The writing was on the wall when the Hawks hired Nate McMillan as the Hawks’ lead assistant. Although Pierce and McMillan developed a strong bond (so much so that McMillan didn’t immediately accept the interim head coaching role and waited for Pierce to approve), there was a conflict of interest on that coaching staff. Additionally, the Hawks didn’t pick up Pierce’s team option. There was a strong possibility the organization would let him go if the Hawks didn’t meet expectations.
The Athletic published a piece on the behind-the-scenes view on Pierce’s firing. Trust from the players was dwindling starting from last season. Pierce and Hawks’ star Trae Young relationship was “strained.” While they tried to make amends before this season, that relationship deteriorated as the Hawks are out of the playoff picture.
Part of their issues stemmed from late-game situation decisions. The Hawks had blown “11 games this season when they held a fourth-quarter lead.” That was a key component of why ownership decided to fire Pierce.
Pierce is at fault for some late-game collapses, without a doubt. Their offense is very predictable with the same double-drag screen action with no off-ball movement. They’ve made strides on the defensive end with Clint Capela at center, but they still are a below-average defense (23rd in defensive rating).
McMillan has a reputation as a coach to get guys to play hard. He was a successful NBA player. Former players always have more trust from their players.
He might vary the offense a bit or insert defensive-minded players into the rotation. However, there are some concerns about roster construction that could plague the Hawks’ deep playoff hopes.
A Jumbled Front Court
The double-drag screen action is the most logical action for a lineup that contains two bigs. Typically, one big rolls to the basket, and the other pops. The addition of another screen creates more confusion for the defense.
The issue is that both of the Hawks bigs are exceptional rollers. Both are huge lob threats. While Collins has developed into a respectable three-point shooter (38% on 3.5 attempts per game), he’s best moving towards the rim.
He would be a great offensive five. Teams have to scheme for his ability to pop or roll and attack closeouts. The issue is that in double drag, Collins can’t roll with Capela as the other big. There are some wrinkles the Hawks can throw, like having Collins flow into an off-ball screen, but that takes Collins out of the play.
The league has already shifted towards two wing players at the forward spots. Two wings provide switch-ability and more mobile perimeter defense. There aren’t many teams with a big like John Collins. Collins is an athletic player, but he’s not an excellent perimeter nor interior defender. He’s stuck in a spot where if they play a team that goes to two wings, he’s stuck guarding a guy that can blow by him.
The Hawks also signed Danillo Gallinari this past offseason at a hefty price point. Gallinari is floor-bound, but he excelled as a screen and roll partner with Chris Paul last season. Like Collins, his threat of the pick and pop and decision-making in the short roll makes him a dangerous offensive weapon.
Gallinari has looked a step slower than he already was this season. He hasn’t effectively taken advantage of small mismatches. Typically, he can rise over them and hit a turnaround, but those haven’t fallen for him. That allows teams to switch screens with a small. He brings no value on defense due to his lack of speed. The Hawks essentially forked over $20 million for a spot-up shooter.
The Hawks drafted center Onyeku Okongwu this offseason. He’s the big man defender out of this draft with his combination of length and instincts. He’s also an underrated decision-maker on offense, a rare trait for a young center.
The issue is the Hawks have Collins and Capela ahead of Okongwu. It’s hard to see how good Okongwu is with two starting-caliber bigs ahead of him.
Trae Young’s Limitations
It’s challenging to be a small guard in the NBA. A lack of height limits the passing angles and vision at times. On defense, teams target smaller players on switches. It takes a ton of skill and feel to be a short NBA player.
Trae Young is one of the smallest guards in the league. However, he’s already one of the best heliocentric playmakers in the league with his combination of deep shooting, a tight handle, and vision.
Young’s issue is that he likely won’t ever be even a neutral impact defender due to his size. His effort level also doesn’t help his case.
He let Lamar Stevens blow right by him for a dunk that put the Cavaliers ahead. His concentration here was low even on a crucial possession.
Nate McMillian may coax Young to buy in on the defensive end, but the combination of size and Young’s offensive load leads to him being a bad defender.
Defense at this point is a wash for Young. The more significant issue is his lack of versatility on offense. People have compared him to Stephen Curry since they are both crafty, deep shooters, but their games differ tremendously. Curry’s skillset elevates with other elite offensive talents as his off-ball gravity and screen-setting make things easier for his team.
Young needs the ball in his hands to be effective. The Hawks have tried to use him in more off-ball situations, but they haven’t figured out how to play in a free-flowing style.
The Hawks GM, Travis Schlenk, worked in Golden State for 12 years. Many of his draft choices seemed to emulate the Warriors trio of Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. They drafted Young, Kevin Huerter, and Omari Spellman, who all have similar body types and skillsets to the Warriors’ trio.
However, it’s an impossible comparison to make. Curry, Thompson, and Green developed the ability to play a heavy ball-movement style. On the other hand, the Hawks couldn’t play farther from the Warriors’ style.
The combination of little playmaking talent outside of Young and his lack of experience as an off-ball player makes it, so he is continually pounding the ball and probing for a pass. It’s a hard style to play throughout a season and a frustrating one to play with.
The dominant style has led to poor overall body language. When Young doesn’t give the ball up and decides to shoot a deep contested three in the first ten seconds, players will stand there and delay running back. Sometimes they’ll make a fake shooting motion. Little things like that show overall frustration with the offense.
Unless Young can improve in the off-ball movement category, the Hawks’ offense will be more of the same even under McMillan.
Building the Wrong Habits
One of the risks of rebuilding is building the wrong culture. It feels like the Hawks are falling into that trap. By not having the veteran talent to help bring along the younger players, the young core hasn’t learned to play the right way.
The Hawks brought in guys this season, but the older guys have been hurt most of the season. It’s hard to help mentor guys when the veterans are dressed in suits and not on the court.
This coaching change will be an indicator if the Hawks are too far gone.
Hopefully, McMillian can get players will buy into a winning game plan. At least Young has more trust with McMillan than Pierce. If Young starts changing his habits, that will get more teammates involved. That would help get the team engaged on defense by spreading touches on offense.
From here, Huerter and Cameron Reddish can explore their on-ball capabilities. Before his injury, Deandre Hunter was turning into a better on-ball scorer and ball handler.
If the Hawks’ as a whole start to get healthy, it can reinvigorate their morale and help them make a run to solidify their playoff spot.