I sat down with new Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce for a Q and A following his introductory news conference Monday. Following is Part 1 of that discussion, lightly edited. Part 2 to follow on Wednesday.
Q. We’ve heard that you oversaw the defense under Brett Brown in Philadelphia. What were your responsibilities?
A. Everything. And I say that with humility. Brett empowered me to run our defense. I’m not taking credit from a selfish standpoint. He presented the opportunity to me, I think three years ago, and said I want to make you the single voice. I am going to rely on you to make the decisions, the executive decisions of what we do in-game and how we prepare. It was more of his empowerment than me leading. But he gave me full autonomy on what we were going to do on the defensive end whether it’s the drills, the game plan — I game-planned for all 82 games — the concepts and kind of creating that defensive culture. It’s been a huge responsibility. I don’t know how many assistant coaches in the league have had that responsibility to cover the entire defense and all 82 game preps. That was the role.
Q. How did that work in-game? He’s the head coach and he’s the main voice. Were you right there with him?
A. I’m saying this again with humility. (For example) Atlanta comes down court and calls a play, I’m telling our guys, “Hey, we are blitzing that pick-and-roll.” He empowered me to make those executive decisions. During timeouts you will see me drawing up adjustments we may need and then he will come in and speak holistically about what he wants. But we split a lot of the time. I spent a lot of time doing everything. I would come out to the coaches’ huddle and he would say, “Go tell them what you need, go tell them our coverages, our concepts.” The responsibility he gave to me was a little bit uncomfortable at first because I didn’t know how much he was really going to allow me to take. By the end, by the time I left, our communication still existed but he wanted that single (defensive) voice and he was the one that created that position for me.
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Q. This past season part of Philadelphia’s defensive profile was to force a lot of mid-range shots (only two teams forced opponents to take a higher frequency, according to Cleaning the Glass). How did you go about doing that?
A. A lot of it is relying on who you have on the floor and trying to play to those guys’ strengths. The obvious (key) is Joel (Embiid) and his ability individually to protect the rim just with his size, his instincts, his defensive mindset. When you know that is your anchor and you have a backbone that’s out there, in a lot of ways we had the ability to get up and pressure the basketball more and funnel it to Joel and his rim percentage defense. I think we finished the season as the No. 1 field-goal percentage defense. Knowing we have an anchor it allows you to get up and pressure. Pressure takes you off the 3-point line, it funnels you down to the rim or it funnels you into a position where you have to settle for some of those mid-range shots. We use his and Amir Johnson’s ability at the rim to be great presenters. They were always great position guys. It’s not about just blocking shots. It’s more about the positioning. That allowed us to play a little more confidently on the perimeter.
Q. Watching a few of your games, it seemed you were big on denying perimeter passes. That can leave you vulnerable to getting beat backdoor, is that where those big guys come in?
A. Yeah, you are not afraid of that. You are not afraid of sending a 6-1 guard to the rim against Joel Embiid. A term we use a lot was, “Make them finish over length.” They may be rim attempts but they were rim attempts where we feel like we had the advantage. What you are afraid of is uncontested or late contested 3-point shot. Your DNA, your mental approach, your mentality, we wanted teams to feel us and denials disrupted their offense and that was the focus rather than what are the consequences (of getting beat). We will deal with the consequences when they come and we will have an ability to adjust and readjust. But we wanted teams to feel us defensively, we wanted them to finish over our length whether it’s individual coverage — Ben Simmons at point guard, we don’t need anyone to help. Let’s make a 6-2 point guard finish over a 6-10 defender. Some of those backdoors were almost to our advantage. You don’t want to give up layups but we have our coverages built in if they get there they are going to be finishing over 6-10 in Ben, some 6-9 in Dario (Saric), some 6-9 in (Robert) Covington, some 7-2 in Joel Embiid. We’ll take our chances.
A. We were centered on being solid, committed and disciplined. A lot of times you think of blocked shots, forced turnovers, steals—those are individual talent plays. A guy that can go and block a shot is just an individual shot-blocking talent. A guy that can get in the passing lanes and get a steal, he’s got great instincts. We pride ourselves on the half-court defense, our field-goal percentage defense, our 3-point field goal defense. Those are top two in the league in all those categories. And that requires a lot of discipline, that requires five guys on a string. That requires taking away scoring opportunities in scoring areas. If you extend your defense all the time and there is really opportunity for them to score, above the three-point line and beyond, you are just opening up the floor. We want to close the floor. We want to put them in position where our length can really take over.
Q. Did you do a lot of switching?
A. We did. The nature of the game requires you to switch. The ability to switch requires a lot of communication. It requires a lot of versatility. You start thinking about your roster and where you position guys, a lot of those conversations come into play. You look at a guy that is used to playing back to the basket is now out on the perimeter guarding a four-man who can shoot. You are looking at a guy that is now in a unique situation on the floor and he’s got to switch on to a (point guard). The requirement is that you don’t want to give up three-point shots so if your four man who is defending a three-point shooter can’t switch you are in a lot of trouble because you are going to be late on a closeout. You are going to be late on a rotation, or you are going to put someone in a rotation, and we want to avoid rotations at all costs. Versatility is probably the biggest thing (and) communication anytime you are in a switch group.