‘We haven’t lived up to expectations:’ Travis Schlenk on firing of Lloyd Pierce

Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk speaks to reporters Thursday, April 26, 2018, in Atlanta.

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk speaks to reporters Thursday, April 26, 2018, in Atlanta.

For the first time in years, the Hawks entered the season with expectations to win, aiming to go from a 20-47 team to the playoffs, or at least to the NBA’s play-in tournament.

But, starting 14-20 this season wasn’t enough of a step forward, leading general manager Travis Schlenk to fire Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, who amassed a 63-120 record in his two-and-a-half seasons.

“As we said at the beginning of the season, our goal was to have progress this year, to move forward,” Schlenk said Monday night after Pierce was fired. “And we just felt like that wasn’t happening as quickly as we wanted it to. ... We felt like for the organization, it was the best thing for us to do moving forward.”

As far as which areas the Hawks had fallen short in Pierce’s tenure, Schlenk was vague and didn’t address any specifics when questioned.

The timing of the decision was curious. The Hawks are in Miami, in the middle of a road trip, and they have only two games left until the All-Star break, a natural pause in the season. Schlenk said the decision was made early Monday morning, but Pierce had coached in practice and spoken with the media that afternoon.

There’s never a good time for that kind of conversation, Schlenk said, but he ended up talking to Pierce once they got back to the hotel.

“There’s never a perfect time for this, whether it be yesterday, whether it be tomorrow, whether it be today,” Schlenk said. “But the one thing that we felt is once we made the decision, we thought it best just to move forward. If the decision had been made, we didn’t think that it made a lot of sense to wait 48 hours to do it. ... I won’t go into great detail about my private conversation with him, but I will tell you that he handled it about as honorably and gracefully as you would imagine.”

Ultimately, Schlenk said the decision to part ways with Pierce was made by himself along with his basketball operations staff, and not principal owner Tony Ressler. However, Ressler was supportive of the move.

“This was a decision made by myself and my basketball operations staff. Certainly Tony signs off on all major moves we make on the basketball side or on the business side, as far as that goes, but this wasn’t a decision that Tony made,” Schlenk said. “... I don’t think it’s any secret that Tony is very passionate and wants the organization to be successful. He’s willing to give us all the resources that we need to be able to do that. Up to this point in my tenure here, he’s been extremely supportive of any decision I feel like we needed to make, and this was the same situation here.”

Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk (left) introduces Lloyd Pierce as the 13th full-time coach in the history of the NBA franchise on Monday, May 14, 2018, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

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Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Players, Schlenk said, were surprised when learning the news. The team’s first meeting with players, coaches and interim coach Nate McMillan will be Tuesday morning, before the Hawks face the Heat.

”I think most of them were taken aback,” Schlenk said. “I don’t think they expected to get that phone call.”

This was a tough decision for Schlenk, who is friends with Pierce and hired him in 2018.

There’s an added layer in that long-term injuries to several players (Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn, De’Andre Hunter) made things much harder for Pierce this year. Despite those challenges, Schlenk still felt the team needed a new coach to turn things around this season.

At 14-20, the Hawks are No. 11 in the Eastern Conference standings, but are only three games away from the No. 6 seed, as teams are vying for position in the middle of the pack.

“Judging how we felt things were going, from where we started and then we had the injuries, and just kind of the trajectory we were on, we just felt we needed to have some sort of change to change the trajectory if that makes sense,” Schlenk said.

Last season, the Hawks were often on the wrong end of blowouts. This season, they’re typically staying competitive deep into games, but crumbling in the fourth quarter. That wasn’t the ultimate reason Pierce was let go, Schlenk said, but obviously it was part of it.

“Certainly, obviously, in this business, it all comes down to wins and losses, and that’s when the fourth quarter matters, so from that aspect, it certainly is a factor,” Schlenk said. “But I don’t think that’s the sole reason. I just feel like for us to be able to accomplish what we set out to do this year, this was the right time to make this decision.”

Schlenk also said many players haven’t had their best seasons so far, and took some accountability for the Hawks’ struggles this season, as well.

“I don’t think that you would go down any person on our roster right now and if they were being honest with you they’d tell you they’ve overproduced or had a great season,” Schlenk said. “I think when you go down the line, that starts with me, right, I’m at the top, so that starts with me. But I think if you would have an honest conversation with our players they would tell you the same. We haven’t lived up to expectations on where we thought we’d be as a team. I think if you asked them individually, they’re not happy with the way they’ve performed. It’s unfortunate, but I think that’s the truth, as well.”

After Schlenk’s conversation with Pierce, he spoke with assistant coach McMillan, who later was announced as Hawks interim head coach. McMillan went 2-1 as Hawks coach when Pierce was away in mid-February for the birth of his second child and has been head coach for Seattle (2000-05), Portland (2005-12) and Indiana (2016-20), with a 183-136 mark in four years with the Pacers.

In joining the Hawks staff, McMillan was first approached by Pierce this offseason.

“I hoped that (Pierce and I would) be together for a long time and certainly wanted it to work out, and when Nate joined us last year, I certainly didn’t envision being in the situation we are today. ... It is, I suppose, a comfort knowing that we have an experienced head coach,” Schlenk said.

Atlanta Hawks associate head coach Nate McMillan - standing in for Lloyd Pierce - calls to his players during the second half against the Boston Celtics, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Boston. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Credit: Charles Krupa

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Credit: Charles Krupa

It’s tough to evaluate McMillan based off the small sample size of three games, Schlenk said (especially when McMillan was largely sticking with Pierce’s rotations and game plans). But, he did say McMillan will give the Hawks the best odds at making the playoffs.

When asked if McMillan could become the outright coach, instead of just interim, Schlenk said he’s confident in McMillan, but they’ll cross that bridge when they get there and focus on getting through the next few weeks for now.

“In regard to Nate, what I would say is he has that presence about him,” Schlenk said. “He has that experience about him, so we have the confidence that he’ll be able to hopefully bring that out of our guys with his own presence, with his own confidence. ... I have a ton of respect for him as a person, I have a ton of respect for his humility that he has on the sideline and just his ability to create a sense of calm with the guys, I think, which the hope would be that passes on to our guys and to not get rattled and just to be calm out there during games. That’s one of the things he preaches is stay calm, stay calm.”

This already is a difficult season, with numerous challenges and restrictions presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the Hawks’ season has just been upended even more, Schlenk is confident they can make the postseason, given where they are in the standings.

“We have a ton of basketball to play, and we’re still right there, it’s not like we’re 10 games out of the playoffs, or anything like that,” Schlenk said. “We’re a couple games out, so you have one good week and you’re right back into it.”