Hawks players discuss Lloyd Pierce’s departure

Atlanta Hawks guard Tony Snell (left) confers on the court with guard Kevin Huerter (3) during the second half Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, against the Heat in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
Atlanta Hawks guard Tony Snell (left) confers on the court with guard Kevin Huerter (3) during the second half Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, against the Heat in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Credit: Lynne Sladky

Credit: Lynne Sladky

Kevin Huerter learned that Lloyd Pierce was fired by checking Twitter on Monday after practice. The Hawks were in Miami, in the middle of a road trip, with two games left before the NBA All-Star break.

Certainly a less-than-ideal situation, but things moved quickly after that, sped up by the timing of Pierce’s departure. Nate McMillan was announced as interim head coach later that evening, general manager Travis Schlenk addressed the media, McMillan was introduced Tuesday morning and coached the Hawks to a 94-80 win in Miami that night.

Afterward, Huerter echoed a line McMillan has repeated over the past few days. The Hawks’ problems don’t end with Pierce’s departure — in fact, Pierce took the fall for the accumulation of those problems, be it injuries, fourth-quarter failures or generally not living up to expectations, that had led to a 14-20 start, which now moves to 15-20 after McMillan’s first victory as interim head coach.

“I don’t think that’s the way the front office wanted it to go down, Travis wanted to call us, when that type of stuff gets out,” Huerter said, mentioning practice that Monday afternoon had seemed normal, with Pierce still running things before later meeting with Schlenk. “It was my first time go-around losing a head coach. Obviously our problems extend a lot further than Lloyd, so in a lot of ways, he was the one that kind of took the hit for us.”

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Huerter sent Pierce a text thanking him for his time in Atlanta. He also joked he probably played more minutes than he should have in his first two-and-a-half years in the league, all of which came under Pierce, who was hired in 2018 to oversee the Hawks rebuild. But, the Hawks are trying to break out of rebuilding mode.

Now, it’s up to Hawks players and remaining coaches to get the ship pointed in the right direction, with making the playoffs or at least play-in tournament this season still the goal.

It doesn’t feel like a clean slate, Huerter said. Actually, it puts more pressure on the people who are still here to perform.

“This was really the first big change,” Huerter said. “I think in a lot of ways we’ve been struck by the injury bug, but (there have been) a lot of games that we still should have won this year, and if we win those games, Lloyd’s probably still here. So everyone’s got to look in the mirror, everyone’s got to be better.

“Lloyd took the first hit, but if we keep this up, obviously our front office, our ownership is going to do what they have to do to get wins, so everyone’s got to be better moving forward. … Our problems don’t end with coach Pierce being gone, and we’ve got a lot of things to clean up.”

Hawks guard Kevin Huerter gets a pat on the back from coach Lloyd Pierce during a timeout Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, against the Los Angeles Lakers at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Hawks guard Kevin Huerter gets a pat on the back from coach Lloyd Pierce during a timeout Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, against the Los Angeles Lakers at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Bogdan Bogdanovic, who played Tuesday for the first time since Jan. 9, said he hadn’t gotten to know Pierce well, given that he joined the team right before this season began. But he’s glad McMillan was there to fill in. Bogdanovic, too, said that Pierce took the hit for the rest of the team. But, it’s a business, and if the team doesn’t start improving, Pierce might not be the only change higher-ups make.

“He kind of took the hit for us, and we as players have to step up,” Bogdanovic said. “... We have to step up, or maybe we are next, that is how business works.”

On parting ways with Pierce, Hawks star Trae Young acknowledged it was a “tough situation,” but didn’t offer much more, other than to say his focus remains on helping the team win and reaching the playoffs, and with everything else, “it’s what it is.”

On Monday, Schlenk had said the organization needed a “new voice” to reach its goals this season, or fix its trajectory. When asked if that was necessary, Young said it wasn’t his call.

“That’s never up to me,” Young said. “I just come in here every day and try to figure out ways to help my team win, and that’s all I’ve been trying to do. … I don’t focus on all the outside noise and what people think about what’s going on. I’m telling you, my main thing and main thought is how can I help my team win, so that’s all I think about.”

Young did say he was excited to play for McMillan, and that McMillan brings more experience to the Hawks.

McMillan has been head coach for Seattle (2000-05), Portland (2005-12) and Indiana (2016-20), with a 661-588 (.529) record in 1,249 career regular-season games. He has coached 53 postseason games. He amassed a 183-136 record (.574) in four seasons with the Pacers. Last season, the Pacers went 45-28 and McMillan received an extension, though he was fired about two weeks later after suffering a first-round sweep by the Heat.

“It’s exciting,” Young said. “He’s obviously played in this league and has a lot of knowledge, coached in a lot of different teams and had success on other teams. He just brings a lot more experience and just something that he brings us a lot of knowledge for, so it’s exciting playing for him.”

Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan (left) greets forward John Collins (20) before the team's game against the Miami Heat, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Miami. McMillan's opportunity to return to a head coach position comes with mixed feelings following Monday's firing of his friend, Lloyd Pierce. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan (left) greets forward John Collins (20) before the team's game against the Miami Heat, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Miami. McMillan's opportunity to return to a head coach position comes with mixed feelings following Monday's firing of his friend, Lloyd Pierce. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Credit: Wilfredo Lee

Credit: Wilfredo Lee

McMillan often is viewed as a defensive, old-school coach. It will be an adjustment, Huerter said (though not as dramatic as if they’d brought in someone completely new), but the team overall is excited.

Huerter brought up Tuesday’s win, with the Hawks holding the Heat to 80 points, getting the win even if it wasn’t beautiful, as an example of McMillan’s approach.

“He definitely has an old-school approach,” Huerter said. “Less words, but a lot of meaning in the words that he says. He gets straight to the point. He’s a coach that’s going to look to us to be really physical. I think a game like (Tuesday) night is a game that a coach like him, he wants us to, you give up 80 points, you kind of junk up the game, and obviously we want to play better offensively, but you give up 80 points, you put yourself in a position to win a lot of games, especially in this game.

“Nate’s been great. Obviously we haven’t spent too much time with him. He is new to our team in a lot of ways was finding his footing the first couple months with us, so I think it will be an adjustment for everybody, but we’re excited to play for him.”

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