I’m praying that the NBA will figure out a way to make the 2020 playoffs happen. I believe they will, but as far as the Hawks are concerned, their season ended when they lost to the Knicks in overtime following Trae Young’s heroic fourth-quarter performance. The NBA lottery and Combine have been indefinitely postponed. Still, it is never too early to talk about the offseason, and the Hawks have a bevy of questions that need answering as they enter a critical turning point in their rebuild. The days of competing for a top spot in the lottery are coming to an end, with the playoffs being the ultimate goal next season. However, the focus remains on two or three years down the road, and based on how things go next season, there will be many shuffling parts.
In this series — over the next month or so — I will go over the numerous lingering questions general manager Travis Schlenk will have to mull over next season as he attempts to complete his vision of creating a championship contender. The Hawks aren’t as far away as some might think, but to get there, Schlenk is going have to be right more often than not when deciding on the future of his players and coaches. We start with Atlanta’s current head man — Coach Lloyd Pierce — who has one year remaining on his contract.
As far as a person goes, there are few more genuine than Pierce. He’s been a fantastic addition to the Atlanta community and one of the best when it comes to interviews. However, being nice doesn’t cut it at this level, and so far, the Hawks have underachieved under his watch. But not all of that blame can be placed on his shoulders.
We have to give Pierce a pass for his first season. Travis Schlenk (intentionally) wasn’t focused on the number of wins and was instead worried about maintaining financial flexibility while acquiring future assets. There’s nothing wrong with that; that’s how you make a dynasty in today’s NBA. But before a long stretch of winning, there is a lot of losing, and that’s what the Hawks had to endure in Pierce’s first season. However, despite a miserable start, the development of the young players, and even some of the older guys, suggested Pierce had a positive impact.
Because of the way Atlanta ended the 2018-2019 season, there was a lot of hope that the Hawks could make the jump from bottom dweller to playoff contender overnight. Those thoughts were always a bit overzealous, but a substantial increase in wins due to it being Trae Young and John Collins’ second year together, along with the additions of two top ten picks — Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter — was a reasonable expectation. However, that was all quickly ruined when John Collins received a 25-game suspension for PEDs at the beginning of the season.
The Hawks found themselves in a hole that was too deep to recover from by the time Collins returned. Although the progression of Trae Young and Cam Reddish was promising, and John Collins proved to be an All-Star-caliber player in the second half of the season, continuing to show Pierce’s worth at developing players. But that doesn’t excuse the rest of the woes the team suffered from throughout the year.
On any given night, there was no way to tell which Hawks squad was going to show up. Was it going to be the one that consistently terrorized the Philadelphia 76ers or the one that found themselves on the wrong side of a 30 point blowout at the hands of the lowly Knicks? The effort was severely lacking many times throughout the year, and while players deserve plenty of blame, it’s the coach’s job to keep the team focused throughout an 82-game grind. Pierce, so far, has failed miserably at that.
Another area that’s been surprisingly disappointing has been the defense. Nobody should expect such a young squad, especially one featuring Trae young at the point, to be an elite or even above-average defensive team. But that doesn’t mean they have to be the worst in the league. And the fact that there has been next to no improvement in this area is extremely discouraging. Pierce was thought to be some sort of defensive guru before he was hired as the Hawks head coach, but he’s shown no signs of that. There was even a time last year when Pierce said he hadn’t yet incorporated his defensive schemes — almost as if to make an excuse for having the worse defense in the NBA. I’m not sure if he just misspoke, or if he was serious, but that is one of the more ridiculous things I’ve ever heard from a head coach. If Atlanta cannot make strides in this area next season, I can’t see Pierce making it through the year.
There is also the aspect of Pierce’s relationship with Trae Young. This is a superstar driven league, and Atlanta finally has their first star since Dominique Wilkins was donning a Hawks uniform in the early 90s. It was evident at several points last year that Young was disgruntled with the team, the coach, and most importantly, losing. If the wins don’t start to come in Young’s third season, I don’t see this relationship improving. And if it comes down to the Hawks superstar point guard or the head coach, it goes without saying who wins that battle.
With one year left on his contract, the 2020-2021 season will be a make or break opportunity for Pierce. From what I’ve seen so far, I’m not sure he is the guy that can get this Hawks group over the hump. However, he’s been dealt a poor hand from the start and has yet to have his full roster available for an 82-game stretch. Travis Schlenk is going to give him some help via free agency going into his third year, and the Hawks are poised to have another high draft pick. If Pierce can’t get this team to the playoffs next season, I don’t see any way he’s back for the 2021-2022 campaign.