The Hawks announced Monday evening that Lloyd Pierce has been relieved of his coaching duties. Pierce went 63-120 in his two-and-a-half seasons as Hawks head coach, including 14-20 this season.
“There is never a perfect time to make a decision like this, but there was no reason to wait any longer once it was decided a change needed to be made,” general manager Travis Schlenk said.
Schlenk said the decision to fire Pierce was made Monday morning. He informed Pierce of the decision after practice at the team hotel in Miami ahead of Tuesday night’s game against the Heat.
Assistant coach Nate McMillan will become interim head coach. McMillan coached the Hawks to a 2-1 record while Pierce missed time for the birth of his second child in mid-February.
Pierce was hired in May 2018 after acting as an assistant coach for five seasons under Brett Brown in Philadelphia. The Hawks were thoroughly in rebuilding mode the past two years, but entered this year with expectations to improve on the court and win at a higher level.
In March of last year, Pierce said the Hawks would be a playoff team this season, the timing of it raising eyebrows since they were 19-44 at that point. Making the postseason the very next year would require a huge turnaround. Players began to echo Pierce, saying they felt the team was nearing the end of its rebuild.
Although the Hawks spent big in free agency and have taken a slight step forward from where they were this time last year (14-20 after 34 games compared to 7-27 last year), it wasn’t the leap the team was hoping for. They’ve competed better in games, often putting themselves in a position to win late, but have massively struggled to close things out in the fourth quarter, with just a 12-7 record when leading after the third quarter and an 0-2 record when tied after the third.
At -1.9, the Hawks are tied for the worst point differential in the league in the fourth quarter. Costly turnovers, defensive breakdowns and scoring droughts at the worst possible times; all of them have led to three Hawks losses in just the last week (to Cleveland, Oklahoma City and Boston), but have plagued them throughout the whole season, with Pierce facing more pressure as the issue persisted.
Though he’s known as a defensive coach, the Hawks have struggled defensively over Pierce’s tenure, although they saw some uptick this year with the addition of center Clint Capela. They’re No. 23 in defensive rating as of now (112.9), were No. 28 last season (114.4) and No. 28 the season before last (113.1). The rosters in Pierce’s first two years weren’t built to win. This year’s, though, has more potential.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Long-term injuries have also devastated the Hawks and limited Pierce’s options this season, with Kris Dunn, meant to be one of their go-to defenders when acquired this offseason, yet to make his debut due to knee and ankle injuries. They lost forward De’Andre Hunter (meniscus debridement), one of their best two-way players, and sorely miss both his ability to find his own shot and defend. They’ve been without wing Bogdan Bogdanovic since Jan. 9, after he suffered an avulsion fracture in his right knee.
Off the court, Pierce became known for his work in the Atlanta community. He advocated for State Farm Arena to become a voting precinct, volunteering there during the general election. He spoke out on social justice issues, giving a speech at an NAACP march in downtown Atlanta after the death of George Floyd. Over the summer, he started The Atlanta Pledge, working with two Atlanta-based nonprofit organizations, Hope Thru Soap and Atlanta Community Food Bank, and during the NBA’s hiatus, he hosted free weekly basketball coaching clinics via Zoom.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who worked with Pierce on Team USA, questioned the timing of the firing.
“We all know it’s a volatile environment and that type of thing, but you don’t want to miss on people like him,” Popovich told reporters. “It’s like missing on a really good player in the draft or evaluating somebody wrongly. He’s a kind of guy you can build a culture around. But there’s got to be leadership enough that understand it takes time and continuity is important and that is not always available in our league as far as management ownership are concerned. A little bit more understanding about how a program gets built over the long run would have served this situation well.”
At the time of Pierce’s departure, the Hawks are No. 11 in the Eastern Conference standings, one game out of the play-in tournament. Given there’s only four teams with winning records and many middle-of-the-pack teams vying for position, they may not be in the worst position moving into the second half of the season, depending on if they can get healthy and how they play under McMillan.
“We would like to thank Lloyd for his work and commitment to not only the Hawks organization but the city of Atlanta,” Schlenk said in a statement. “He and his wife, Melissa, are tremendous people who have made a positive impact throughout the city. We have high expectations for our team on the court and we believe by making this change now that we can have a strong second half of the season.”