Hawks fire Pierce following high hopes, disappointing start

NBA
Lloyd Pierce, Josh Tiven

Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce, left, talks with official Josh Tiven, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce was fired less than halfway into a season that began with heightened expectations but was beset by injuries.

Hawks president Travis Schlenk announced the move on Monday.

The Hawks are 14-20 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, following a 109-99 loss at Miami on Sunday night. It was the Hawks’ 11th loss after holding a fourth-quarter lead. The teams play again in Miami on Tuesday.

Pierce, 44, gave no indication that he thought he was in trouble after Sunday’s loss. He ran the Hawks’ practice on Monday morning in Miami.

Schlenk said he and his staff made the decision to fire Pierce on Monday morning and decided against waiting until the All-Star break to announce the move.

“I just felt like we needed a new voice to take the next step,” Schlenk said Monday night in a Zoom call with reporters.

The Hawks named Nate McMillan interim coach. McMillan, the former Indiana Pacers coach, was added to Pierce’s staff in the offseason. McMillan has a 661-588 record with Seattle, Portland and Indiana.

McMillan filled in for Pierce when Pierce was recently away from the team while his wife was giving birth. The Hawks were 2-1 with McMillan during Pierce’s absence.

Atlanta’s was Pierce’s first job as a head coach. He was previously an assistant with Philadelphia, Memphis, Golden State and Cleveland.

Schlenk said he timed the move to help the team have a second-half resurgence. He said he still believes the Hawks can make the playoffs.

“As we said at the beginning of the season, our goal was to have progress this year to move forward,” Schlenk said. “We just felt that wasn’t happening as quickly as we wanted.”

Schlenk blown fourth-quarter leads weren’t the only factor in the the move.

“I won’t say that’s the sole reason,” he said. “I would say for us to accomplish what we want to this year, this was the time to make the decision.”

The Hawks last appeared in the playoffs in 2017. The team has rebuilt around point guard Trae Young and forward John Collins and invested heavily in veterans in the offseason.

Key additions include Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn. The Hawks’ talent also received a major upgrade with the addition of center Clint Capela.

The Hawks had free-agent money to spend, and Schlenk wasted no time in adding Gallinari (three years, $61.5 million), Rondo (two years, $15 million) and Dunn (two years, $10 million).

Dunn has yet to play, due to his ongoing recovery from ankle surgery. Bogdanovic has missed 25 games. Gallinari has missed nine games.

The biggest move came when Schlenk made Bogdanovic an offer — four years for $72 million — the Sacramento Kings didn’t match.

Injuries to Bogdanovic and others have prevented Pierce from having a healthy roster, however.

Perhaps most disrupting to the Hawks’ progress was the loss of emerging star De’Andre Hunter to knee surgery. Hunter, who had emerged as a scoring complement to Young and Collins, has missed 16 games.

The injuries were not enough to overcome management’s disappointment with the slow start. This was supposed to be the season the Hawks returned to the playoffs, and Pierce acknowledged before the season it was time to win.

“It makes it more challenging, but we’re not going to sit here and blame the injuries for where we are, either,” Schlenk said.

Atlanta went 20-47 last season and finished in a virtual tie for last in the Eastern Conference, percentage points ahead of Cleveland.

The Hawks were one of eight teams excluded from the NBA’s restart.

Other NBA coaches were surprised by Pierce’s firing.

Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said he was “really shocked” and “really disappointed.”

“I just talked to him, I want to say five days ago,” Rivers said. “He just had a brand-new baby. This is a tough business, boy. It’s tough. I’ve always thought it was really difficult in a rebuild. … Most of the rebuilds unfortunately go the way of Lloyd Pierce. You’re in the middle of the rebuild and then you blame the coach for the losses that you had no chance to win. Unfortunately that’s just the way it’s worked in the league.”

Pierce has agreed to serve on San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich’s staff with the U.S. Olympic team.

“He’s one of the fine young coaches,” Popovich said. “Just a really knowledgeable guy, a people person, very mature. A sad day to have somebody lose a job like that. Now, we all know it’s a volatile environment and that type of thing, but you don’t want to miss on people like him. It’s like missing on a really good player in the draft or evaluating somebody wrongly.”

Denver coach Michael Malone said he was “completely shocked” Pierce was fired “at this point.”

“His commitment to the Atlanta Hawks and the city of Atlanta was inspirational,” Malone said.

Pierce, hired in 2018, was 63-120 (.344) with the Hawks, missing the playoffs in each of his two completed seasons.

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AP Sports Writers Dan Gelston, Tim Reynolds and Andrew Seligman and AP freelancer Raul Dominguez contributed to this report.

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