Defense has always been Lloyd Pierce’s point of focus. As a player at Santa Clara University, he dedicated himself to that end of the floor while Steve Nash directed the offense. As an assistant on Brett Brown’s staff in Philadelphia, he engineered a modern, top-five defense built around Joel Embiid and a host of physical, athletic wings. Everywhere Pierce has stopped in his 11-year NBA coaching career, a strong defensive identity has followed, and while that isn’t due to Pierce alone, he has developed a reputation has one of the sharpest defensive minds in the NBA.
In May, he signed on to be Atlanta’s head coach for the next three years (with a team option for 2022). After a decade largely spent toiling in mediocrity, the Hawks are finally rebuilding in full, a process that began with a change in ownership in 2015 and continued with the hiring of Travis Schlenk last offseason. Pierce, who endured The Process in Philadelphia, has plenty of time to impress his style upon a young, pliable team in the formative years of new era.
Schlenk and the front office have established a clear vision for the team they want to build: an offensive juggernaut with shooting at all positions and an abundance of playmaking on the perimeter. Pierce, then, is a means of solidification on the defensive end. His system will be one rooted in defense and hard work, values instilled in him while playing for Dick Davey at Santa Clara. “It’s definitely going to be a working team,” Pierce said in an interview with NBA TV. “That’s who I am. That’s my DNA. That’s where it starts. I can control what our effort is.”
Atlanta will need every ounce of defensive effort and commitment it can muster to reach the heights to which Pierce is accustomed. Trae Young will likely top out as slightly below-average on that end, while Kevin Huerter doesn’t appear to have the defensive upside to completely mask Young’s deficiencies. Omari Spellman could prove too slow-footed to keep up with the evolution of the modern power forward. Pierce will bring keen defensive expertise to Atlanta, but the 76ers touted elite personnel that the Hawks clearly lack. Philly played an aggressive scheme on the perimeter that funneled the ball toward Embiid, who turned away drives with startling force and frequency. The 76ers led the league in opponent effective field goal percentage and seldom sent their adversaries to the foul line. With size at nearly every position, they could switch across multiple positions and attack the ball with the assurance of having Embiid behind them.
Atlanta’s defenders have neither the tools nor the experience to replicate that, but some of the principles of Pierce’s scheme could translate. Expect the Hawks to play an active and physical defense with an emphasis on switching. “Your 6-foot-10 guys need to guard 6-foot-3 guys,” Pierce said at a recent press conference. “That’s where the game is going. It’s no longer accidental switches. We’re purposefully trying to switch 1 through 4 to avoid giving up 3s, which is a major point of emphasis offensively in the league.”
The early returns will be rough, as is typically the case with a young team learning a new defensive system. But despite Atlanta’s shaky personnel at certain positions, it has some defensive upside on its roster. John Collins has the physical capabilities to develop into a serviceable switching big man and an imposing rim protector. Taurean Prince profiles as a versatile defender on the wing, but doesn’t have the seasoning to live up to that billing just yet. If those two become exceptional defensively, the limitations across the rest of the roster become more workable.
It’s here that Pierce’s knack for developing talent will be so essential. The 42-year-old worked as a player development coach in Cleveland and Memphis, and helped fashion players like Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell into important rotation players in Philadelphia. Most every major piece on Atlanta’s roster is an unfinished product, and the team’s ceiling depends almost entirely on the coaching staff’s ability to mold the team’s talent into a more complete and polished nucleus. Pierce must find a style that fits that talent, which, like his defense, may be rooted in pace and aggression.
“We have to be in great condition, we have to take advantage of our youth,” Pierce told Paul Flannery of SB Nation. “We have to find a way to play high-efficient basketball — layups in transition, 3s in transition, score before the defense can get set, play with pace.”
Young will be instrumental in those endeavors and a focal point of Pierce’s offense. His shooting opens up the floor, creating ample opportunity for teammates, something the Hawks hope will lead to efficient looks at the rim and from deep. Flanked by shooting, he could become a dynamic offensive catalyst. Collins and Spellman, meanwhile, represent an intriguing and versatile tandem in the frontcourt. Spellman shot over 43 percent from deep in his lone year at Villanova while Collins’ jumper looked smoother and more consistent over four Summer League games. Collins is already an explosive vertical athlete that can destroy rims in the pick-and-roll; a reliable touch from the outside would help create unique advantages within Atlanta’s offense.
Pierce will toy with different lineup combinations in Year 1 — he’ll have to fit several prospects, a few veterans and a swath of cast-offs into a crowded rotation — and should have plenty of options in the early stages of his tenure. Atlanta could have up to six picks in the 2019 draft, and with a clearer sense of direction, can focus those resources on specific kinds of players that fit its trajectory.
In the meantime, the Hawks will lose — a lot. Schlenk and Pierce say they’re measuring progress not by the marks on the scoreboard or in the win column, but by the habits the team develops through discipline and repetition. When the results do start to matter, so too will those principles. “We’re trying to do the right things as an organization and as a team that keeps our spirit high, so that when we’re in the gym, we know we’re together,” Pierce said. “It’s not just what’s going to happen on the court that’s going to determine us as a team. It’s what we’re doing as a unit, as an organization trending forward.”
With Pierce in the fold, the Hawks have taken another important step in the right direction.