Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, a long-time NBA assistant, has done a fine job during his first season in the Big Chair. It shows in his team’s overachieving record, but wins aren’t the main point of this season. Pierce is meeting the organizational prime directive of developing the young Hawks, and his team has embraced the play-fast-and-let-it-fly offense that is part of its ethos.
You can see Pierce’s influence when you watch the Hawks play. You also see it with all the touches. I don’t mean passes and deflections, though the Hawks get plenty of those. I’m talking about high-fives.
The Hawks are the unofficial league leaders in that category. It’s by design. Pierce is trying to establish togetherness as a program value, one hand slap at a time.
Pierce said he picked that up from watching NBA legend Steve Nash, Pierce’s teammate at Santa Clara University. High-fives are how teammates and coaches “stay connected,” Pierce said. They also serve as a baseline barometer of the team’s frame of mind and a tool for conflict resolution.
The idea is that, in heated moments, a teammate or coach offering a high-five “disarms” an irritated player. From there “you can speak freely and confidently,” Pierce said.
“If you turn it down, then we aren’t connected,” Pierce said. “Now we already know right there (that) there’s a problem because we’ve already established a culture of connectivity. I just wanted something that brought us together and kept us together.”
Cause and effect are difficult to determine when it comes to the mysterious alchemy of team chemistry. But the Hawks have avoided the drama that’s surrounded other teams near the bottom of this season’s standings. (You’ll recall that last season’s Hawks were a bad team that couldn’t do that.)
Dysfunction has spilled out into the open for the Bulls, Cavaliers, Knicks and Suns. We’ve seen none of that with the Hawks. Maybe all those high-fives really do help keep them together.
“I’m definitely a firm believer in contact, being able to touch teammates (because) it feeds energy and builds energy within the team,” Hawks forward John Collins said. “For some reason, within the team aspect, the basketball aspect, it gets guys going, gets guys ready.”
That’s how the Hawks connect on the court. To supplement his tactile team-building, Pierce has tried to give his players some perspective away from it.
The coach has booked a series of VIPs to speak to the team. Visitors have included Nash, ex-Hawks All-Star Dikembe Mutombo, former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.
Pierce also had each Hawks player give a presentation to the team on a topic of their choosing. The Hawks have heard teammates talk about personal tragedies and challenges, artistic pursuits and even a debate on whether the influence of social media is a net good.
“I see what he’s doing,” Collins said of Pierce. “He wants us to have as big of a bond off the court as we do on the court. It creates great basketball. I like that kind of stuff. I like that team-building stuff. I’m always down for that.”
The Hawks have not played great basketball, but they have been better than expected. Before the season, the betting markets set the over/under for Hawks wins at 23-1/2. They have 22 victories with 15 games to play despite missing Collins, their best player, for 19 games. The closing schedule is tough, but the Hawks have enough moxie to win a few games they shouldn’t.
I maintain that whatever value is lost in the draft lottery is offset by player and team development. Collins and Young are future stars. The Hawks have created a nurturing culture. Those things would be harder to do if the Hawks were getting stomped every night.
The Hawks have seen that their offensive style can work. When Pierce was hired, he said he wanted the Hawks to play fast while scoring efficiently with 3-pointers and shots at the rim. Check, check and check.
According to NBA.com, the Hawks play at the second-fastest pace in the league. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Hawks rank sixth in frequency of transition plays, third in the percentage of shots they attempt at the rim and fourth in frequency of 3-point shots.
“In a lot of ways, we are ahead of the curve in establishing a style of play,” Pierce said.
Pierce earned a reputation as a defensive specialist as an assistant, especially while with the 76ers over the past five seasons. The Hawks are a bad defensive team. Pierce said it takes three or four years to form a strong defense as young players are schooled and veterans who did it one way elsewhere adjust to his way.
The Hawks usually play defense with effort and intensity, but they don’t have a lock-down wing defender or strong rim protector. Pierce notes that he had both in Philadelphia with Robert Covington and Joel Embiid.
“Does that make me great?” Piece asked rhetorically, smiling. “I’ll take the credit.”
Pierce deserves plenty of credit for these overachieving Hawks. They aren’t yet good, but they are playing over their heads and Pierce is developing a culture of camaraderie. You can see his vision in how the Hawks play and with all those high-fives.
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