The NBA saw its second coach get canned mid-season today as the Atlanta Hawks announced they fired Lloyd Pierce. The Hawks came into the season hoping to fight for the playoffs and instead are 11th in a weak Eastern Conference, sitting at 14-20 on the year. It was a tough start to the campaign for Pierce, who has presided over some truly awful teams in Atlanta, going 63-120 in two years and change.
On the surface, it seems a change was needed. A team can only be bad for so long. Pierce wasn't going to be the second coming of Brett Brown, who stuck by the Philadelphia 76ers when their teams were barely winning double-digit games on purpose, and was rewarded with three years as head coach of a playoff contender.
The first two seasons in Atlanta, Pierce worked to instill a culture of winning basketball without the requisite pieces to actually play winning basketball as the team slowly built itself up around Trae Young, superstar hopeful. This year was supposed to be different. This was the year Young and his compatriots would translate the occasional gaudy statline into consistent play and notches in the win column.
Pierce was unable to do that in 34 games. So he was fired. But Pierce should not have been fired. General manager Travis Schlenk is the one who deserves the blame for how Atlanta's season has gone, and Pierce is just the fall guy.
It was always going to take time and smart roster building to create a competitive team centered around Young. He's an otherworldly offensive force who is a huge negative on the defensive end because he's so small. A player like him has never really come around before. The Steph Curry comparisons are obvious, but Curry has two inches and 10 pounds on Young. That makes all the difference in the world when dealing with undersized NBA guards. Curry was still a negative defensively for even his best Golden State seasons, but playing at an MVP level on the other end of the court makes up for that. So, too, does having elite defensive teammates who can take tougher assignments and help everyone recover if the scheme breaks down because Curry's man penetrates the defense.
Schlenk is a graduate of Golden State's front office. He knows all that way better than I do. Hired in 2018 along with Pierce, Schlenk's vision was obvious through the first two seasons: acquire a point guard good enough offensively to lift the team as a whole and surround him with versatile wing players who can defend and shoot at equally high levels. He successfully found one such wing in the 2019 draft with De'Andre Hunter, but his other swing at the plate (Cam Reddish) didn't pan out his rookie season and is struggling in his sophomore campaign. But what Schlenk was trying to do was obvious, and there are certainly far worse ways to build a winning team.
Then the 2020 offseason rolled around and Schlenk pivoted entirely. He signed Rajon Rando, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Danilo Gallinari to big contracts in free agency. None of that trio is known for their defense at this point in their careers. Rondo showed off how smart he can be on that end of the floor during the Lakers' title run in the Orlando bubble, but as a one-on-one defender he's toast more often than not at his stage in his career.
Bogdanovic and Gallinari are sharpshooters. Signing one might've been a good idea. You could even talk me into signing both to reasonable deals. But Gallinari is owed $61.5 million over the next three seasons and Bogdanovic is owed $72 million over the next four. Rondo, by the way, is owed $15 million over the next two.
If they all stayed healthy and contributed, maybe those numbers wouldn't look so bad. But Bogdanovic hasn't played since January 9 due to a knee injury, Gallinari has missed 12 out of 34 total games, and Rondo has only suited up for 18 contests. They were supposed to be central parts of the rotation and they can't stay on the court. Apparently that is the fault of the head coach and not the guy who offered up the contracts.
Blaming Schlenk for his free agent prizes getting hurt is silly, of course. Just like it is to blame Pierce for those same problems. Yet one guy got fired because of those problems and the other didn't.
I'm sure there's plenty going on behind the scenes that the general public isn't aware of that played a part in the front office's decision. Whether it justifies a pink slip, we will probably never know. But Pierce can fall back on the excuse that he can only play the hand he was dealt. Schlenk was the dealer and at least an equal part of the blame falls on his shoulders for the team's failure to perform. Yet he has escaped the consequences as of now.
Building a playoff contender around Young was always going to be a three or four-year project. One cannot simply trade for and draft a starting lineup of ready-made three-and-D wings immediately. Those types of players are the most valuable commodity in the league right now. Guys like Hunter and Reddish need time to develop, while tertiary pieces gained via trade, like Clint Capela, need time to settle into their new roles. Haste makes waste when it comes to rebuilds in the NBA. Yet somebody in Atlanta convinced themselves firing the coach who helped build up the players the team has right now is the best move to make. In the middle of the season, no less!
Many would argue that being under .500 in Year 3 of a complete rebuild with a few competitive wins and a few tough losses is the expected place to be. Like Rome, a championship contender can't be built in a day. Sure, Pierce needs a lot of improvement in his coaching. But was he bad enough to fire? Will his absence magically fix this team? I think not. The problems run deeper. The problems stem from the top. The problems rest with Schlenk.
Oh, and lest we forget, this is still the same guy who traded away the rights to Luka Doncic. Pierce would almost certainly still be employed if that didn't happen because Doncic is a generational talent rather than a star-nearing-superstar like Young. If and when Schlenk's whole experiment falls apart, Pierce won't be the one to blame. Schlenk can only blame himself.