Schultz: Even if Nate McMillan’s firing is justified, Hawks’ problems go beyond practice

Just two years and three months ago, Nate McMillan replaced Lloyd Pierce as the Hawks’ interim coach and made it clear to his players that they were part of the problem.

“Everyone has to point their fingers at what they can do better,” McMillan said later of his conversation with the team. “Lloyd took the hit for all of us. I know it goes with the territory. But you have to watch yourself and see what you’re going to do about it.

What isn’t so old is new again. McMillan was fired Tuesday night. The coach took the hit for player and organization-wide failure. But welcome to life in professional sports, where the contract of one is easier to give up than the contract of many.

McMillan’s exit was no shock. Owner Tony Ressler had been thinking about it for a while. Conversations between Ressler and general manager Landry Fields intensified after the Hawks practiced in the all-star break with back-to-back losses to the Hornets and Knicks that left the team 29-30 and significantly damaged hopes avoid another round of Play-In. McMillan probably would have been fired a few days ago, but pro sports leagues generally frown on signing celebrations like the All-Star Games that are overshadowed by ugly things like layoffs, and Monday was a holiday. The ax therefore fell on Tuesday evening, on the eve of the players’ return to training.

“It was something where I felt like I had to start a fire under them,” Fields said. Athleticism. “Our goals have not changed this season.”

Of course – what better way to ensure players’ personal accountability than to fire a coach. But back to that.

To be clear, there are legitimate reasons to support McMillan’s exit. After going 27-11 and guiding the Hawks to the 2020-21 Eastern Conference Finals, earning the “permanent” spot, his record over the next two seasons was a pedestrian 72-69. Atlanta has underperformed relative to their talent, even though the talent is likely overrated and certainly mismatched.

McMillan’s message is strong and consistent. He’s not the terrible head coach that social media Einstein makes him out to be. A man doesn’t coach 1,428 NBA games and win 760 unless he knows hoops well. He is intelligent, he has class and above all, he is professional. The work he did two years ago, calming down a battered and somewhat whiny group of players and leading them to playoff upsets for the Knicks and Sixers, was remarkable. But McMillan is old school and fails in important areas, including offensive creativity and youth player development. The Hawks rank 16th in offensive rating at 113.7, take way too many midrange jumpers, are abysmal shooting 3s, and remain horrible defensively.

Barring meaningful progress and a miracle playoff run, McMillan was likely going to be fired after the season anyway, with one year and one option remaining on his contract. Ressler had already stripped former team president Travis Schlenk of his authority and effectively excommunicated him from the organization. Three other members of basketball operations were fired. He saw no reason to delay McMillan’s exit. The upheaval and organizational upheaval orchestrated by Ressler fuel was certain to continue.

Fields is the biggest name in basketball operations, but Ressler runs the show. Fields, when asked how long McMillan’s firing had been discussed, said Athleticism, “It’s something I’ve watched. To have the performance that we did (this season)… I don’t want to dwell too much on the last two games with Charlotte and New York, but those were really important, and we just don’t see enough progress .

Fields said of the impending coaching search, “We are looking for a new voice for the rest of the way, and we are beginning our search immediately and aggressively. So we’re giving ourselves an advantage with 23 games to go to get ahead of the (search) and see if we can land someone who makes sense to us. Development is huge on our list of priorities, along with our character as coaches and our responsibility to the players, and the need to put our attack and defense in the top 10. That’s the only way I see ourselves progress on the basketball court.

The issues are much larger than that and may or may not be addressed at a press conference on Wednesday. Ressler started out as an owner who said he would leave basketball decisions to basketball operations, but morphed into something more than that after the unexpected – and misleading – rise to the finals of conference.

This led to a front-office malfunction that included Ressler’s son being given the chance to have a louder voice in the room, a John Collins trade rejected by the owner, three first-round picks for Dejounte Murray despite the Schlenk’s objection and a self-inflicted salary. -course issues that effectively forced the team to deal with Kevin Huerter.

Equally significant was the oft-fractured relationship between McMillan and guard Trae Young. The player’s apparent lack of leadership – and, it’s fair to say, situational awareness – has been a problem. McMillan even traveled to Oklahoma City in the offseason to talk to Young about how their communication has improved this season. But if it helped, it was minimal.

Possible candidates to replace McMillan could include three former Hawks assistants – Charles Lee of the Bucks, Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson and former Jazz head coach Quin Snyder – as well as Kings assistant Jordi Fernandez, the Spurs assistant Mitch Johnson and G League South Bay Miles Simon. Ressler will probably shoot high. But with cap issues and few future draft picks, it’s not an attractive inbox for candidates.

It’s fair to assume that McMillan wasn’t going to fix that. It is equally fair to assume that the problems extend well beyond coaching.

(Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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