It had to happen: The Hawks fire Lloyd Pierce

Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce confers with Trae Young during first half of the home opener against the Detroit Pistons Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce confers with Trae Young during first half of the home opener against the Detroit Pistons Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

This had to happen. The Hawks have made seven Round 1 picks over the past four NBA drafts. They spent big over the summer to buy themselves veterans who could shoot and/or defend and/or both. They awoke Monday in 11th place in the NBA East, which wouldn’t qualify them for this season’s 10-teams-per-conference playoff. They’ll awaken Tuesday without the head coach hired to oversee this rebuild.

The Hawks fired Lloyd Pierce on Monday. The first casualty of rebuilding is patience – the higher-ups always believe progress shouldn’t be so slow in coming – but it was clear progress had ceased under Pierce, who’d spent 2-½ years on the job. The Hawks had become to NBA fourth quarters what the Falcons were to NFL fourth quarters, which is to say awful. Nothing gets a coach/manager fired like blown leads. Even Arthur Blank finally got around to dumping Dan Quinn.

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To be fair, a lot had gone wrong that was beyond any coach’s control. The Hawks played their final game of last season on March 11. (They lost in overtime.) They didn’t qualify for the NBA’s bubble, meaning they went nine months between competitive games. Four of their summer imports – Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn and Onyeku Okongwu – have been slowed if not halted by injury. De’Andre Hunter, one of the few Hawks apt to guard somebody, hurt his knee and hasn’t played since January.

None of that was Pierce’s doing. His undoing was something that had been apparent all along: The man who arrived as having taught the Process-driven 76ers to defend never got around to doing anything similar with a team of his own. After Year 1, he’d said that he hadn’t even tried to install his defensive schemes because his young players couldn’t absorb it. Given that every basketball coach knows that defense is something that’s taught, that seemed a curious admission. How are students supposed to learn if the teacher throws up his hands?

Lloyd Pierce is all smiles as the Atlanta Hawks introduce him as the 13th full-time coach of the NBA franchise Monday, May 14, 2018, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Lloyd Pierce is all smiles as the Atlanta Hawks introduce him as the 13th full-time coach of the NBA franchise Monday, May 14, 2018, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

On paper, the Pierce hire made sense. (On paper, most hires do.) He’d worked with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, which under general manager Sam Hinkie tanked like no team had ever tanked. After five consecutive seasons of 54 or more losses, the Sixers in 207-2018 rose to 52 wins and won a playoff series. As an assistant to Brett Brown, Pierce was a part of Hinkie’s Process, though Hinkie was gone by the time the winning commenced. He took the Hawks’ job knowing he’d do as Brown did – suffer a ton of losses before anything got good. Alas, the Hawks under Pierce never came close to getting good.

His first season finished encouragingly enough that we were wondering if the Hawks – having added Hunter and Cam Reddish to the nascent nucleus of Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter – might well be a playoff team in 2020. Collins’ 25-game suspension for a positive PED test ruined Pierce’s Year 2. When Year 3 saw the Hawks start 4-1, we all started to pay attention. We’ve since changed the channel. The same Hawks have won 10 of their past 29 games.

Even with injuries, this team isn’t without resources. On the season, the 14-20 Hawks have been outscored by two points. Their efficiency rating, factoring in offense and defense, is the NBA’s 15th-best, which suggests they should be a .500 team. Alas, everything would come apart in the fourth quarter, when the Hawks became the league’s worst team. That’s why Pierce is gone. When it was time to guard somebody, his Hawks melted.

Hawks rankings

Some will suggest that this is the price of building around Trae Young, who can score against anybody but can’t guard air. It has been whispered that Pierce and Young had issues, which makes sense. Young has yet to find a shot he doesn’t think he can make, but the Hawks knew that when they chose him over Luka Doncic. Stephen Curry, the template for Young, didn’t guard anybody when he hit the NBA, either – but he learned.

Conspiracy theorists read much into Nate McMillan’s appointment as Pierce’s chief assistant. As a head coach with Seattle, Portland and Indiana, McMillan was 661-558, and his teams always defended. Pierce’s record: 63-120. McMillan was named the interim head coach, which might have been what the Hawks had in mind all along.

We pause to note the obvious: Those charged with coaching/managing teams in rebuild mode rarely stick around to reap the fruits of their labors. (Brown was an exception, but he’s gone now.) Pierce knew his record would be frightful for a few years, but the Hawks landed too many good players to justify the we’re-still-too-young excuse. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. It’s time for this bunch to grow up. That didn’t happen under Pierce. It needs to happen under the next coach.

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