Three thoughts on the Hawks' firing of head coach Lloyd Pierce on Monday:
• This isn’t especially surprising. There was league-wide buzz that Pierce could be in trouble last year, with the Hawks stumbling to a 20–47 finish in the pandemic-shortened season. Pierce survived, but with Atlanta off to a disappointing 14–20 start—reasons for which go well beyond Pierce—it’s hardly a shock to see the Hawks let him go. Atlanta spent heavily on free agents last offseason, and while several key players have missed significant time with injuries (Bogdan Bogdanović, De’Andre Hunter, Rajon Rondo) there have been some warning signs. The Hawks have been a disaster in the fourth quarter this season, with an NBA-worst net rating (-8.2) and defensive rating (120.4) in the final 12 minutes. The defense has been especially gruesome, with Atlanta ranking in the bottom third of the NBA defensively and looking lifeless on that end in recent weeks, particularly in a nine-point loss to rebuilding Oklahoma City last week. It’s one thing to be bad; it’s another to be bad and disinterested.
• What’s next? The Hawks are reportedly discussing an interim role with Nate McMillan, Pierce’s top assistant and close friend. McMillan would be a strong choice. He’s months removed from a successful four-year stint with the Pacers (under McMillan, Indiana had a winning record every year and made the playoffs each season) and has a reputation for being a hard-nosed disciplinarian. Atlanta could use some of that. Trae Young is a dynamic offensive player, but he’s a liability defensively. There appeared at times to be a disconnect between Young and Pierce. McMillan, a former NBA point guard and a fresh voice, may be able to get through to him. For the Hawks to succeed, Young has to be more than a one-dimensional player.
Don’t be surprised to see Atlanta surge in the next two months, either. Bogdanovic is inching toward a return. De’Andre Hunter will be back at some point, too. The Hawks were above .500 (10–9) when Hunter went down with a knee injury last month. The second-year guard was off to a terrific start, averaging 17.2 points through the first 18 games. McMillan is an excellent coach, but if Atlanta improves, health will be a key reason.
• Pierce’s legacy. As a coach, Pierce’s two-plus seasons with the Hawks were forgettable. His impact in Atlanta was not. Pierce became a leading voice during the social justice movement last spring. He spoke out about police brutality. About racial injustice. About voting rights. He spoke at rallies. He marched in demonstrations. He was involved in the Hawks decision to turn State Farm Arena into a polling station last fall. He worked with the team to make Juneteenth a paid company holiday. Professionally, Pierce will land on his feet: He remains a part of Gregg Popovich’s USA Basketball coaching staff that will compete in Tokyo this summer, and with more than a decade of NBA experience, Pierce will be a sought after top assistant, perhaps even in San Antonio, where Popovich is coach. He will be a head coach again. What he did last year, however, serving as a strong, calming voice during a racially charged time won’t soon be forgotten.