Falcons learn how hard it is to stop being mediocre
It never seems to work for the guy you get to lose. Kenny Atkinson in Brooklyn, Byron Scott in Cleveland, a bunch of guys who were in charge of the Suns before Monty Williams. Brett Brown in Philadelphia has gone as far as anyone has gone, in the transition from Tanking Caretaker to Actual Coach, and it has been widely believed that the Sixers have kept him a bit too long. That there hasn’t been a Popovich or a Spoelstra in form yet probably has something to do with how good a skipper you can bring, when you’ve more or less announced your intention to suck. Anyone with a set record won’t want to tarnish it with several losing seasons, and the Most Wanted Assistants might skip the gig as well, thinking that if they started their 44 and 120 head coaching career this could be the start and the end of it.
Plus, it’s exhausting to lose, live up to the job, and suffer literal defeats over and over again. Even if you tell yourself that you don’t measure your success by what the scorecard says, the scorecard is still there, and it’s huge, and you’re down 18 again heading into Q4. . The idea that things will one day change seems a long way off.
The Atlanta Hawks fired Lloyd Pierce on Monday because that’s how these things tend to be. For the first two years of his tenure, he was just a steward at the Trae Young Show, following what was obviously a front office directive to let Trae cook, even if it sometimes seemed contrary to victory. This season, the Hawks have been disappointing given that they are not a talentless squad. Your mileage will vary on Trae, but he’s certainly a good player, and he’s now flanked by a decent cast that includes Clint Capela and John Collins, Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter. They should probably do better than the 11th in the East, but the entire conference outside of the Sixers, Nets and Bucks is having an extremely difficult year. The Celtics are a unique game over .500, model outfits like the Heat and Raptors are still recovering from excruciating starts. If it’s time to downsize your organization, now is the time. But the delays are brutal; people at the top are rarely forgiving or patient. So the coach is going too far. You can bet GM Travis Schlenck is next.
That’s not to say Pierce was doing a great job. Every coach is burned in the media on their way out, but the acid for this particular ex-boss was pretty sharp. Athletic reported that players across the roster felt Pierce was a terrible communicator and several of them approached management asking for him to be replaced. He didn’t get along with Trae Young. He didn’t set up the defensive plans which were largely the reason he was hired in the first place – Pierce’s good faith was earned by helping Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons become formidable defenders in Philly – because he decided his young players were too green. to learn them. So he wasn’t encouraging team chemistry and he wasn’t mastering X’s and Bones. How about a real one you are doing here? situation. At least Nate McMillan, who succeeds Pierce in an interim role, is an established pro.
McMillan has a lot of problems on his plate. He takes over a team with the worst fourth-quarter execution in the league according to the net score. The veteran reinforcements from the last offseason – Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn – have given the team next to nothing. Cam Reddish is an interesting prospect, especially in defense, but also incredibly inconsistent. John Collins and Trae Young seem not to like each other very much. (And if the relationship deteriorates further, Collins knows management will side with Trae.) De’Andre Hunter has been a great all-around player, but needs to stay healthy. McMillan can help with some of these things, and some of them are beyond his control. A mid-season revolution is too much to expect. It sounds pessimistic and slightly disrespectful, but McMillan’s main contribution might be not being the guy everyone apparently hated playing for. Extremely rare evidence: The Hawks beat the Heat 94-80 Tuesday night. Maybe they’re running out here. It’s not as if the rest of the East is putting up strong resistance.
I wrote before the start of the season that this was going to be Trae Young’s first opportunity to play on a real NBA team, in contests that weren’t a glorified excuse to let him solve problems and get used to the speed of professional play. Results have been mixed, as to whether Young is a player you can build your entire setup around, and still on his rookie deal, he thinks he’s been in Atlanta for a long time, but the reality around him is deepening from day by day. At some point, if things don’t change, he’ll take responsibility for it.
For now, the coach is gone. The front office is notified. The situation has improved from what it was a few seasons ago as it couldn’t get any worse. It’s easy to be terrible, and it’s easy to be a little better than that. He longs for a skill that can disappoint you, get you fired. The Hawks are finding out now. At least their intention is to play a respectable ball. Without it, you won’t get anywhere. But people will start to wonder, when you stumble upon yourself, where are you going to end up.