Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce served as an assistant for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup, and hopes the lessons he learned will carry over to a Hawks team on the upswing.
When Gregg Popovich gathered the USA Basketball coaching staff in San Antonio the day after the NBA Draft for the team’s coaches’ retreat, he wasted no time introducing his foundational principles for the program. Surrounded by such basketball luminaries as Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors), Jay Wright (Villanova), Lloyd Pierce (Atlanta Hawks) and Jeff Van Gundy (ESPN), Popovich laid out the philosophy that would serve as the basis of Team USA’s approach to the FIBA World Cup: appropriate fear. It’s an enduring Popovichian maxim that has echoed through generations of Spurs teams and would be constantly stressed as the United States battled against the rest of the world’s best basketball teams.
Put simply, appropriate fear amounts to respect.
“Respect for every country, respect for every opponent, respect for what Team USA basketball represents,” Pierce said. “We tell our guys, attack the day, win the day, get the most out of every single day that you have. Our experience over there was about that. Every game mattered. Every game was championship level because there’s no consolation for Team USA in those tournaments.”
Team USA would come to discover just how important that appropriate fear is — first in an exhibition loss to Australia and again in the knockout-stage defeat against France.
Despite the uncharacteristically early exit for the U.S., spending time in the USA Basketball program provided one of the best learning experiences of Pierce’s career. For a relatively green NBA head coach not from the Popovich tree, it provided an opportunity not just to coach a group of elite American players, but to glean insights and lessons from some of the best coaches on the planet. The group spent hours discussing basketball, life and family over dinner and wine – a timeless Popovich tradition.
“I felt like I was cheating the basketball profession,” Pierce said.
The head coach wasn’t the only Hawk involved with USA Basketball this summer. Both Trae Young and John Collins, two of Atlanta’s most important young players, played on the Select Team during training camp, and while neither made the senior team roster, each benefitted from competing against other elite players in the program.
“It’s a unique opportunity,” Pierce said. “They get to puff their chests out a little bit knowing that they’re with the big boys and they’re on a different stage, even if it’s just for a week. And I think they both got something out of it.”
The three talked regularly over the course of training camp, but Pierce took a more hands-off approach during practices and scrimmages, allowing Van Gundy, the head coach of the Select Team, the freedom to coach according to his own philosophies.
“It was good to not have to coach them and just talk to them about the experience,” Pierce said.
That experience could hardly have come at a better time for the young Hawks, who are in a pivotal stage of a full-scale rebuild — the results of which will be determined by the habits the team forms now. Atlanta will likely have one of the youngest rotations in the league — even with the 43-year-old Vince Carter raising the team’s average — and perhaps nothing will be as important as the strides Young and Collins make in their second season with one another.
The two already share a natural pick-and-roll chemistry and could eventually drive one of the league’s most formidable offenses. Young’s long-range shooting and creative passing instincts have the power to stretch defenses to a breaking point, while Collins’ explosive finishes at the rim only give opponents another threat with which to concern themselves. Having two productive and efficient offensive bookends already in place helps clarify the team’s approach toward roster construction, and Atlanta has leapt at the chance to surround its budding stars with long and versatile forwards.
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The other end of the floor, however, remains unsteady. Pierce is a defensive-minded coach who helped engineer an elite unit for the Philadelphia 76ers prior to joining the Hawks. But in the absence of the overwhelming defensive talent he had in Philadelphia, Atlanta ranked 27th in defensive efficiency last season. Collins has thus far struggled to provide adequate rebounding and rim protection as a center, while Young may have quite literally been the worst defender in the NBA as a rookie. The Hawks can mask some of their defensive shortcomings, but those remedies would likely come at the expense of shooting and dynamism at other positions. The only configuration in which Atlanta’s most promising players can eventually share the floor requires Collins to play as the lone big, and those lineups will likely continue to struggle on defense this year.
Even in an ideal long-term scenario, it’s unclear whether Atlanta can protect the rim at a sufficient level unless Collins blossoms into a more reliable anchor. While he has the bounce to challenge shots, react quickly and cover for mistakes, he simply doesn’t put those tools to use frequently enough. He limited opponents to 55 percent shooting at the rim last season, but Collins’ block and steal rates plummeted after an encouraging rookie season and the Hawks hemorrhaged points when he played without a center beside him.
Pierce says he plans on using his young big primarily at power forward this season — a perfectly justifiable approach given his flimsiness at center — and while a statistical defensive improvement would be welcome, he simply wants to see more investment on that end.
“All of our guys understand that was the knock on us last year,” Pierce said. “We know we can score. We have some capable scorers. For us to advance, for us to progress, it’s going to come down to how we approach the games defensively.”
The front office addressed that need through the draft, spending the fourth overall pick on De’Andre Hunter, who could evolve into a dynamic four-position defender and an ideal complement to Young’s high pick-and-roll virtuosity. Wings Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish should, at the very least, become passable defenders.
This summer also gave Young, Collins and Pierce a glimpse into exactly what is required of elite defensive players. The trio watched and worked with a pesky collection of perimeter defenders in Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White and Khris Middleton over the summer, as well as rim protectors like Myles Turner and Brook Lopez.
While the Hawks may never become an elite defense, that group’s tenacity and intelligence as individual and team defenders set a standard toward which to work, and Pierce is hopeful Young can improve in much the same way Kemba Walker did with Team USA.
“Right from the start we told him, ‘You probably have never had to defend this hard,’” Pierce said. “Kemba… took the challenge, bought into it, competed at a high level. He did everything gracefully, did everything with a smile on his face as he always does. I thought that was encouraging.”
Atlanta will need time to figure out just how its pieces fit with one another. The franchise may be on a positive trajectory, but it won’t be immune from the challenges and growing pains that ultimately strengthen great teams. Now, Pierce will approach the season with a new appreciation for navigating those obstacles.
“These guys have no idea what we’re about to get started with,” Pierce said. “They think we’re starting training camp. I just left playoffs, and I’m still in playoff mode.”