when [De’Andre Hunter] gets back and Tony Snell getting his shots. I think that’s been a big difference.”

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With so many capable scorers and shooters on the court (Atlanta is the only team in the NBA with nine players averaging 10 or more points per game), it makes sense that McMillan has worked to incorporate off-ball movement into the offense — and it has paid off. In order to help create more motion away from the ball, the Hawks added more off-ball screens to their offensive system. After ranking 28th in off-ball screens before the coaching change, the team’s back half of the season ranked 11th, according to Second Spectrum. Since March, the team has raised its shooting percentages in virtually every traditional and advanced statistical category.

McMillan’s adjustments have helped the Hawks to create more open looks at the rim. Before March, 41.2 percent of the team’s shots were tightly contested and only 26.9 percent were considered “open,” according to tracking data from NBA Advanced Stats. Since then, the Hawks have lowered their share of contested shots to 40 percent while increasing their share of open shots to 30.1 percent.

The evolution of star guard Trae Young’s role within the offense has been pivotal in improving the team’s play on that side of the ball. Under McMillan, Young has seen a slight increase in his usage rate, but he has still managed to become much more efficient as both a scorer and a facilitator. 

“For us to take the next step, Trae has to take that next step,” McMillan said during a postgame interview last month. “He has some players on this team that they’ve added. … These are guys that can play, they can help him and he has to trust those guys.”

Trust in his supporting cast has contributed to Young’s efficiency as a floor general. Since March, the third-year guard has cut down on turnovers while improving his assist percentage and assist ratio — which means many more of Young’s possessions as a playmaker have resulted in points for the Hawks. 

Young’s growing belief in teammates has also allowed him to be more selective with his shots. Under McMillan, Young’s scoring average and field goal attempts have slightly dipped, but his field goal percentage and true shooting percentage have improved. Since McMillan took over, the Hawks raised their offensive rating with Young on the court from 115.4 to 121.3 and their net rating with him from +2.5 to +8.2. 

Young isn’t the only Hawk whose play on offense has improved after the coaching change. Almost every player on the team averaging at least 10 minutes per game managed to raise their field goal percentage, and nearly all of them saw an increase in their scoring averages and offensive ratings as well.1 And the team’s execution late in games has improved by leaps and bounds. 

Entering March, Atlanta struggled to close out games in the fourth quarter. The team lost nearly half of its games after leading or being tied through three quarters, and had the third-worst fourth-quarter scoring margin in the league at -1.7. In the fourth quarter, the team was shooting only 42.9 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from behind the arc, with a -8.2 net rating. 

Since then, the Hawks have turned themselves into one of the best teams in the league when entering the fourth quarter with a lead. The team won 20 of 22 games when entering the fourth with the lead and even pulled off seven comeback wins during the same stretch. In order to do so the team had to, once again, become more efficient — raising its field goal percentage to 47.3 and three-point percentage to a league-leading 41.2 percent. Atlanta also posted the second-highest fourth-quarter net rating in the NBA, at +11.8.

With the playoffs right around the corner, Atlanta is now one of the hottest teams in the league, as it enters the postseason having won seven of its last eight games and tied for the second-best winning percentage (.711) of any NBA team since March 1. Even with their newly potent offense, the Hawks will have their work cut out for them in a first round, as they match up with a stingy New York Knicks team that allowed the fewest points of any team this season. But the changes McMillan helped facilitate since taking over have put Atlanta in a spot few could have foreseen when the team was struggling in the first half of the year.

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  1. Solomon Hill saw a slight decrease in field goal percentage. Young, Collins and Huerter were the only players not to increase their scoring averages.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.