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.
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.