It is tough to gauge Lloyd Pierce’s performance as the Hawks’ head coach because frankly, he did not inherit a roster that was meant to win. It is a double-edged sword. The Hawks came up well short of expectations this past season, but the team’s young core has developed tremendously. Was finishing at the bottom of the standings from the start the plan? Who knows. John Collins’ suspension also did not allow this team to develop a real identity out of the gate, and there was no looking back in a season that many believed would be a step towards contention.
It is challenging to tell how the front office feels about Pierce. There is a chance that he has done everything they have asked from him, and that he will be back next season — the final year of his contract. At the same time, there is no question that the Hawks have been mightily inconsistent with him at the helm. Ownership wants to take the next step forward, but Pierce has not had a talented enough roster yet to show whether he is or is not the guy that should navigate this team for years to come.
This article is not calling for Pierce’s head. It is exploring a perfect fit for the Hawks if the front office does not feel confident in Lloyd Pierce going forward. I do not have the answer to that question, but I do know a lot about former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, who was an assistant with Atlanta under the Mike Budenholzer regime.
Why do I love Atkinson? I feel that he is still about as good as it gets as far as player development goes, but can also help the Hawks become a more competitive team immediately.
Atkinson played some college ball and then had a lengthy career overseas. After his playing days were over, he served as a player development coach across the pond before receiving his first NBA coaching gig with the Houston Rockets as the Director of Player Development from 2007-2008. After his tenure with the Rockets, Atkinson became an Assistant Coach for the Knicks from 2008-2012, before becoming former general manager Danny Ferry’s first hire in Atlanta, where he has served under both Larry Drew and Mike Budenholzer.
It did not take long for Budenholzer’s staff to garner attention as head-coaching candidates. The Philadelphia 76ers interviewed Atkinson back in 2013 before opting to hire former Spurs assistant Brett Brown. He also coached the World Team in the 2015 Rising Stars Challenge and was named the head coach for the Dominican Republic National Team.
Atkinson was loved in his five seasons in Atlanta, but eventually, the Brooklyn Nets signed him to his first head coaching gig.
Now, you can look at his career record of 118-190 and ask me why the hell would the Hawks want this guy? It is all about context. Atkinson inherited one of the worst teams in the NBA, with no lottery picks to help him build a core due to the infamous Paul Pierce trade with the Celtics. However, he developed his players that were drafted outside the top 20 picks: Caris Levert, Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jarrett Allen. Atkinson started with a 20-62 record in his first season with Brooklyn, but by year three, the 2018-19 season, he had brought the Nets to the playoffs. All of these players saw significant leaps in their games under Atkinson and now serve as the supporting cast to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Unfortunately, the locker room soured on Atkinson this past season, leading to his termination. Perhaps he pushed his group of guys too hard. I’m not putting much stock into this considering they do have Irving and Durant on the team now. These are two of the biggest divas in the sport, and it is little surprise their locker room turned into a soap opera. This caught me off guard because it was the first I had ever heard of anything negative regarding Atkinson, and due to his time in Atlanta, I had been following him longer than most.
Considering what Atkinson was able to accomplish with Brooklyn, the sky is the limit with a much more talented young core. The fact that he has a ton of familiarity in Atlanta does not hurt matters much either. The Hawks may not end up going in another direction this offseason, but if they do, I expect Atkinson to be a prime candidate for the job. He will not be out of work for long.