There is no shame in admitting when the Hawks announced the hiring of Lloyd Pierce as their next head coach, your head popped and said, “Who?” I know that was my reaction.
The former right-hand man for Brett Brown is overly familiar with rebuilding franchises, serving as a Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach from 2013 to 2018. A period that is better known as “The Process,” developing top talents such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. While an under the radar candidate, as his first season winds down, it has become undeniable that Pierce was a splendid fit for the job
Not all head coaches are made for rebuilds. Mike Budenholzer irrefutably was not. He forced his way out after just one rebuilding season, despite Atlanta being the place that made him a valuable coaching entity. It takes a coach who truly appreciates player development, one that can handle the highs but the much more frequent lows, and more than anything – patience.
The positive side about joining a rebuild as a head coach: There are no expectations to win basketball games. Developing the building blocks of the franchise is what Pierce will be graded on, and so far, he’s been a teacher’s pet.
John Collins was a potential starter when Pierce arrived. Now, Collins is a budding All-Star with superstar potential. Trae Young has blossomed into the best rookie in the NBA with a ceiling as high as Steph Curry’s – or dare I say it – even higher. Kevin Huerter, who Pierce believed was a G-League player to begin the season, has become a starter and a sniper from behind the arc. And with that speedy development, has come unforeseen wins.
The Hawks began the year as expected, losing 23 of their first 29 games. Then things took an unanticipated turn for the better. Atlanta is now 21-25 in their last 46 games, which would put them in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race over the course of an entire season.
They are completely ignoring where they might pick in the draft and focusing on competing every night. That’s almost impossible to do for a rebuilding team, especially one where there is so much uncertainty among the players. Outside of the Hawks’ young core, most of these guys will be moving on in the coming years. Nothing is guaranteed for them in Atlanta, yet they have remained focused, positive, and most importantly, they are enjoying themselves – a testament to first-year head coach, Lloyd Pierce.
“I had an official come up to me. He gave us a compliment,” Pierce said. “Your players really look like they are enjoying themselves. Your staff is doing an unbelievable job.”
The Hawks free-flowing and playful attitude can be seen in their style of play but is best portrayed by whoever is sitting on the bench. Anytime a shot goes in; guys are up celebrating their teammates. It doesn’t matter if it is Trae Young or Jaylen Adams; the support for one another is as genuine as can be.
Pierce will tell you it’s not always smiles and sunflowers in the Hawks locker room; however, in his mind, that is far from a bad thing.
“The challenge as a coach… We have 15 guys in the gym every day, and you try to manage how to help each one individually but still focus on the team,” said Pierce. “I’ve told these guys a number of times: If all fifteen are happy, then I got the wrong fifteen. There should be five or six guys that are really not that happy with their minutes, or rotations, or how they are being used because they are competitors.”
If there is an unhappy voice in Atlanta, they sure are not making it recognizable. Alex Len had this to say when comparing his situations with the Hawks and Suns “Here there is a lot more stability. A Great coaching staff, hopefully, the owners believe in the coaches and the system they put in.”
That system Pierce has created is generating a buzz around the Hawks that has been missing for some time now. With that, comes expectations, something Pierce did not have to deal with in year one.
“It’s not easy, and I don’t expect it to get any easier,” Pierce said, but he doesn’t plan on changing his approach because of added pressure to win.
“The approach will always be the same. It’s all about the team, all about energy, all about creating team chemistry… We will be in year five; it’s still how do we get players to get better. I’m never too high or too low. I want to help these guys succeed on and off the court. I want to bring a championship to this city and this organization.”
Pierce was asked to fill the massive shoes of Mike Budenholzer. He has already proven to be one of the best at developing young talent, but coaches are not hired to strictly advance potential. They get hired to win – and that will be the only thing Coach Pierce is graded on in the coming years.