When Mike Budenholzer decided to bolt from the Hawks’ coaching job -- to where, it remains to be seen – and general manager Travis Schlenk had to start thinking of potential replacements, there were three boxes he wanted checked:
Box 1: Hire a coach who would buy into the team’s rebuilding plans for the foreseeable future because it was clear the former coach said the right words but never believed them.
Box 2: Hire a coach who had shown the ability to develop young talent.
Box 3: Hire a coach who could adjust to in-game situations and put his players in the best position to succeed.
The first two boxes are fairly easy to determine. The third one is impossible to know when hiring a first-time head coach. But Schlenk believes he found the right guy, and he’s not alone. The Hawks will reached an agreement in principle with former Philadelphia assistant Lloyd Pierce to become their their new head coach. A news conference has been scheduled for Monday.
Pierce, whose hiring had been expected since Thursday, emerged as the top candidate last week, and his hiring makes sense on a number of levels. He’s relatively young (his 42nd birthday was Friday), has a strong knowledge of defense and during his coaching career became known for connecting with players. Player development skills are key, given the Hawks will be going into the second year of a massive re-building project.
Philadelphia coach Brett Brown the other day labeled Pierce’s potential hiring “a no-brainer in my eyes. ... He’s a natural to lead an NBA program, especially if the mission is to grow it organically like we have.”
Brown isn’t alone. Former long-time Santa Clara coach Dick Davey knew Pierce as a player and then an assistant coach.
“He would be the first guy I would hire if I was looking to fill a job out there,” Davey said by phone. “His ability to deal with kids, or men now, and develop players is at a really high level. He’s got a brilliant mind. And he’s still young enough where he can get on the court and actually do some of the things he’s trying to teach the guys.”
Davey said Pierce had coaching traits as a player.
“He was a guy who got other guys to do things to improve themselves,” he said. “He would have individual workouts with his teammates, and he had the ability to generate enthusiasm with those guys.”
The Hawks will require many teaching moments. There probably are the only two players on the roster that Schlenk is married to in terms of building around: John Collins and Taurean Prince. The team also has three first-round picks in the coming draft, with the first one falling somewhere between No. 1 and No. 7 (they’re seeded fourth in the draft lottery Tuesday).
“As we set out to find a new head coach for our team, it was critically important to find a dynamic teacher who could connect with and develop our young core while instilling the culture and high standards we feel are necessary in a successful program,” Schlenk said in a statement. “Lloyd Pierce checks every box, and we couldn’t be more excited to have him leading the Atlanta Hawks into the future.”
Schlenk has final call on all personnel decisions, but he sought a coach who could grow with the team -- which, granted, always sounds good until the general manager thinks the coach can be doing better or the owner feels like somebody needs to be fired. But Schlenk and owner Tony Ressler have both preached patience.
The Hawks are not going to spend heavy in the free agent market this offseason but could take on salary next year, either through free agency or trade, if their young players elevate the team to a competitive level.
Pierce’s development is as important as the players’ because the Hawks’ attractiveness as a destination for other players is directly tied to the team’s improvement. He has steadily risen through the coaching ranks following his playing days at Santa Clara (1994-98), where he was in the same back court with NBA Hall of Famer Steve Nash for two years. After playing for four years internationally, he coached at Santa Clara, Cleveland, Golden State, Memphis and the 76ers.
He remains good friends with LeBron James from Cleveland days. So if you were searching for any hope of James signing with the Hawks, there it is. OK, probably not. But after a 24-58 season, a team clings to any hope it can.
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