It seems to never work out for the guy you bring in 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 went as far as anybody has gone, in the transition from Tanking Caretaker to Actual Coach, and it was widely agreed that the Sixers kept him around a little too long. That there hasn’t yet been a Popovich or Spoelstra of the form probably has something to do with the quality of skipper you can bring in, when you’ve more or less announced your intention to suck. Anybody with an established record isn’t going to want to tarnish it with multiple losing seasons, and the more sought-after assistants might pass on the gig too, thinking that if they start their head coaching career 44-and-120, that could be the beginning and end of it.
Plus it’s draining to lose, to show up to your job and take literal defeats over and over again. Even if you tell yourself you’re not measuring your success by what the scoreboard says, the scoreboard is still there, and it’s huge, and you are once again down by 18 heading into the fourth quarter. The idea that things will one day turn around seems very far away.
The Atlanta Hawks fired Lloyd Pierce on Monday, because that’s how these things tend to go. For the first two years of his tenure, he was merely a steward at the Trae Young Show, following what was obviously a directive from the front office to let Trae cook, even if it sometimes seemed antithetical to winning. This season, the Hawks have been disappointing, given that they’re not an untalented group. Your mileage will vary on Trae, but he’s definitely 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 be doing better than 11th in the East, but the entire conference outside of the Sixers, Nets, and Bucks is having an extraordinarily tough year. The Celtics are a single game over .500, model outfits like the Heat and Raptors are still recovering from atrocious starts. If there’s a time to cut the people in your organization some slack, it’s now. But timelines are brutal; the folks at the top are rarely forgiving or patient. So the coach goes overboard. You can bet GM Travis Schlenck is next in line.
This isn’t to say that Pierce was doing a great job. Every coach gets burned in the media on their way out, but the acid for this particular ex-boss was pretty sharp. The Athletic reported that players across the roster felt like Pierce was an abysmal communicator, and that several of them went to management to ask that he be replaced. He didn’t get along with Trae Young. He didn’t install the defensive schemes that were a big part of the reason he got hired in the first place—Pierce’s bona fides were earned helping Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons become awesome defenders in Philly—because he decided his young players were too green to learn them. So he wasn’t fostering team chemistry and he wasn’t mastering the Xs and Os. A real what would you say it is you do here? situation. At least Nate McMillan, taking over for Pierce in an interim role, is an established pro.
McMillan’s got quite a few problems on his plate. He takes over a squad that has the worst fourth quarter execution in the league according to net rating. Last offseason’s veteran reinforcements—Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo, and Kris Dunn—have given the team almost nothing. Cam Reddish is an interesting prospect, especially on defense, but also mind-bendingly inconsistent. John Collins and Trae Young seem not to like each other very much. (And if the relationship sours further, Collins knows management will take Trae’s side.) De’Andre Hunter has been a terrific all-around player, but needs to stay healthy. McMillan can help with some of this stuff, and some of it is beyond his control. A midseason revolution is too much to expect. This sounds pessimistic and faintly disrespectful, but McMillan’s primary contribution might be not being the guy everyone apparently hated playing for. Extremely scant evidence: the Hawks beat the Heat 94-to-80 on Tuesday night. Maybe they go on a run, here. It’s not like the rest of the East will put up strong resistance.
I wrote before the season started that this was going to be Trae Young’s first opportunity to play on a bona fide NBA team, in contests that weren’t a glorified excuse to let him work out the kinks and get used to speed of the pro game. Results have been mixed, as far as whether Young is a player you can build your entire setup around, and still on his rookie deal, he figures to be in Atlanta for a long time, but the reality that surrounds him deepens by the day. At some point, if things don’t change, he’ll assume responsibility for it.
For now, the coach is gone. The front office is on notice. The situation has improved from where it was a couple seasons ago, because it couldn’t possibly be worse. It’s easy to be terrible, and it’s easy to be a little bit better than that. It’s aspiring to competency that can leave you disappointed, get you fired. The Hawks are currently discovering as much. At least their intention is to play some respectable ball. Without that, you won’t get anywhere. But people will start wondering, as you stumble over yourself, where you’re going to end up.