There were big expectations in Atlanta for the 2020-2021 season. The Hawks were a team that had the most successful, although short, offseason on paper and it seemed that they were ready to take the next step and become a playoff team in the East. Atlanta brought in Bogdanović, Galinari, Snell, Rondo, and Dunn, creating a roster with a lot of depth which was their main problem in recent years. However, they had to invest heavily: these players are set to earn a combined number of 62 million dollars and that is just for this season. If you consider Capela who hasn’t played a minute for the Hawks last season after getting traded and his 16 million he is owed this season, that is a huge amount of money invested in the team’s success this year. For the first two months, there were questions if the risk was worth it. Lloyd Pierce, who was coaching the Hawks at the beginning of the season, had a lot of problems as some of his key players were injured, all while having to figure out how to integrate so many good players in such a short time. After an underperforming 14-20 start, Atlanta’s management decided they had enough and fired Pierce, replacing him with his assistant coach Nate McMillan. Since he took over, Atlanta is 8-1 and has dramatically improved on both sides of the floor. If you thought assistant coaches aren’t important, this is definitely a proof of how a coach can build better relationships with players in a smaller coaching role. McMillan was lucky to establish these bonds and then take over as the head coach.
It isn’t necessarily Pierce’s fault. Galinari and Bogdanović have both missed extensive time due to injuries and couldn’t contribute right away as one would expect from Atlanta’s two highest paid players. De’Andre Hunter, who has had a very good sophomore campaign so far averaging 16.7 points and 5,2 rebound per game, has also just returned from a right knee injury that kept him out of 23 games this season. However, Pierce just hasn’t been able to get the most out of this roster, especially on the defensive end. The Hawks were once again very bad on that side of the floor to start the season and often had to make up for it on offense. Pierce was another victim of a recent trend of blaming coaches for underperforming starts and one would say that Pierce was unfairly treated in this situation. It is undeniable however, that McMillan has brought a fresh start for Atlanta and the results are there to back it up.
What is McMillan doing differently? The general idea is similar. Give Trae Young the ball, put him in pick and rolls with Capela and Collins and let magic happen. The problem for the Hawks were minutes that Young was on the bench. McMillan has found a great solution by staggering his minutes with Bogdanović’s, letting the Serbian organize the second unit. Him coming back from the knee injury he suffered early in the season coincided with McMillan taking over as head coach (coincidence???), and the Hawks have won 8 of the 9 games they were active. Even though Bogi isn’t playing as good as his contract is, he brought much needed depth to the perimeter positions with his secondary playmaking. Bogdanović demands attention from the defense because of his smooth game in the pick and roll, and can also make difficult reads of the dribble to find the open man:
McMillan has shifted between using Bogdanović as a ball handler, and as a shooter coming off of floppy actions. He wasn’t really able to find his role with Pierce as a shooter (he is shooting career low from three: 32.7%), but has been trending upwards recently with McMillan. It’s not like the Hawks care. They have the best shooter in the league! Tony Snell has turned heads since Hunter got injured and established himself as the starting small forward for the Hawks. He has been one of the main reasons why Atlanta is playing good on defense recently while also providing invaluable spacing on offense. If a guy is shooting almost 57% from three, you definitely can’t leave him open. Keeping Snell in the starting line up was a great move by McMillan and the numbers from the last two weeks show it. In that period, the Hawks are 5th best offense and surprisingly the 6th best defense in the league! Snell will prove to be very valuable for Atlanta, as he has become the perfect 3 and D guy, the one that they hoped for when they drafted Cam Reddish. He is able to guard multiple positions on defense and will be very needed if the Hawks face teams with superstar forwards like Boston or Miami in the playoffs.
The main challenge for McMillan was to figure out how to integrate Collins and Capela into the same system. It seemed that Collins was in every trade rumor while the league was approaching the deadline, connecting him with teams such as Sacramento and Boston. He even openly complained about the offensive system that lets Trae make all the decisions! That is all in the past now, as he has been much more engaged since McMillan took over, especially on the defensive end. Even though he starts with Capela in the lineup, Collins plays at the center position with the second unit allowing him to be a multi level threat on offense. By having two elite big man on his roster, McMillan is able to establish dominance on the boards almost every night, especially on offense where his two centers are earning extra possessions:
Collins has been in trade rumors largely thanks to Capela’s performance this season. Alongside Trae, he has been the rare constant for the Hawks this year, elevating his game to a different level. While he was known for his rebounding before, the Swiss center has been even more outstanding, especially on the offensive glass. He is leading the league in offensive rebounds and total rebounds per game (5.0, 14.2), and is also the 3rd best shot blocker in the league, helping Atlanta’s defense get a lot better. Moreover, his offensive game has developed. Playing with Trae has led to a lot of easy lobs for Capela, but he has developed a really nice low post game with a variety of moves. McMillan started using him more as a scorer inside because Capela can, thanks to his big frame, punish teams who try to switch his ball screens with Young. Just look at what he did to THT on this possession!
Ultiamtely, McMillan has a similar group that he had with the Pacers last season. A bunch of very good players who, when put together in a suitable system, make each other better on both sides of the floor. If you count Bogdanović, who is probably going to pass this mark by the end of the season, McMillan has 8 players who average more than 10 points per game, so he has the core group to build around.
Only good playoff teams have this much depth at all positions and it will be interesting to see how the rest of this season will pan out for the Hawks. McMillan is a proven coach who knows how to get the best from his players and this coaching change, however unfair it might have been for Pierce, could save Atlanta’s season. Let’s not forget that McMillan was in this system from the start of the season and the trust he built with the players may go a long way. All he needs is for his players to stay healthy enough so he can utilize them in the best way possible.
Photo: AP/Charles Krupa