Lloyd Pierce is gone, now scrutiny shifts to Hawks GM Travis Schlenk

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

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Hawk general manager Travis Schlenk hired Lloyd Pierce to coach a team that couldn’t win much by design. He tasked Pierce with developing young players as the Hawks lost for the draft lottery for two seasons. Pierce did that. Schlenk gave Pierce a more talented team this season. He never got to coach it before Schlenk fired him.

The closest Pierce came to getting the chance came Dec. 30 at the Brooklyn Nets. Kris Dunn was the only experienced Hawks player on the injured list that night. Danilo Gallinari would join him after playing just 3:09. Including Dunn, who has yet to play, the Hawks have had at least three rotation players out injured in 28 of 31 games since then.

Schlenk’s message is that the Hawks (14-20 before playing at Miami) have underachieved despite their injuries. If that’s the case, then Schlenk also has underachieved with roster building for the second consecutive year. If Pierce can be judged even though the roster hasn’t been whole this season, then so can Schlenk.

Schlenk fired Pierce on Monday. The next day they stood just three games behind the Eastern Conference’s fifth-place teams. They haven’t met the new, higher expectations that Pierce helped set. His outlook was based on having better players available, but too many of them have been hurt. Firing Pierce now looks like a short-sighted move under the circumstances.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich noticed. In San Antonio on Monday, Popovich told reporters that the Hawks might come to regret letting Pierce go.

“He’s the kind of guy you can build a culture around,” Popovich said. “But there’s got to be leadership enough that understands it takes time and continuity is important, and that is not always available in our league as far as ownership and management are concerned. A little bit more understanding about how a program gets built for success over the long run would have served the situation well.”

Coaches always stick up for other coaches. In this case, Popovich also was defending one of his assistants for USA Basketball in 2019. Several other NBA coaches also spoke out in support of Pierce, who represents them on the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition.

Popovich’s words on Pierce may have a personal element to them, but they carry weight because he’s a legendary NBA coach. He also has a point. The Hawks fired Pierce because, in Schlenk’s estimation, the team needs a new trajectory. OK, so what’s next?

Firing a coach is the easiest way to shake up a losing NBA team. “New voice” is the standard, generic answer. Schlenk said the decision was made based on an evaluation at the macro level. So, what’s the long-term plan for the Hawks now? If there’s a bigger picture, I don’t see it.

Nate McMillan may end up being part of it. He accepted a promotion from Hawks assistant to interim head coach. Schlenk said McMillan’s status beyond that will be determined later. McMillan, 56, has 16 years of experience as an NBA head coach with three teams, most recently the Pacers from 2016-17 to 2019-20.

McMillan’s immediate challenge will be to coax better defense from Hawks players. They ranked eighth in defensive efficiency Jan. 30, per Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded). They were 10-9 at the time. Entering Tuesday, the Hawks ranked 25th in defensive efficiency and had lost 11 of their past 15 games.

It’s no coincidence that the defense started to slip when De’Andre Hunter went down with a knee injury. He’s one of maybe two Hawks players who can consistently guard on the perimeter. Hunter has missed 16 games and counting. Other Hawks regulars to miss significant time are Rajon Rondo (14) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (25). That’s not including Dunn, a fine wing defender who has yet to play for the Hawks.

The question is if, when all players are available, will the Hawks have enough defensive talent to offer more resistance? Also, will there be enough time to develop chemistry? McMillan noted that Pierce never really got a chance to do that because of injuries, a truncated training camp and limited practice time because of COVID-19 protocols.

We’ll see if the players Schlenk added can contribute to good team defense. Hawks lineups that include with Hunter have defended well, but the sample size is only about 12 percent of the team’s defensive possessions. Center Clint Capela is Schlenk’s best veteran acquisition. The Hawks would be much worse on defense without Capela on the backline, but he’s the only top-tier defender player Schlenk gave Pierce other than Dunn.

Look at the defensive ratings for the others. Snell’s was OK with the Pistons last season. Rondo’s was bad the past two seasons and is bad again with the Hawks. The same goes for Gallinari. Bogdanovic’s defensive rating was OK last season with the Kings, but bad the previous two seasons.

These were the guys Pierce was supposed to use to forge a deeper defensive team. It’s true that those on/off court numbers require the context of different lineups, teammates and team approaches. But if a guy plays a lot of minutes and his team is bad on defense with him on the floor, at some point you have to look at him as part of the problem or at least not part of the solution.

When the Hawks are at their worst on defense (that’s usually is in the fourth quarter) they can’t keep opponents away from the basket. Once that happens, all defenders are scrambling. Capela is a smart defender with an amazing ability to challenge shots around the basket with multiple, quick efforts. He can do only so much, though.

McMillan might be able to help with some changes. Pierce didn’t always deploy Capela at the best times during fourth quarters. He also used Gallinari at center. Opponents take advantage by making Gallinari guard on the perimeter. Or they attack Gallinari at the basket, where he’s slow to rotate and has almost no chance of stopping anyone if he gets there on time.

McMillan has coached good defensive teams. He was the Pacers’ associate head coach for three seasons under Frank Vogel, who won a championship with the Lakers last season. The Pacers were 12th or better in defensive efficiency with Vogel. With McMillan as head coach, they ranked 16th, 13th, third and sixth. This season the Pacers have slipped to 13th (Victor Oladipo’s departure in a trade after nine games probably has something to do with that).

The evidence suggests McMillan influenced Indiana’s good defense. But his Pacers teams also had multiple effective perimeter defenders in front of rim protector Myles Turner: Oladipo, Paul George, Domantis Sabonis, CJ Miles and TJ Warren (McMillan helped the latter unlock his potential). As Hawks interim coach, McMillan won’t have many good defenders on the outside and has point guard Trae Young as a weak link.

McMillan can tweak the team’s approach. It’s on the players Schlenk acquired to be more resolute on defense.

“What I told our guys, and I really believe this, if you are looking to point the finger at someone or something, you need to point it at yourself,” McMillan said. “That’s all of us. Coach Pierce takes the hit for this, but we all play a part in him not being here today. We’ve got to do better.”

The list includes Schlenk. He fired Pierce before he had a real chance to mold the team Schlenk built. What happens with the Hawks from here is on Schlenk.

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