The Hawks have replaced Mike Budenholzer, the 2015 NBA coach of the year who not long ago was this franchise’s czar of basketball, with someone who has never worked an NBA game as a head coach. I offer two words:
On Friday night, the Hawks announced they reached an agreement with Lloyd Pierce. He’s 42. Since 2013, he has been a 76ers assistant coach. A couple of years back, working for the Sixers would have scared off prospective employers. Today it’s a badge of honor.
The Hawks interviewed seven candidates. Only David Fizdale had been an NBA head coach; he has since been hired by the Knicks. The others were of a similar age – Stephen Silas, who’s 45, was the oldest, with Jarron Collins, 39, being the youngest – and backgrounds.
All had noteworthy apprenticeships. Silas is the son of Paul Silas, pound-for-pound the greatest rebounder ever and a former NBA head coach. Jay Larranaga is a Celtics assistant under Brad Stevens and is the son of the man who led George Mason to the Final Four. Collins, the twin brother of former Hawk Jason Collins, is an assistant with the Warriors, vying for a third title in four seasons.
Ham worked here under Budenholzer. Nate Tibbetts is a Trail Blazers assistant under former Hawks coach Terry Stotts. Pierce played alongside the Hall of Famer Steve Nash at Santa Clara back in the day, which is nice, but far more important is that he worked with Brett Brown in Philadelphia.
The Hawks’ hire is in tune with the tenor of these times. The Hornets are finalizing the hire of James Borrego, who’s 41 and has been a Spurs assistant. The Suns hired Igor Koroskov, who’s 46 and who has been a Jazz assistant under Quin Snyder, who worked here under Budenholzer. The Grizzlies replaced Fizdale with J.B. Bickerstaff, who’s 39 and the son of former NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff. Only the old-school Knicks have recycled a head coach, and Fizdale is 43 and had worked with Mike Woodson here and with Eric Spoelstra in Miami.
We also note that two of the five men who, as of 13 months ago, acted as both coach and general manager are no longer in place. Budenholzer was bumped back to coach-only a year before he, and the Hawks agreed to part. Stan Van Gundy was fired this week by the Pistons. (Heck, the Raptors just fired Dwane Casey, who could be named the NBA’s coach of the year.) The growing consensus is that a rebuilding franchise – apart from the Bucks, every team seeking a new coach this offseason missed the playoffs – doesn’t need a Larry Brown, a brilliant-but-strident tactician, as much as it needs a Brett Brown.
At the onset of its famous rebuild – known to one and all as The Process – Philly plucked the latter Brown, a 52-year-old who had spent more than a decade with the Spurs as director of player development and assistant coach, and made him head coach. His first four seasons with the Sixers produced an aggregate record of 75-253, which would have gotten him fired at least twice in most places. But Philly had a plan. It tanked without shame, even as tankmaster Sam Hinkie exited after three years. This year, with Brown still in place, Philly went 52-30, claimed the East’s No. 3 seed ahead of Cleveland and won a first-round series.
NBA teams might never admit it, but Hinkie’s Process has become their North Star. What are the Hawks under Travis Schlenk doing if not tanking? When you’re not yet serious about winning, what difference does it make if you’re coach is a master of out-of-bounds sets? (At which Stevens might be the best ever, FYI.) All that matters is the care and feeding of the young talent you’ve gone to painful ends to assemble. X’s and O’s aren’t going to figure in for another few years.
This isn’t to say the Hawks, or any club, should hire someone who can’t call a timeout. In a league where every club has embraced analytics, smarter is always better. (Note the Sixers’ sudden rise. Note that the Warriors and Rockets, who are meeting in the Western Conference finals, are powered as much by analytics as by Kevin Durant and James Harden.) The concept of coach-as-emperor will end whenever Gregg Popovich steps aside, and even he has never operated unilaterally. In San Antonio, R.C. Buford has long been the man behind the man.
For years, NBA teams poached from that estimable front office. Danny Ferry and Budenholzer essentially built Spurs East here. But now, for the downtrodden, there’s a model for getting up and out – Hinkie’s model. Six NBA teams won 50-plus games this season; nine lost 50 or more. The worst place you can be in is the middle, which means losing on purpose shouldn’t be construed with not caring.
From Kevin Arnovitz’s ESPN story on The Process in 2018: “While the Sixers were racking up losses, head coach Brett Brown, with the aid of a staff that is quickly earning a reputation as one of the league's best, was instituting principles and traditions that carried the Sixers through the lean seasons … (Brown) helped build a culture in Philadelphia in which a diverse, young roster has forged close relationships and players pull for one another as they learn as much about the world as they do about basketball.”
If you were hiring five years ago, you wanted somebody with a Spurs pedigree. If you’re hiring now, you probably want somebody versed in The Process. Pierce is. That’s why the Hawks hired him, and good for them.