Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk announced Monday afternoon that the team had an agreement in place with coach Nate McMillan to remove the interim label from his title and keep him with the franchise going forward.
Sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that the deal is for four seasons for McMillan, who led the Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals.
“We’re just drawing up the contract,” Schlenk said on a conference call with reporters to wrap up Atlanta’s season.
“We’ve now worked together for four months. We’ve had a good working relationship, and I’m excited he’s going to be our head coach moving forward.”
When McMillan was picked by Schlenk to replace coach Lloyd Pierce at the beginning of March, Atlanta was 14-20 and mired in 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings. The Hawks then completely turned things around, going 27-11 to close out the season and claim the fifth seed in the East.
But that was only a prelude to Atlanta’s stunning playoff run, which saw it knock off back-to-back higher-seeded opponents — the fourth-seeded New York Knicks and top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers — before pushing the Milwaukee Bucks to six games even with star guard Trae Young hobbled for half the series.
“From the first day when he took over as interim head coach, we both made the decision we were going to get to the end of the season before we talked,” Schlenk said. “The season obviously ended the other day, and we started talking to his agents yesterday and came to a deal this morning.”
McMillan entered this season having spent 16 years as an NBA head coach — five with the Seattle SuperSonics, seven with the Portland Trail Blazers and the previous four with the Indiana Pacers — before being hired as Pierce’s top assistant coach.
His ascension marked a turning point for the Hawks, though, and presented an opportunity for McMillan, 56, to both prove he could connect with a young group like the one the Hawks have and find the postseason success that had eluded him for much of his career — and to do so just a few hours from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he grew up and attended NC State.
“It’s truly a blessing,” McMillan said of getting the opportunity in Atlanta after the Hawks lost Game 6 to the Bucks on Saturday night. “A lot of my family members and friends and my pastor … you talk about when one door closes, another door opens. I didn’t expect this to happen, but it did.
“It’s just a blessing. It really was a blessing. I really didn’t look back on what had happened last season. My focus was on, once I got this opportunity, to come down and try to help first Coach Pierce, and then when the opportunity presented itself for me to coach this team, to try to make it better.
“That was just the focus this entire season, trying to make it better here for this organization. It really was a blessing. I thank God for all the opportunities and the blessings that have been provided to me this year.”
McMillan went on to succeed with flying colors, shepherding along impressive growth from Atlanta’s young core while also helping the Hawks make their stunning run through the playoffs. McMillan advanced out of the first round for the second time in 10 trips to the postseason in his career.
That lack of postseason success, however, comes with a caveat: Only one time — in his first trip to the playoffs in 2001 — has McMillan had a team that was seeded as high as third. With Young at the controls this year, however, McMillan was able to break through and reach the conference finals for the first time as a coach.
And, McMillan said, getting the chance to work with such a young team impacted him in a positive way.
“Yes, I’ve become a lot more patient than I’ve been,” McMillan said with a smile Saturday when asked how he grew as a coach this season. “I’ve had a few friends and a few people say, ‘Old School Nate would have done this or done that or would have responded or reacted in this way.’
“I’ve been patient. I’ve grown for myself tremendously with this group. And I say that because I’ve allowed these guys to be themselves. Sometimes you try to create a culture and it’s kind of your way or the highway.
“This season it was more adapting to the players and how they learn and different ways to keep them motivated and lifted. So I’ve become a lot more patient with players, with the game, with myself. I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it this season.”
Now he and the Hawks will get to see if they can replicate their success next season, when they’ll have expectations on them after their deep playoff run.
Schlenk will also have to navigate the offseason with new expectations, as Atlanta is no longer strictly in talent acquisition mode, as it was after each of the past three seasons when the Hawks missed the playoffs.
Now it’s about trying to find the right pieces to supplement this team so it can contend with — and potentially beat — teams like the Bucks deep in the playoffs.
“Maybe a little bit,” Schlenk said when asked whether his approach to getting players changes after the success the Hawks had. “I was joking, we had another draft workout this morning, and I was talking with one of the guys and they were talking about a particular player and I was like, ‘He can’t help us beat Milwaukee.’
“So it does change a little bit. … We’re excited about the direction we’re on, and we don’t want to take steps back. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I anticipate us making deep playoff runs every year because there’s different things that go into that. But we want to continue to stay competitive moving forward in the league.”
Part of that thought process will include figuring out the future of forward John Collins in Atlanta. The Hawks didn’t come to an agreement on a contract extension with Collins before the season, meaning he’ll be a restricted free agent next month.
Schlenk said that he was very impressed with how Collins handled that situation on the court this season and that he hopes Collins will be part of the Hawks moving forward.
“I told John yesterday I was extremely proud of the way he played this year,” Schlenk said. “He made a decision to go to restricted free agency last fall, and a lot of times that can impact a player. But I think what you saw from John, he wasn’t out there playing for his numbers. He was out there playing for the team to win. And, in a lot of cases, when guys are going into free agency you can see the opposite, and we didn’t see that at all in John this year.
“I think that speaks very, very highly of his character and what he’s about. He’s about being on a winning basketball team.”