The Altanta Hawks fired Nate McMillan on Tuesday, and it was a long time coming. After what was, with the benefit of hindsight, a matchup-friendly and ultimately deceiving run to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals, the Hawks, despite their talented roster that last summer came to include Dejounte Murray, have been one of the more disappointing teams in the league for going on two years now.
Coach apologists are going to say McMillan is a scapegoat. He isn't. Outside of the 2021 honeymoon that just so happened to coincide with the roster getting healthy in a way Lloyd Pierce never enjoyed, McMillan has not come close to maximizing the considerable parts at his disposal.
Offensively, it's almost hard to watch. McMillan is old school, which, to be frank, is just a euphemism for stubbornly or unimaginative, or both, and outdated. The Hawks don't pass. They don't move. They take and make fewer 3-pointers than just about every team in the league. Atlanta is one of those teams that people who don't know any better like to say anyone could coach because, honestly, there's not much to what they do.
Ask yourself: What NBA-caliber coach couldn't stand on the sideline and watch Trae Young run a thousand pick-and-rolls while everyone else stands still? Throw in Murray for some one-on-one stuff, and you've got your Hawks offense, which, this season, qualifies as below average. If you can't pull a top-10 offense, at a bare minimum, out of a team led by Trae Young, you've got to go.
That said, Young has some culpability here, too, and if he isn't willing to change his game for the next coach that comes in, he could be the next guy heading out of Atlanta.
This isn't about Young's shooting, which is appreciably down this season and has. This is about his continued disinterest in being an active off-ball participant.
Part of a coach's job, of course, is to sell the best player on a system that benefits the whole, the way that Steve Kerr did with Stephen Curry when he went from Mark Jackson's predictable, matchup-drunk offense (which was also woefully under-performing) to the ball-and-player-movement philosophy that proceeded to win the Warriors four championships.
McMillan never made that sales pitch, or if he did, Young never bought what he was selling. The hope is that a new coach will be able to open Young's mind to a different way, and in turn, maximize the Hawks offensively. This is an ownership that wants to win right now. Young putting up gaudy stats while playing .500 basketball isn't going to cut it.
Frankly, Young could end up requesting a trade before Atlanta might ever look to move him on its own. Surely you could make a case that the winds are starting to blow that way. McMillan is the second coach he's clashed with.
Atlanta doesn't want to deal Young away. They traded Luka Doncic to get him, for crying out loud. Yeah, they would get a huge haul for Young, but that's still an intensely bitter pill to swallow with no guarantee that they will ever replicate his talent, either individually or in the aggregate.
The Hawks want this to work with Young. Firing McMillan is their first step in trying to make that happen. If Young doesn't change, however, and the next coach produces the same disappointing results, what then? Will Young ever buy into a role that asks him not just to concede some control (which he has proven willing to do with Murray), but actually to do something other than spatially spectate in these moments?
It takes real commitment to put the energy in to move, consistently and at full speed, off the ball without a guarantee that you'll get it back. At most, what Young does is fan out and wait for either a kick-out pass or his chance to run back toward the ball for a dribble handoff.
Does Young possess the kind of humility required to run away from the ball, if only for the purpose of taking defenders with him? That kind of genuine interest in winning on someone else's terms is a rare trait in such exceedingly talented players who have every right to believe they are always the best option. It's hard for a player like Young to see, especially when the Hawks were the second-best offense in the league just a year ago.
But teams, which look down from 10,000 feet, are starting to realize that even regular-season success can be deceiving when it comes to how defensible you are in a postseason setting. The Hawks were rolled out of the first round by Miami last season because Young was forced to give up the ball and then didn't serve as anything other than a statue once he did so.
Bottom line: In today's NBA, it might be impossible to win at the highest level without thinking, and playing, more collectively.
Even if Young were to buy in, there's no guarantee that wins will follow. Using the Warriors as an example is dangerous because Young is not Curry. Nobody is. The Blazers have tried to move Damian Lillard more off the ball, and they're still a .500 team. You need other pieces, passing bigs, and instinctual cutters, to make a system that relies on random movement viable.
The Hawks do have capable players in this regard. Onyeka Okongwu is a good passing and screening big, a more graceful Kevon Looney if you will. De'Andre Hunter has ball skills. Obviously, Murray does, too. But Young is the sun. Everything revolves around him. If he doesn't buy in, nobody will. At this point, Atlanta will have to start imagining a new life without the guy they long ago planned on leading them into what was supposed to be a bright future.