“But I feel like he is doing his thing. He’s ready. I think he’s as excited as all of us are to have this roster and to be able to see what he can do with it.”
This is the next phase of a Hawks plan that mirrors “The Process” that Pierce was part of in Philadelphia. He was a 76ers assistant when the team lost a lot and accumulated draft picks. Pierce was still there when two drafted players, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, developed into All-Stars. The Sixers added good veterans around them and quickly became a playoff team.
The Hawks already did the tanking. They parlayed their 29-43 finish in 2017-18 into a draft pick they used to acquire Trae Young. He became an All-Star in his second season, but the Hawks slipped to 20-47. General manager Travis Schlenk acknowledged that he gave Pierce a roster that was too thin to win many games.
That should not be a problem in 2020-21. Statistical projections and human observers all believe that Pierce’s team will be much better.
The FiveThirtyEight.com forecast predicts the Hawks will finish 35-37 and gives them a 64 percent chance of making the playoffs. ESPN’s panel of experts agrees that the Hawks will win 35 games and challenge for a postseason bid. Bookmakers set the Hawks’ over/under win total at 36.5, according to VegasInsider.com. The 16½-game increase from last season’s record to this season’s over/under is second to the Warriors in the NBA.
I count at least eight Hawks veterans who can play major roles on a good team. Two or three others are credible fill-ins. I see Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter making a jump in Year 2 to shore up last season’s biggest weakness, depth at the wing positions.
The Hawks aren’t built for a deep playoff run, but they have the pieces to get there. It’s up to Pierce to fit them together in the best way. There are several ways to do it, depending upon what the Hawks need at certain points of games.
Young, Collins and center Clint Capela will be mainstays in the starting lineup. Pierce tried four different players at the two wing positions during the four exhibition games: Reddish, Hunter, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter. Danillo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo project as the lead players on the second unit and could be part of closing lineups.
The Hawks should score plenty. There are more shooters and playmakers around Young, who ranks among the NBA’s better players on offense. The Hawks ranked 28th in defensive efficiency in each of Pierce’s first two seasons as coach. Better defenders on the wing and back line could help Pierce get the Hawks closer to fulfilling his vision for the defense.
Pierce said the Hawks are “not even close” to figuring out the right blends of players because injuries sidelined two veteran wing players they added, Kris Dunn and Tony Snell, as well as rookie center Onyeka Okongwu.
“I have to just work with what I have right now, and we’ll work the combinations and the (defensive) coverages based on those personnel groupings,” Pierce said.
In addition to building lineups, Pierce will have to manage a lot of new personalities. And as Young’s status as a player grows, so does Pierce’s challenge to push the franchise star while maintaining a good rapport with him. The Hawks would benefit if Pierce can get Young to buy in to playing off the ball more on offense and with more effort on defense.
One reason the Hawks signed Rondo is to mentor Young. Rondo is an intense competitor and two-time NBA champion. Young is the team’s best player, but not its most accomplished. He’ll have a peer who can help show him the way to becoming the lead guard for a winning team.
Pierce has experience with that as a coach. In Philadelphia, ex-coach Brett Brown put Pierce in charge of the defense and regularly let him be the leading voice during games. Pierce was instrumental in helping to keep Embiid, a mercurial player, on an even keel.
Now Pierce is in first chair for a team led by a young star and trying to end its playoffs drought at three seasons. That doesn’t mean Pierce will change his methods.
“I don’t know how to be anybody else,” he said. “You have to coach what you know. You have to coach who you are. ... I think winning teams have a great deal of poise and confidence. They understand the moment and never let the moment get too big, so I try to approach it the same way.”
The moment is bigger than ever for Pierce as Hawks coach. His job became better at the same time it became harder. A head coach ultimately is judged on results. With the Hawks shifting from rebuilding the roster to building a winner, Pierce will be expected to deliver.