Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk had been part of coaching searches before as a basketball executive with the Warriors but it was the first time for Schlenk’s assistant GM, Jeff Peterson.
So, when the Hawks began to interview candidates for a head coach to replace Mike Budenhozler, Schlenk said Peterson asked him how they would know they’ve found the right person.
“We will just know,” Schlenk recalled telling Peterson.
About a week later, as Schlenk and Peterson were interviewing Sixers assistant Lloyd Pierce for the job at the Philadelphia airport, Schlenk said he slipped a piece of paper to Peterson that read: “I told you we would know.”
The Hawks officially introduced Pierce as head coach on Monday. Pierce was Schlenk’s pick after a two-week search for Budenholzer’s successor that included interviews with at least six other candidates. Pierce’s contract is for three years with a team option for a fourth.
Pierce, 42, has never been a head coach so Schlenk had to project how he might handle the added responsibilities. Schlenk said Pierce’s background will help him take on the bigger job.
“Lloyd’s track record speaks for itself,” Schlenk said. “Everywhere he’s been, every stop he’s made, he’s been a big part of developing players on the roster.”
Pierce was a Sixers assistant for the past five seasons. Before that he was a player development assistant with the Grizzlies (2011-13) and served in a similar role with the Cavaliers (2007-10). Pierce was a Golden State assistant for part of the 2010-11 season, when Schlenk was a Warriors executive, and was an assistant coach at his alma mater, Santa Clara University, from 2002-07.
Pierce said he already feels the added responsibility with running his own program.
“You are constantly thinking: ‘What do I do now? What do I do next? What have I missed?” Pierce said. “As an assistant coach it’s the same thing but I’ve added more to my plate. It’s not an overwhelming feeling. It’s not a pressure thing. It’s just more added responsibility. I pride myself on being a prepared guy and that won’t change.”
Pierce’s first order of business is to assemble a staff of assistants. Schlenk said the Hawks have a “very good staff in place here” that includes six assistant coaches and two player-development aides. Pierce plans meet with those staffers over the next few days but Schlenk added that it’s “important that Lloyd is comfortable with this staff.”
Pierce said he was interested in the Hawks job because of their “talented, young roster” and their ability to add more prospects through the draft. The Hawks own three first-round picks in the upcoming draft, including a lottery selection that will be no later than seventh overall. They also will own the rights to Cleveland’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft if it isn’t among the first 10 selections.
Pierce said the “timing is beautiful” to get the Hawks job because of their recently-opened practice facility, the ongoing renovations at Philips Arena and the pending relocation of its G-League affiliate to College Park for the 2019-20 season.
“I can’t think of a better opportunity to grow,” Pierce said.
Pierce cited a handful of mentors in his coaching career.
He played basketball at Santa Clara for its former long-time coach, Dick Davey, and later was an assistant on his staff. Pierce said Davey had a “passion for his players” and is the reason he got into coaching.
“He took care of me and he took care of his players,” Pierce said.
Pierce said that while on Mike Brown’s Cleveland staff he saw how Brown’s “attention to detail” was important. Former Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins “was one of the toughest coaches I’ve been around” and fielded defensive-minded teams in the mold that Pierce wants. Pierce said Keith Smart, the Warriors coach in 2010-11, is a “great human being who cares about guys” with “charisma that’s unmatched.”
In Philadelphia, Pierce took on the most responsibilities of his NBA coaching career. He said three years ago head coach Brett Brown put him in charge of all aspects of Philadelphia’s defense.
“I wouldn’t be here if not for Brett Brown,” Pierce said. “His spirit in everything he does on a day-to-day basis is why they are in the position they are in now. He had a vision, he shared it with me and he empowered me to grow.”
Pierce said he’s developed a motto during his coaching career: “Good days will add up.” There figure to be lots of bad days for the Hawks under Pierce in the near future, at least in terms of results.
The Hawks finished the 2017-18 season last in the Eastern Conference with a 24-58 record. They don’t figure to be much better next season, when as many as four rookie draft picks will be added to an already young roster.
With the Hawks, Pierce will face a similar challenge to the one he took on with Brown. The Sixers lost 54 or more games during Brown’s first four seasons before the players they accumulated with high draft picks formed the core of this season’s team. The Celtics eliminated the Sixers in an Eastern Conference semifinal last week.
Philadelphia’s strategy of taking short-term losses over multiple years for the chance at high draft picks became popularly known as “The Process.” Critics used the term pejoratively when the Sixers were losing lots of games, but the team’s fans eventually embraced the process, especially now that it’s paying dividends with victories.
Even with the added youth next season, the Hawks probably won’t be as bad as the Sixers were when they lost an average of 66 games from 2013-14 to 2015-16. The Hawks are unlikely to hit rock bottom if they retain veterans Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder and rising young players Taurean Prince and John Collins.
Last summer Schlenk signed a handful of veterans that helped the Hawks remain competitive. Still, the GM said Monday his focus will remain adding draft picks and young players while avoiding big-money contracts for veterans.
Pierce deflected a question about whether the Hawks have a potential superstar player on the current roster.
“Just knowing the guys from the past year and looking at some of picks we’ll eventually have, this is where it’s just about the development,” Pierce said. “Good days will add up, and that’s going to be our focus moving forward.”
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